China's Guilin, favorite of tourist and native alike

On a Chinese scroll, there's a familiar scene: A perpendicular mountain peak juts up in the background. Below, a shallow boat with a straw-hatted fisherman floats along a river. In the left corner of the foreground, a close-up sprig of pine dominates. In all, it's a stylized 18th-century Chinese landscape painting, depicting a scene that is obviously a figment of the artist's imagination. After all, doesn't legend have it that Chinese painters of olden times wandered endlessly about the country only to return home and paint from memory?

Not so. A visit to Guilin proves that these mountain peaks are not imaginary. They're real. What's more, they number about 20,000 in this subtropical region in southeastern China.

A first glimpse of the mountains from the window of an airplane reveals a misty landscape with pinnacles protruding above the ground fog. You're sure you must be imagining them. Once on the ground, though, you feel dwarfed by these overpowering mounds that loom both close up and in the distance.

The land in between, composed for the most part of flat, watery rice paddies, accentuates the jagged peaks. The bus from the airport to the city is temporarily halted by a herd of water buffalo wandering in and grazing by the road. There can be no doubt that you are in China.

One of the best ways to see this remarkable scenery, which draws perhaps the largest number of China's own tourists, is by boat on the Li River. The Li snakes its way through the 52 miles of karstic formations, and one has the option of either a three-hour or a six-hour trip.

We chose the shorter excursion, which included lunch on board. Stewards brought us a cook-your-own meal in a Mongolian hot pot, fired by charcoal and set in the middle of the table. We took turns tending the pot by adding with chopsticks the strips of finely cut chicken, pork, fish, carrots, and onions, together with large lettuce leaves. The steward stopped by often to poke the charcoal. As we ate bits from the hot pot with rice from bowls, we watched the scenery slide by.

Visitors are warned to keep extra film handy, as each peak is unique, and somehow one wants to photograph every one. Even before leaving the dock in Guilin, you're apt to find yourself snapping pictures. First, you see a tiny pagoda perched atop a steep hill, then the huge Elephant Trunk Hill looming over the edge of the river -- so named because it resembles a pachyderm drinking from the flowing water.

The Li River is a busy one. It runs swiftly after rainfall, which can occur often; the precipitation here averages 75 inches a year. The rainy season (April through July) may account for the misty photographs often associated with Guilin.

There's much to see along the banks: women washing clothes, abandoned houses, water buffalo swimming out to grassy sand bars, tiny villages, ducks feeding or sitting on nests, and boats of every description -- sampans with chugging motors, houseboats, and shallow fishing boats being poled along.

During our trip, which was punctuated with intermittent light rain, the local fishermen and their cormorants, trained to catch a fish and return to the boat with it, weren't visible. They often fish at night, using lights to attract the fish to the surface; we passed the fishermen's villages, however, with boats pulled up on shore.

The flat-bottomed passenger boat had an enclosed dining room on the lower deck. Our tour group of 31 and a Japanese group of similar size almost filled the space. Above the dining room was an open deck. We managed to stay topside for much of the trip, photographing the pinnacles that have inspired generations of Chinese poets and painters.

Geologically explained, the mountains of Guilin go back millions of years to a time when the land was all under water. One underground upheaval raised the land above water level for a time. Then the ground was submerged a second time and yet again thrust up from the sea to become dry land. These changes created the limestone formations called ``karsts,'' which centuries of wind and water have eroded to produce the unusual hills and peaks that remain today. Inside the karsts are some surface and undergro und caves formed by the same processes.

Almost as interesting as the trip down the river is the bus trip back. You get off the boat in a small village situated at the center of a lush agricultural region. The road winds uphill between the karsts and affords views of the watery valley below, with its pale green patches planted in rice and peanuts.

Families amble beside the road. In March, when we visited, farmers were just beginning springtime work in the fields. One could imagine what the other seasons would present: the planting, the maturing of the crops, and the harvesting.

The bus takes you close to the walled communes, with their yellow brick houses and gray tile roofs. Near the road, built into the lower slopes of the hills, are the the burial shrines of ancestors. These are sacred to the Chinese and are visited on special days throughout the year.

Back in Guilin we stayed in the Banyan Lake Hotel, an attractive complex of buildings with distinctive landscaping and architecture. Our group was assigned to this hotel by the local Chinese International Tourist Service, which assigns all tour housing. It was early in the season, and, though the food in the dining room was adequate, it was the least interesting on our 13-day China tour -- something of a disappointment, since the area is known for its luscious and varied cuisine.

On our second day we took in Reed Flute Cave, named for the bamboo growing near its mouth, which is often used by the Chinese for making flutes. The local guide, Mr. Chin, told us that although this cave was mentioned in ancient literature, it was lost for a time, and only rediscovered in 1959. It draws so many visitors that even at our early-morning stop we had to wait to get in.

There are a number of ``rooms'' inside, with the largest, the ``Crystal Palace,'' spacious enough to hold 1,000 people. Water running through and dripping in the cave for thousands of years has carved out unique figures. Locals have given the stalactites and stalagmites descriptive names, among them ``The Virgin Forest,'' ``Giant Lion,'' and ``The Old Scholar.'' Colored lights have been installed to enhance nature's artistry. Mr. Chin lingered in front of each formation to spin out its story -- in the t radition of ancient Chinese storytelling, an art form which obviously still survives.

The history of the city of Guilin began 2,000 years ago, when the Lin canal was built to connect two of the large rivers of China, the Yangtze and the Pearl, with the Li River as part of the mammoth system. In the war with Japan in the late 1800s, Guilin was a center for resistance, with its many caves providing hiding places. Today there are some 400,000 people in the city and its outskirts, both of which bustle with construction, light industry, agricultural products, and tourism. The main street is l ined with colorful cassia trees and shops. Restaurants offer a wide variety of exotic foods not usually found in a small city this remote.

Practical information: Guilin, in the northeast of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is included in many tours of China. It can be reached by train from major cities, but is best reached by a CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China) plane.

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