The karst-studded countryside of Guilin has been celebrated by countless generations of poets and painters. As one modern-day visitor discovers, the area’s allure endures.
Photographs by Callaghan Walsh
An eminent poet and scholar-official during the golden age of Song dynasty China, Fan Chengda was also something of an early travel writer. One of his diaries recounts a four-month journey from Suzhou to Guilin on what was then the Middle Kingdom’s southwestern frontier, where, in the spring of 1173, he took up a post governing the mountainous and ethnically diverse Guangxi region. Though banditry and a backward economy plagued his time there, Fan couldn’t help but be inspired by the surreal scenery around him. “I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw,” he wrote. “There is no point in arguing with them.”
It’s easy to see why Fan’s pals in the Song literati were incredulous. There is something almost supernatural about Guilin’s craggy karst landscape, even to a modern-day traveler armed with the knowledge that these limestone pinnacles were created by millennia of water erosion. When confronted with the magic of the region, I swiftly fell into a more poetic state akin to what Fan must have felt when he described the topography as “like jade bamboo shoots and jasper hairpins, forests of them extend without limit.”
My trip began in Yangshuo, a once sleepy backpacker hub on the banks of the Li River that has transformed over the last decade into a highly commercial tourist town, complete with mini amusement parks, theme hotels, karaoke bars, and other tawdry trimmings. It is, however, a convenient base for exploring the countryside, which I set out to do one morning on a rented bicycle. Pedaling away from Yangshuo’s hubbub, I was soon surrounded by fields peppered with rocky outcroppings that appeared to me like topographic camel humps. The town faded from view as an eerie autumnal mist enshrouded the limestone peaks, giving a filmic quality to the scene. It was as if noted filmmaker Zhang Yimou (also behind the long-running Impression Sanjie Liu light-and-sound extravaganza back in Yangshuo) had had a hand in directing the day. With the crowds of summer long gone and the chill of winter yet to arrive, November proved the perfect month for cycling through the villages that line the Yulong River, a picturesque tributary of the Li. Save for the occasional tour bus and a few young couples taking selfies on bamboo rafts, the splendor of the countryside was mine alone.
Well, more or less. The farmers who call the riverbanks home weren’t going anywhere. And because the river periodically floods during the rainy season in late spring, there are no roads near its edge, so I instead followed narrow paths along which locals led water buffaloes or carted produce away to market. With soil enriched by runoff from the limestone peaks, as well as by plenty of sunshine and rain, the region harvests a bewildering array of crops including oranges, persimmons, tangerines, and water chestnuts—a yield that informs the eclectic local diet.
A 30-minute ride brought me to Jiuxian. Guilin’s tourist brochures boast of many ancient villages, but some are ancient in name only as local farmers have followed the demolish-and-rebuild ethos that has reshaped so many Chinese communities in recent decades. Jiuxian, however, is the real thing, with a stone bridge that dates to Tang times and crumbling gray-brick mansions and mud-brick farmhouses built during the last century of the Qing dynasty. It’s also home to a lone expat resident known affectionately as Fengzi (“the Crazy One”), whom I decided to seek out. A former architect and China tour guide, South African Ian Hamlinton has lived in these parts since 2003 and earned his loopy reputation several years ago after he rented and began restoring a group of Jiuxian’s derelict 19th-century houses—structures that the villagers considered worthless. I found him lunching with workers who were doing some out-of-season renovations on his gorgeous boutique hotel, the Secret Garden.
An affable and offbeat character, Hamlinton enthused about his adopted home in a way that suggested he had found his own personal Shangri-La. When I asked him why he’d stayed so long, he replied, “You could say it’s the amazing scenery or the delicious food, but I think it’s really the people.” I had half a mind to linger myself when he toured me through his 11-room inn, which, unlike the generic guesthouses and tacky theme hotels found around Yangshuo, exudes a vivid sense of place, from its smattering of local artwork and antiques to its handcrafted wooden furnishings and feng shui–friendly layout. “I believe each of these houses is like a person, with its own individual character,” Hamlinton told me. “Our renovation work—a lot of which I did myself—was really about how to enhance this character, and of course to update any amenities that were lacking. I’m proud that we were able to preserve these buildings for at least another generation. It might be my life’s greatest achievement.”