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.