To climb Diecai Shan Hill in Guilin is to enter a world of cool, silent beauty. The stone steps curve steeply upward through luxuriant green foliage, through a cave carved with poems and memorials from the Sung and Tang Dynasties, past rocks eroded like those found in the classical gardens of Suzhou.
Gradually, stretching all around, is the magnificent landscape of Guilin. Most Westerners experience almost a disbelief at first, for it is the landscape of Chinese painting come to life: layer after pale layer of steep craggy mountains, a pagoda set down slightly from the summit of a near peak in consummate asymmetry, while a mist slowly alters and erodes the shapes so that the whole scene is subtly, continually in motion. Far below, the River Li lies in graceful curves - according to Tang poet Han Yu: ''a green silk belt among blue jade hairpins.''
Guilin has been celebrated in centuries of Chinese poetry and art - and described by current guidebooks as the premier scenic spot in China. Diecai Shan is a place I would visit again and again if I were in Guilin for longer than the standard four-day Lindblad/CITS tour, to experience the mountain at different times of day and to absorb the changes of season. To do, in fact, as the Sung artist Kuo Hsi enjoined in his ''Advice on Landscape Painting'': to study and live a scene until it can be translated into a statement of essentials rather than an exact rendering of a specific place and time.
The term for landscape painting in Chinese, shan-shui, translates literally as ''mountain-water'' pictures. Because originality of design counted for little in the art, and tradition everything, the standard for much Chinese shan-shui came to be the classical styles from the apogee of landscape painting (950-1050) , specifically the work of Li Cheng and Fan Kuan. Their famous paintings, ''Buddhist Temples in the Hills After Rain'' and ''Traveling Amid Mountains and Gorges,'' could be replicas of the Guilin mountains.
A six-hour, 50-mile trip down the surface of the Li is included by CITS on all tours of Guilin. The boat is typical of contemporary China and is fascinating in itself. One drifts down the Li in the current Chinese concept of elegance. Instead of the rows of seats one might expect in the West, the single large room, surrounded by windows, is furnished with tables set with white cloths and covered teacups, a folding chair at each place. There is also an open roof deck for 360-degree viewing.
Traveling down the Li is like unfolding a Chinese scroll, meant to be read in sections, with the viewer taken through a series of varying sensations and vistas. The mountains are sometimes flat blue silhouettes on the horizon, sometimes close jagged spires of intense green. Groves of huge, overarching bamboo line the bank along much of the route, dwarfing the tiny figures standing underneath. A woman in a wide, round, shallow-peaked straw hat, the old traditional style, sits on a tumble of worn stone steps to wash clothes in the river. Children stand watching the boat pass with fascination and longing. In a stretch of flat, vivid green banks, a man operates a net stretched on two poles crossed to make a concave square. Sometimes the boat passes by a sheer rock face plunging cleanly into the water.
Lunch is prepared and served on board - a full Chinese dinner. It is an experience in itself to watch the preparation: River water is used to wash feet, greens, and dishes alike. Guilin is not a sophisticated or slick place; and that , even with some marginal discomfort, is one of its charms.
One perspective from which the classical Chinese did not view the landscape is from above. And it is unfortunate (though certainly convenient) to experience Guilin first from the air. It demystifies the beauty and makes clear the actual geology of the area. The ''mountains'' and ''hills'' are not the folds of peaks and valleys but are karst formations, steep irregular pillars thrust up from a flat green plain, the result of the erosion of an ancient limestone seabed.
The same limestone was hollowed into a seemingly infinite variety of caves inside the hills. At the base of Fubo Hill, a large cavern spills directly into the river. Ancient legend calls it the lair of a dragon who played in the waves with a pearl of dazzling brilliance - a theme of the famous nine-dragon ceramic screens of the Forbidden City in Peking. Beside Fubo Hill is the Cliff of a Thousand Buddhas, containing 300 statues from the Sung and Tang Dynasties. Some of the statues have been defaced and some destroyed - a silent testament to the zeal of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The caves of Seven Star Hill are perhaps the richest in history, containing hundreds of stelae and inscriptions from Sung to Ming.
One of the most beautiful caves, named Reed Flute for the reeds at its entrance, has unfortunately been spoiled by the good intentions of the tourist industry. The visitor has no choice but to view it on a guided tour marked by garish colored lights focused on the rock walls, concrete walkways, and the set talks delivered at designated ''points of interest'' that anthropomorphize the myriad rock formations. The cave is cold; the tour takes 40 minutes; and there is no place to sit or rest that is not wet. It is clearly a place of wonder, with bizarre stalactites and stalagmites that could set the imagination soaring. And it is filled with old legends. A column in the large grotto at the far end is associated locally with the magic needle used as a weapon by the Monkey King in the immensely popular 15th-century Chinese fable ''Journey to the West.''
Guilin was thrust into prominence in 214 BC by the construction of the first canal in China, the Ling Qu, which joined the Yangtze and the Pearl Rivers (and thus Canton with the north) through the Li.
Guilin has always been basically an agricultural community. This is the China of ''The Good Earth.'' Pearl Buck wrote: ''Spring passed and summer passed into harvest and in the hot autumn sun before winter comes Wang Lung sat where his father had sat against the wall. . . . And he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, . . . and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.''
