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Guilin: Mountains in the Mist

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TravelPulse LogoBeijing is the heart of “official” China, Xian is the historical center of China’s imperial past, but Guilin offers a taste of Chinese rural life as well as some of the most scenic vistas in the country. After nearly three days in Beijing and one in Xian, our Imperial Tours travel agent fam trip group flew to Guilin to experience a very different China.

Our group – which included three agents, two of their companions, two Imperial Tours China hosts and me arrived in the evening after a less than two-hour flight on Air China from Xian. Imperial Tours had even provided box dinners for our evening flight, though the onboard cuisine actually didn’t look that bad. We arrived in darkness, so we did not get a chance to see the amazing mountains that characterize the region around Guilin.

After a relatively quick drive, we arrived at the Hotel of Modern Art (HOMA), an eclectic property set what’s known as the Yuzi Paradise modern sculpture garden. At night many sculptures are illuminated, so as our bus entered the complex we could view many of these fascinating art pieces. The next day, we could see these sculptures set against the surrounding mountains, which resemble modern-art objects themselves.

The 46-room Hotel of Modern Art (www.guilinhoma.com) is a Relais & Chateaux hotel built in 2002 by a rich Taiwanese businessman, Rhy Chang Tsao. The property is not only a museum, it’s a haven for resident artists, who create and exhibit their art objects on the hotel grounds. Its grounds are populated with roughly 200 sculptures and the hotel itself uses modern art throughout its interiors. There’s also a large artist’s studio for the artist in residence, an indoor art gallery and conference space for both artists’ conventions and other meetings.

The hotel also has some rather unique suites, including some duplex accommodations, all containing paintings, sculptures and furniture made by many of the artists who have visited or resided at the property. There is a spa and a pool, but the chief activity is just walking the grounds to see the large sculptures and other art installations. It is indeed like staying at the Museum of Modern Art.

The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we boarded our small tour bus for the short drive to our first activity: A raft ride down a tributary of the Li River. We passed through the spectacular countryside, including the region’s famed limestone, vegetation-covered mountains, which rise abruptly from the flat rice paddies, almost like a child’s drawing of mountains instead of the real thing. The morning we drove past them, they were enveloped by mist and clouds, giving them an even more mysterious quality.

We stopped to pick up our local guide, Annie, who directed us to a place near the river where we would board our rafts. We walked on narrow paths past rice fields and small farm houses until we reached the river. Waiting there for us were four boatmen and four bamboo rafts (each raft had a pair of seats on it). We boarded the rafts and our boatmen started to pole down the river. Once again we were able to take in the spectacular green scenery, farmland and rice paddies in the valleys below those impressive and beautiful mountains.

The region had been going through a bit of a drought, so several times our boatmen had to laboriously push the rafts over stone water breaks when the rafts got stuck. They would push the rafts over those breaks and we would splash down on the other side, or they would pole us through small gaps in the break creating a flume-like ride. Our tranquil and scenic ride down the river lasted an hour and a half.

We finally arrived at the terminus, where our bus was waiting for us. We took a rather rough ride to lunch (the roads in this rural area are fairly rudimentary). That said, the region is a holiday destination, so there are a number of small hotels and resorts on the river. We stopped for lunch at one of them, a 29-room inn called the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat (www.yangshuomountainretreat.com), which overlooks the river and the mountains. Imperial Tours had arranged an outdoor lunch at a long table in front of the hotel.

After lunch we took the bus through downtown Guilin, a city of 300,000 that is also a popular tourist destination. There seemed to be many small hotels and restaurants. But our goal wasn’t the town; it was a visit to a small mountain village known as Ping Ling, which just happened to be our guide Annie’s hometown. Our bus climbed a steep and curving mountain road until we reached the village, which was surrounded by plantations with rows of kumquat trees full of fruit. It turns out the region is the kumquat capital of China.

We were greeted by about 50 elementary school kids (we arrived just as the break for lunch was ending). One of Imperial Tours’ goals is to have its clients interact with the local population, so we spent about 20 minutes playing with the children, most of whom seemed happy to say “hello” in English and race around mugging for our cameras. When trecess ended, we proceeded to Annie’s parents’ home, where her mother and father had prepared a demonstration of how to make tofu from soy beans. Using an ancient stone grinder, we took turns mashing the beans into soy milk, which we later drank warm while eating some kumquats. Annie’s parents’ home was rudimentary but comfortable, and dominated by a recent purchase – a large flat-screen TV.

We then walked back to what effectively is the town hall to meet with the village elder, who also happens to be the local representative of the Communist Party. More like a mayor, he resolves local disputes and watches over the town. We got a chance (with Annie’s translating skills) to ask him about life in the village, politics, laws and more. It was a fascinating exchange, especially since this clearly was a fairly well-off village (a new sports court had recently been built in front of the town hall).

Then we boarded our bus once again for the ride back to our hotel. We had a short tour of the property and I got my own guided tour of the sculpture garden and artist’s residence. There apparently are plans afoot to build a golf course next to the hotel as well.

That night, however, Imperial Tours and the hotel had prepared a surprise for our group: Dinner in a massive cave located inside one of the magnificent mountains surrounding the property. We took a golf cart through the grounds to the cave and then walked back through lighted passageways until we found ourselves in a giant cavern lit by floodlights. A long table had been set up with hotpots at every place setting and we cooked various meats and vegetables for the next hour or so.

As we were about finish dinner, someone remarked they’d seen a bat (this was a cave after all). Then again, as I later learned in Shanghai, bats are considered a sign of good luck! In any event, it was a spectacular way to end our day in the Guilin region, a place I’d recommend to anyone visiting China. It has spectacular scenery with its rivers and farmland, interspersed with those magnificent bulbous mountains. Tomorrow, I’ll write about a very different kind of China –the giant modern metropolis called Shanghai.

 

James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director of Performance Media Group, LLC, parent of TravelPulse.com, Agent @ Home magazine, Vacation Agent magazine and Virtual Travel Events.

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