Guilin is a small riverside city in southern China, and has long been one of the county's most tranquil and picturesque places. Its name means 'Sweet Osmanthus', courtesy of the area's many sweet-smelling Osmanthus trees. The region's distinctive limestone karst hills provide a dramatic backdrop for the city, making it a favourite destination of poets, artists and photographers throughout the centuries.
Guilin © Jakub Halun
The hills are believed to have been formed in tectonic shifts millions of years ago. Limestone sediments thrust up from the sea to form the unusual hills, caves and stone forests that characterise the city.
Guilin's two major lakes, Banyan Lake (Rong Hu) and Cedar Lake (Shan Hu), offer scenic boat trips to view the hills, along with bridges, pagodas, and centuries-old banyan trees. They are connected via waterways to other lakes in Guilin as well. Another popular boat tour travels along the Li River to the town of Yangshuo, where visitors can spend a day exploring the mountainous city.
As Guilin is a tourist-oriented city, all the necessary amenities for travellers are available, including comprehensive public transport, plenty of restaurants, and lots of souvenir shops. The city is popular with Chinese tourists as well, in part because of the clean air, but also because the scenery is so splendid.
Elephant Trunk Hill © Bernt Rostad
Elephant Trunk HillElephant Trunk Hill is one of most iconic sites in Guilin. This hill, on the banks of the Li River, has a large natural arch cut into it, faintly resembling an elephant drinking water. This natural limestone monument rises over 180 feet (55m) above the water. The opening of the arch is called Water Moon Cave as the reflection of the moon at night appears as though it is both in and out of the water. Inside this cave there are more than 50 inscriptions dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Visitors can explore the hill and the cave by hiring one of the traditional bamboo rafts that paddle around the base, making for a peaceful excursion that allows for some truly magnificent photo opportunities. At the top of the hill is a two-story pagoda built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), intended to resemble a vase on the elephant's back when viewed from afar. The hill is part of a beautiful park with lovely, lush hills, winding paths, and a number of sculptures, many of which are elephant-themed. The park also gives visitors impressive views of the Guilin cityscape. Dusk is possibly the best time to visit, as this is when the scenery is at its most dramatic.
Reed Flute Cave © Bernt Rostad
Reed Flute CaveThis limestone cave, about three miles (5km) outside of Guilin, has earned itself a place on almost all travel itineraries for the area. Reed Flute Cave is named for the verdant reeds growing outside, which the locals use to make flutes, but it is famous for what is inside: impressive rock formations that resemble everything from lions and monkeys to the skyline of Guilin itself. Each formation has a name and story. These myths and tales, combined with fantastical lighting, add to the atmosphere of mystery and magic within these ancient caves. Guides take visitors on an hour-long tour through the cave and point out the various formations as well as inscriptions on the wall that date back to the Tang dynasty. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the cave, and visitors should be prepared to wait for more people if they are in a group of less than 20. The cave is situated in a park, with ponds, bridges, and pavilions, which is a beautiful place to relax and wander either before or after the tour. For those travelling near Guilin with children, this is a wonderful attraction for the whole family.
Tianmen Mountain © huangdan2060
Tianmen Mountain National ParkA trip to Tianmen Mountain National Park, located in neighbouring Hunan Province, is the ideal weekend excursion from Guilin. This area boasts some of the most beautiful, and most photographed, natural landscapes in China. From Guilin, it is a 265 mile (426km) drive to Zhangjiajie city, which nestles within the famous mountain park. From the centre of town, visitors can take one of the world's longest cableways up into the mountains, enjoying breathtaking scenery along the way. The Tianmen Mountain National Park can easily occupy visitors for a whole day, as there is so much to see and do. Tianmen Cave, a massive archway created by an ancient cliff collapse, is known as heaven's gate because it looks like a doorway into another world. Travellers have to climb 999 steps to reach this natural phenomenon, but it is well worth the effort and is said to bring happiness and health (999 is a lucky number in Chinese culture). Other attractions in the park include various scenic areas, some impressive temples, and the Walk of Faith. This appropriately named mountain pathway is constructed of glass, so that as visitors edge along it they can see the ground 4,690 feet (1,430m) below. The 197 foot long (60m) transparent pavement is a uniquely thrilling sightseeing experience; those brave enough to walk it will be rewarded by truly heart-stopping scenery. The mountains can get cold, so the best time to visit Tianmen is during summer and autumn (May to October).
Address: Yongding District, Zhangjiajie; Website: www.tianmenshan.com.cn