The Magic Mountains of Guilin

  • A view across the Li River to distinctive limestone peaks of the Yangshuo area.

    A view across the Li River to distinctive limestone peaks of the Yangshuo area.

  • A shopkeeper in Xingping.

    A shopkeeper in Xingping.

  • Tourist boats on the Li River near Yangshuo.

    Tourist boats on the Li River near Yangshuo.

  • Qing-era architecture in the village of Jiuxian.

    Qing-era architecture in the village of Jiuxian.

  • An outdoor seating nook at the Secret Garden Boutique Hotel.

    An outdoor seating nook at the Secret Garden Boutique Hotel.

  • Old-timers in Jiuxian.

    Old-timers in Jiuxian.

  • Admiring the old Chinese script on a wall at the Secret Garden Boutique Hotel.

    Admiring the old Chinese script on a wall at the Secret Garden Boutique Hotel.

  • Overlooking Guilin City from its central hill, the Solitary Beauty Peak.

    Overlooking Guilin City from its central hill, the Solitary Beauty Peak.

  • A souvenir shop in Xingping.

    A souvenir shop in Xingping.

  • A sightseeing boat on Rong Lake in Guilin City,

    A sightseeing boat on Rong Lake in Guilin City,

  • Dumplings at a street stall in Guilin City,

    Dumplings at a street stall in Guilin City,

  • Secret Garden owner Ian Hamlinton in the doorway of a village house in Jiuxian.

    Secret Garden owner Ian Hamlinton in the doorway of a village house in Jiuxian.

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From Jiuxian, I cycled on to Baisha, where, according to Hamlinton, a farmers’ market was held on select days of the month. I was in luck; the town was buzzing with activity. Bargains were being struck over handicrafts, produce, and snacks like sweet rice cakes and stinky tofu, and even though there was plenty of mass-produced tat, the whole scene afforded a glimpse of how the wheels of the rural economy turned.

Looping back to the Yulong, I lunched on egg-fried bamboo shoots and lotus root garnished with red and green chili peppers at a riverside café overlooking the 600-year-old Dragon Bridge, one of the area’s must-see historical attractions. The weed-wreathed stone span conveniently enables cyclists to cross the river and return to Yangshuo along the opposite bank, a circuit known as the Yulong River Loop. As I pedaled back to town on the other side of the river past farmhouses sequestered between sudden karst hills and orange groves, I reflected that perhaps the real magic of the region is  how easy it is to simply disappear into a bucolic world unconcerned with the manic rush of modern urban life.

As much as I enjoyed pedaling though the Yulong Valley, I knew that the real story of Guilin is told along the snaking jade waters of the Li River, the area’s defining waterway. So I set my sights on Xingping, a river town situated almost midway between Yangshuo and Guilin City. As getting there would involve navigating 25 kilometers of unmarked dirt tracks, I enlisted the services of local cycling specialists Bike Asia, hiring a better bike and a guide named Sam Gong to lead the way. The going was tougher than the previous day’s ride, but it took us through the heart of the Li River’s fabled scenery. Beyond Fuli, a town famous for its paper fans, we lost ourselves in a bucolic world of cab-bage patches, bamboo groves, and crystalline streams.

“This is the real China,” Sam said as he struggled to determine which mountain path we should follow north. I didn’t quite agree. Most of China doesn’t look like rural Guilin, and anyway, who’s to say downtown Shanghai is any less real than a parched village in the Gobi? What we did agree on was that this was real living, and I spent the rest of the journey pondering why exactly I had based myself in smoggy and congested Beijing.

We rolled into Xingping five hours after setting out and, ravenous from our exertions, promptly headed to the Old Street Café for pizza and beer. I had visited Xingping a few years prior, and except for those heading to the nearby bend in the river depicted on China’s 20-yuan note, tourists were limited back then. But the town’s old street has since converted itself into a backpacker-friendly strip, though it remains far less garish than Yangshuo.

At the café I got to talking with Xingping’s sole foreign resident, Gregory Michiels, a Belgian who runs a photography tour service called Another Day at the Office. He told me he had traveled widely before falling in love with this corner of China, where he’s lived for two years. He also said he was concerned about the effect the recently opened high-speed rail service between Guangzhou and Guilin might have on places like Xingping, where a station is set to open this year. “Come, let me show you where it is,” he offered.

Michiels had already scouted out all the best mountain trails for his clients, so it didn’t take him long to lead us up a steep dirt path to a rocky ledge overlooking Xingping. The new train station was hidden behind a hill; Michiels explained that once in operation, it will enable travelers from Guangzhou to get here in about three hours, which could seriously transform this sleepy river town. For now, though, Xingping has retained its unhurried rural charm, not to mention some of the finest scenery I’ve ever cast my eyes over.

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