Guilin Journal

This is my trip to Guilin! Guilin is located in the southwestern part of China and is seated on the Li River. I was there for four days over the Qing Ming Festival Holiday and hiked so many mountains. It was a busy and tiring trip that left me sore and sunburnt and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

(4/1) Off to a Rough Start

Today was one of those days where just a lot of stuff goes wrong. Not the best way to start a trip really. I had to get up at 6:40 on a Saturday to go to class. I’m not even surprised by stuff like this anymore. So many unexpected and hard to explain have happened here that I just sort of let it all wash over me now. I got through class unscathed and then went to a canteen to grab some bananas for lunch. As I was parking my bike my headphones got caught on the seat and got ripped. I say ‘got ripped’ instead of ‘got ripped out of my ears’ because one of the earbuds didn’t actually leave my ear. The entire ‘bud’ assembly staying in and detached itself from the cable. I had bought these at a fake mart, so I guess I can’t be too upset about the low quality, but it was a rough way to start the day.

I biked back to my apartment and started packing, which I really should have done the night before. I also had to do laundry at the same time, since after this Guilin trip I’ll only have 48 hours in Shanghai before my next trip. I then had to work on an impossible prelab assignment which didn’t help my already higher than average stress levels. Once I finished the prelab to the best of my ability, I packed up my stuff. My plan was to leave ahead of our group and stop by a fake mart that was on the way to the airport since I really didn’t want to do a multi-hour flight with no music.

On my way out, I almost forgot to get my laundry out of the machines, so I had to run and get all my clothes hanging up to dry. I then realized I had forgotten my passport as I was walking out of the ziroom gates (ziroom is the name of our apartment complex), and so I had to run back for it. Once I got to the metro stop I realized I had forgotten all of my toiletries. Not my day apparently.

I metroed to the fake mart under the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum and got a new pair of headphones in record time. Once done I headed back down to the metro and Alex and Matt (who are going with me on the first flight to Guilin) were almost to my stop. We had tried to coordinate which door they’d be by so that I could join them directly, but that didn’t really pan out. I got on their train regardless and took it two stops.

Once I got off I tried to meet up with them on the station, but my bad day wasn’t done with me just yet. It turns out that I had gotten on the wrong train at my station, and had traveled two stops in the wrong direction. Ugh. That’s the first time it’s happened to me so far in China, kind of sucks it had to happen today. I quickly turned around and got going four stops in the correct direction and finally met up with Matt and Alex.

The day started to look up from here. All of the other times I’ve flown out of Shanghai, I’ve gone through the smaller Hongqiao airport. This time however, we’d be flying out of the Pudong International Airport. That meant that we could ride on the maglev connecting the airport to the downtown area. Woo! I’ve been wanted to ride this thing ever since I learned about it way back in January but hadn’t had occasion to go to this airport.

The maglev was really, really, really, fun. It’s considered part of the metro system, so my metro card worked as my ticket. We arrived at the station about 3 minutes before the train left, which was perfect timing. Unlike the regular metro, this had seats for everyone for safety reasons. The train floats on electromagnets above a track, and so can reach amazingly fast speeds. Our ride topped out at 430 kph which is around 270 mph. That’s crazy fast. The distance we covered was so short that we weren’t even at speed for a full minute since we had to start breaking for the station. It was super smooth too. The only way to tell you were moving was the feeling of the lateral acceleration and of course looking out the wall to wall windows. I had a blast.

Once we arrive at the airport we had about 2 hours before our flight. We had blocked so much time since we didn’t know exactly how fast/long the maglev would end up being. We took a relaxed pace through the ticket kiosk and security, got some lunch, relaxed by our gate, got moved to a new gate, and then relaxed at the new gate. It’s interesting how many English speakers are seated by us on this flight. There’s an American couple in front of us with two little girls, another American seat across the aisle, and a Chinese family seating behind us that’s listening to some sort of children’s TV show in English. Odd for a domestic Chinese flight.


Over the course of the flight we got to know the couple in front of us a bit better. The husband works for Johnson Controls and is on a three-year term in China. He’s based out of Wuxi (a city close to Shanghai) which is really cool because we (the entire Purdue group) actually toured the Johnson Controls plant in Wuxi back in February. It was fun getting to know them.

We said goodbye to our new friends after the plane landed and left the terminal to look for a way to get to our hostel. We have instructions for both a bus and a taxi, and as we were walking towards the bus stand, a very well-spoken lady behind the information desk flagged us down and asked us where we wanted to go. She told us all about the busses and how much it would cost, and then told us that she had a driver to take us there for a bit more.

We decided against the cab and got in line for the bus. While waiting, the lady came back over and told us the driver was willing to go for the same price as the bus, so we figured why not. We followed the driver out to his car and piled in. It was a big van, which was odd considering we only had three people.

Once we got going, it became clear that something wasn’t 100% right with this cab. The guy kept stopping every few minutes and circling around the airport. He would run out of the car and go up to people stopped on the side of the road in other cars. We had no idea why he was doing this. He might have been trying to find another car to take us, or maybe he was trying to pick up another fare. Around the second time he took us to the airport pick up line we had had enough and told him ‘we want to go now’ in our very best Chinese. He seemed to understand and finally left the airport… only to stop again about 2 minutes later. When he did we shouted ‘Go! Now!’ and made it clear how upset we were. We got very close to just getting out.

