If any Chinese city has wholeheartedly embraced tourism, it's Guilin, the home base for cruises on the picturesque Li River. Its spectacular scenery is just a short flight from Hong Kong and 240 mi/385 km northwest of Guangzhou, and it is easily accessible from many other Chinese cities. As a result, Guilin is often crowded with tourists. Most are domestic visitors.
The river cruise, Guilin's main attraction, is a true pleasure. Moving among fishermen's bamboo rafts, the flat-bottomed boats ply a misty, shallow river that is flanked on both shores by mountains and limestone outcroppings. (You'll be reminded of many Chinese paintings.) Most cruises for tourists last about four hours, with lunch included. If your cruise on the Li is not booked through a government-sanctioned travel service, try to inspect the boat before purchasing a ticket, and make sure the price includes a bus ride back to Guilin. Western tourist boats have better facilities than those for domestic tourists and are more expensive, but if you don't mind being the center of attention and having your photograph taken constantly with your newfound friends, it can be quite fun to take a Chinese boat.
The normal end point is the small town of Yangshuo. If time permits, stay overnight there instead of immediately catching the bus back. There you'll find bohemian backpacker cafes on West Street and some of the best karst and limestone rock climbing in the country. From Yangshuo, you can rent bicycles to ride through the countryside (past more beautiful limestone outcroppings) or take a local boat farther down the river.
The beautiful limestone crags seen along the river can also be found within Guilin, at Seven Star Park. At Fubo Hill you'll find the Thousand Buddha cliff (with only 400 statues), the Returned Pearl Cave and a 2.5-ton/2,200-kg cast-iron bell. In the spring, there's a beautiful aroma in the parks from the red, white and yellow cassia blossoms. Guilin's name translates to the "forest of Sweet Osmanthus."
Be aware that most of the antiques offered in Guilin are fakes. (That doesn't make them any less attractive—they're just not old.) Be prepared to bargain hard. If time permits, take an overnight trip south to Liuzhou (more karst mountains) or a day trip to Longsheng, to the north of Guilin, for the beautiful Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces, carved out of the mountains over six centuries. There, local minority groups in traditional dress sell handicrafts and silver jewelry. There are colorful weekly markets elsewhere in the surrounding area, as well.
You can enjoy Guilin during any season except winter—from November to February the water may be too shallow for a full day's boat trip. Don't be scared off by the fact that summers can be rainy: The dramatic weather brings a mist that can enhance the river trip.
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