Road, rail and river converge 110km west of Guangzhou at ZHAOQING (肇庆, zhàoqìng), a smart, modern city founded as a Qin garrison town to plug a gap in the line of a low mountain range. The first Europeans settled here as early as the sixteenth century, when the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci spent six years in Zhaoqing using Taoist and Buddhist parallels to make his Christian teachings palatable. Emperor Wanli eventually invited Ricci to Beijing, where he died in 1610, having published numerous religious tracts. Since the tenth century, however, the Chinese have known Zhaoqing for the limestone hills comprising the adjacent Qixing Yan Park (七星岩公园, qīxīngyán gōngyuán), the Seven Star Crags. Swathed in mists and surrounded by lakes, they lack the scale of Guilin’s peaks, but make for an enjoyable wander, as do the surprisingly thick forests at Dinghu Shan (鼎湖山, dĭnghú shān), just a short local bus ride away from town.

There are a few sights in Zhaoqing itself, though widely scattered and not of great individual importance. Produced for more than a thousand years, Zhaoqing’s inkstones are some of the finest in China – you can buy them at stationery and art stores around town, or at the souvenir shops at the Duanzhou Lu/Tianning Lu intersection.