Guangxi (广西, guǎngxī) unfolds south from the cool highlands it shares with Guizhou to a tropical coast and border abutting Vietnam. Up in the northeast, the pick of the province’s peak-and-paddy-field landscape is concentrated along the Li River, down which you can cruise between the city of Guilin and the travellers’ haven of Yangshuo. Long famous and easily accessible, this has become a massive tourist draw, but remoter hills just a few hours north around Longji and Sanjiang are home to a mix of ethnic groups, whose architecture and way of life make for a fascinating trip up into Guizhou province, hopping between villages on public buses.
Diagonally across Guangxi, the tropically languid provincial capital Nanning has little of interest in itself but provides a base for exploring Guangxi’s southwestern corner along the open border with Vietnam. Actually, since 1958 the province has not been a province at all but the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, heartland of China’s thirteen-million-strong Zhuang nationality. They constitute about a third of the regional population and, although largely assimilated into Chinese life today, there’s enough archeological evidence to link them with a Bronze Age culture spread throughout Southeast Asia, including prehistoric rock friezes west of Nanning. Nearby are three other major draws: the Detian Waterfall, which actually pours over the Vietnamese border; massive limestone sinkholes at Leye; and Chongzuo Ecology Park, home of the critically endangered white-headed langur, a cliff-dwelling monkey. Down on the south coast, Behai sports some decent tropical beaches and offers transport to Hainan Island.
Though subject to fiercely hot, humid summers, Guangxi’s weather can be deceptive – it actually snows in Guilin about once every ten years. Another thing of note is that the Zhuang language, instead of using pinyin, follows its own method of rendering Chinese characters into Roman text, so you’ll see some unusual spelling on signs – “Minzu Dadao”, for example, becomes “Minzcuzdadau”.Read More
GUILIN (桂林, guìlín) has been famous since Tang times for its scenic location among a host of gnarled, 200m-high rocky hills on the Li River, down which you can cruise to the village of Yangshuo. The city rose from a rural backwater in 1372 when Emperor Hongwu decided to appoint Zhou Shouqian, a minor relative, to govern from here as the Jinjiang Prince, and this quasi-royal line ruled for fourteen generations, dying out in the 1650s when the entire city was razed in conflicts between Ming and Manchu forces. Guilin was later resurrected as de facto provincial capital until losing the position to Nanning in 1914; Sun Yatsen planned the Nationalists’ “Northern Expedition” here in 1925; the Long Marchers were soundly trounced by Guomindang factions outside the city nine years later; and the war with Japan saw more than a million refugees hiding out here, until the city was occupied by the invaders – events harrowingly recounted in Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. Wartime bombing spared the city’s natural monuments but turned the centre into a shabby provincial shell, neatened up since the 1990s by plenty of well-designed landscaping, shady avenues and rocky parkland. Despite being prone to tourist-driven inflation and hard-sell irritations, the city is an attractive place to spend a day while organizing a cruise downstream.
Look at a map and Guilin’s medieval city layout is still clearly visible, defined by the river to the east, Gui Hu to the west, Nanhuan Lu to the south, and protected from the north by Diecai Shan. Separated by Zhongshan Lu, Rong Hu (榕湖, róng hú) and Shan Hu (衫湖, shān hú) are two tree-lined lakes that originally formed a moat surrounding the inner city walls – the last remnant of which is Gu Nanmen (古南门, gŭ nánmén) the tunnel-like Old South Gate on Ronghu Lu – and are now crossed by attractively hunchbacked stone bridges. Shan Hu is also overlooked by 40m-tall twin pagodas named Riyue Shuang Ta (日月双塔, rìyuè shuāngtă) one of which is painted gold, the other muted red and green, both attractively illuminated at night.
- The Li River
- Nanning and around
The Dong heartlands
The Dong heartlands
A hundred kilometres northwest of Guilin the road winds steeply through some fine stands of mountain bamboo, and enters the southern limit of a fascinating ethnic autonomous region. With a rich landscape of mountains and terraced fields as a backdrop – best perhaps at Longji – it’s possible to hop on local transport and tour a rural corner of China that remains relatively unaffected by the modern world. Day-trips abound, but, with five days or so to spare, you can push right through the mountainous Dong heartlands northwest of Sanjiang into Guizhou province, a fabulous journey which takes you to the area around Kaili, similarly central to the Miao people.
Two hours west of Longsheng the road crosses a high stone bridge over the Rongshui River and lands you at small, dishevelled SANJIANG (三江, sānjiāng), capital of Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County. Most of the people here are Dong, renowned for their wooden houses, towers and bridges which dot the countryside hereabouts, most notably at Chengyang village to the north. Sanjiang’s own unmissable drum tower rises 47m over the river; this one is modern, but similar towers were traditionally used as lookout posts in times of war, or social areas in times of peace.
CHENGYANG (程阳, chéngyáng), 18km north of Sanjiang on the Linxi River, is an attractive traditional Dong village reached over a covered wind-and-rain bridge, an all-wooden affair built in 1916. The village forms a collection of warped, two- and three-storeyed traditional wooden houses surrounding a square-sided drum tower, and makes a pleasantly rural place to spend a day, walking out to smaller hamlets with similar congregations of dark wood and cobbles, many with their own, less elaborate bridges and towers. Look for creaky black water wheels made from plaited bamboo, somehow managing to supply irrigation canals despite dribbling out most of their water in the process. For views over the whole region, return to Chengyang’s main-road entrance and make the short climb to two pavilions on the ridge above, offering vistas of dark, gloomy villages nestled among vivid green fields.