There is a quality of oneness with the land here. ''He who is in harmony with Nature hits the mark without effort and apprehends the truth without thinking,'' according to Confucius.
Yet Guilin was never a bucolic paradise. It was a relatively poor area subject to devastating forest fires. To improve the standard of living, the communist state instituted a program of heavy industrialization. But with the opening of China to the West came the realization that factory pollution was destroying the area's lucrative tourist potential. Guilin underwent another change. Factories were cut back and tourism was promoted. The changes have taken their toll.
There is a hard edge in Guilin - an acquisitiveness and sometimes a demeaning commercialism. A string of curio shops lines the road from the principal tourist hotel, the Lijiang, to the main street. In front of the hotel stand two colored buggies hitched to dispirited horses. Beside them, children hawk fuzzy bright pink dragons. After every ''sight'' the group I was traveling with was taken to a shop or a ''curio market'' or a ''Friendship Store.''
It was especially noticeable and disturbing at Chuan Yi village, near the terminus of the Li River trip. Before heading back to Guilin, the bus empties its passengers for a half hour at a 1,300-year-old banyan tree next to the village. The people of Chuan Yi - whose faces and mien express a natural dignity - have pulled together a gantlet of rickety tables sparsely covered with ''souvenirs.'' Behind them are the half-finished concrete buildings of a community center. The disruption of a whole fabric of life is apparent, and it is obviously happening right before your eyes as you walk among the people of Chuan Yi.
The life of this unsophisticated city has not been fundamentally changed, and yet change is everywhere. To step away from the standard tour I have described is to glimpse vignettes of the many facets of contemporary China. You need not go far to see the old. Tucked in the corner of a tiny square amid the curio shops near the hotel, four old women played cards morning and evening every day I was in Guilin. One woman invariably dozed in her squat bamboo chair burnished with age. The long narrow cards with red and black characters flashed on the dark little table. The women were oblivious to the traffic of tourists near them; they drew around themselves an impenetrable repose.
Covered sampans crowd the banks of the river a block from the hotel, just like those in the famous mid-19th-century photographs by John Thompson.
A feeling of the past is perhaps best evoked at the covered farmers' market across the river from the Lijiang. I was aware of stepping into Asia - assaulted by a cacophony of noise and a medley of market smells. Everywhere could be seen the straw hat and the faded blue of traditional peasant dress; weathered faces intent on business. Thin silver fish were lined up in perfect symmetry, near a cluster of colored spices in even bags of burlap. On the long shoulder poles moving about the market were intricate baskets next to flat woven trays - or sometimes just a sack of potatoes, balanced from one end.
In a restaurant a beaming old man cooked rice over large round ovens; down the way was a fragile tea stand with covered glasses. The activity spilled over into the street outside with the livestock market. There was a constant movement: of country people buying and selling, men and women with poles and carts choking traffic and then singly moving away to be seen briefly on the pavement of the city.
Overcrowding is a monumental problem in China. On the main street, Zhongshan Road, I noticed an storefront which was divided crudely in half; on one side a plump woman sat placidly, almost hidden among her bolts of cloth, on the other, six men strained and sweated in the heat and grime of a welding shop.
In the early morning, life streams across the Li bridge, such thick bicycle traffic for the factories that it slows the light-footed running walk of two muscular young men carrying grueling loads - large wooden tubs brimming with water. It is the distinctive walk, often seen in Guilin, of the heavy pole.
Many of these people have the exotic faces of Zhuangs. The area in which Guilin lies, Guangxi, is officially designated an autonomous region rather than a province because of its large minority population. The Zhuangs are a Thai-speaking people who constitute 35 percent of the population and control 60 percent of the land - a substantial fact in a country that is 95 percent Han.
I came to know a Zhuang woman who sold lychees. She moved from place to place in the city at different times of day: an entrepreneur of a sort. This rare fruit of the south is seemingly made for the aesthetic of China: a pebbled dark red outer skin that peels off whole to reveal a smooth translucent white fruit like jade, the fruit slipping easily away in turn from the black seed, as perfectly polished as lacquer.
To visit Guilin is to have the opportunity to see the past, to witness and reflect upon the changes of the present. One travels culturally from shan-shui to communist factories, from a currently functioning canal built in 214 BC to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Guilin is not a simple place to visit. But then, contemporary China is not simple.
Practical details: The weather is one of the most important facts to consider in planning a trip to Guilin. It rains over 15 days a month from April to September, and visibility can be only a few yards when it does. During the dry season, however, the River Li is navigable for short stretches only. The ideal is November, with early April a second choice.
Lindblad Travel offers the tour I described as part of their longer expeditions in China, or as a separate one-week tour that includes Kunming. The cost per person double occupancy is $1,300 for the week tour, including transportation from Hong Kong. The Lindblad portion of the service is excellent.
Other tour companies also offer trips to Guilin. A CITS tour can be arranged in Hong Kong for three or four days at a cost of approximately $450 to $550 per person, double occupancy. Rates are subject to change.
Transportation to Guilin is unpredictable, dependent on Chinese scheduling. On the tour I took, there were multiple last-minute cancellations and delays on both inbound and outbound flights.
One does not go to Guilin for the accommodations or the food. The hotels and restaurants are mediocre by Chinese standards. The principal tourist hotel is the Lijiang. Other, smaller hotels, farther out from the interesting center of the city, are the Ronghu and the Jiashan.