As if my trip to the Terracotta Warriors hadn't been wonderful enough, from Xi'an I accompanied a 3-day trip to the South of China to visit Guilin – home to some truly stunning landscapes of limestone hills, that look like they've come straight out of an ancient Chinese painting. If you've seen those quintessentially Chinese pictures of lines of tall mountains rising vertically out of the mist, then chances are that it's Guilin that's depicted.
In contrast to the rows of soulless apartment blocks that we left behind in Xi'an, the city of Guilin is still low-rise and low-key – our guide explained that this was just a "small" city of only 900,000 people. But, instead of man-made attractions, this place is all about nature – even in the city centre, there are numerous sheer limestone hills dotted around its pleasant urban landscape of parks and lakes.
Sadly, the weather wasn't great for our trip – you don't get green landscapes like this without lots of rain, and we got plenty of that for 2 out of our 3 days. However, we chose the right (rainfree) day to go on our atmospheric boat ride down the Li River to see the best of these stunning landscapes. In fact, the mist made the lines of mysterious recessed mountains in the distance seem even more magical – like something from a fantasy film like Lord of the Rings. The only place that I've been to that has a similar aura is Halong Bay in Vietnam (although, Guilin is obviously on land).
As you can imagine, these landscapes are extremely popular with Chinese tourists, and even though this was the low season, it was amazing how many boats were sharing the river with us. While our boat was a luxury one and very uncrowded, most of the other boats were absolutely packed with people snapping away at this most photogenic of scenes. So, the constant hooting of horns from the boats as they overtook each other, plus an "official photographer" accompanying a group on our boat who had a loud speaker that he aggressively bellowed out instructions to his group to pose for his snaps, all combined to break up the some of the serenity of nature's beauty. I can only imagine what this place is like in peak season, when the weather's good! However, even this almost-constant noise pollution couldn't ruin some of the most beautiful landscapes that I've seen.
For our next couple of days, our sightseeing opportunities were somewhat curtailed by the awful weather; however, a trip to one of Guilin's caves was an unexpected pleasure. I've been to countless caves of stalagmites and stalactites on cruise ship tours, but I can safely say that these were the most spectacular caves that I've ever been to. Even this unappreciative troglodyte was "wowing" at the amazing formations on offer here – even the garish fluorescent coloured lights that had been installed were impressive, giving the whole thing a psychedelic other-worldy feel.
I hadn't really known what to expect from Guilin, but this place was certainly more beautiful than I'd expected. I can only imagine how gorgeous it would look if the sun had shone.