He finally got the message and started taking us into the city. However, he sure did take a weird path. We went along service roads that ran parallel to a highway for a while, which was a bit confusing. At one point this road turned away from the highway and became a dark, bumpy, gravel road that traversed a dark bamboo field. I was getting pretty unnerved by now. We had had a huge hassle with this guy and now he was driving us on some strange and obviously wrong path. We started to kick into a bit of fight or flight mode, seeing how to best get out of the car in case of another unexpected stop.

After about 5 minutes of driving like this, we started moving parallel to the highway again, but still not on it. This made me feel a bit better. Not long after that we passed a toll booth (but didn’t stop for it since we weren’t technically on the highway) and as soon as we did he hopped onto the road. All of that extra distance and stress, all to just not pay a toll. Crazy.

We ended up getting to our hostel pretty easily after that. We got checked in and then walked to a nearby street market to see if we could grab some dinner. The market was cool and very similar to all of the other street and food markets I’ve seen in cities around China. I got some spiced lamb on a stick which was excellent. After walking around for a bit, we headed back to the hostel and met up with Charlie, Jack, and Tristan who had just arrived from the airport.

We all got settled into the hostel and I crashed hard. It’s been a long day.

(4/2) We Need More Time

We got up this morning and headed downstairs for breakfast in the hostel lobby. They had a fairly western style menu and I had some banana pancakes which weren’t bad at all. After breakfast, we went outside and took a cab to the bus depot. Once there we hopped into a long line waiting for tickets. While waiting, we got to watch a lovely video of lethal car and bus crashes on a big screen nearby. What a comforting thing to show everyone before they get into a bus or taxi. Once we made it to the front of the line we learned that it would be another few hours before busses ran to the portion of the Li River that we wanted to go to. Not wanting to waste the day away, we went outside and found someone with a van who was willing to take us.

The place on the river we wanted to go was a pier where bamboo rafts set off. They only ran in the morning and evening however, since large cruise ships had to pass through midday. We arrived at the pier only about 20 minutes ahead of the midday closure, so we had to move fast to get on the river. We were a little disappointed to learn that the cost of the rafts was a bit steeper than we had thought, but we weren’t about to back out because of that.

After a small amount of price gouging, we got into the line where we met a group of Americans from North Carolina. They asked us for the score update once they learned we were American college students (UNC was playing in their Final Four match and was at the half while we were in line). Once through the line we got onto the raft which was a few long pieces of bamboo lashed together with some benches and an outboard motor nailed onto it.

The cruise down the river was spectacular. The mountains surrounding the river are unreal. They towered above you for hundreds of feet, but don’t spread out at all. It’s not so much a mountain range as it is a series of large and wide rock pillars covered in foliage. They start directly at the river bank and extended into the distance until obscured by fog and other mountains. It was like giant rocks had been piled up and covered in a blanket of trees, and I was just slowly moving through it all.

You can check out a time lapse of the cruise here:

The raft took us down the river for about an hour, hour and a half. Once we were dropped off we quickly ran ashore and headed to a scenic spot nearby to take a money shot. All of the bills in China have images on the back of different locations around the country. On the back of the 20 yuan bills is an image of the Guilin mountains and the Li River. We had been dropped almost exactly where that picture had been taken, so we all quickly grabbed 20 yuan bills and got pictures of us holding them.

While taking them, we ran back into our North Carolina friends and told them about the victory. They were excited to say the least. Once done with our cash pictures we headed to a nearby town. We walked around for a bit and looked at the shops and got some food for lunch. I had a fried dough disk with fried krill on top. There was actually a big bucket of live krill next to a vat of oil and they would place a handful onto the raw dough before sticking it into the oil. It was excellent. I also got some chicken fried rice. It’s a staple food for the American abroad in China and was exceptionally good here.

Once done with lunch we started our hike up Mt. Loa Zhi. This was the mountain closest to the town we were in. Like all of the other mountains around us it was very steep, but not very wide. There was a stair case built into the side of the mountain, but it was mainly just stones from the forest and so was very irregular with step size. The path was also very steep, maybe a constant 30-degree slope at all times. There was no break to the incline either. It just kept on going and going. Although the climb only lasted for about 45 minutes, it took a ton out of me since it was actually more like rock climbing for most of the way.

Once I finally did reach the top it all became worth it though. The top of Mt. Loa Zhi was indescribably beautiful. Pictures can’t capture it and I am not a skilled enough writer to do it justice. The mountain top was simply grand. That’s the best word for it. Grand and continuous. When hiking, there are some many times that the views are one-sided, meaning that there’s really only one direction to look. Not the case here. The view was 360 degrees. Every direction looked utterly amazing with the same style mountains popping out of the ground as far as the eye could see. You could also see much further now since the sun had come out during lunch and burned off the haze.

The mountains were bright, beautiful, lush, and green. We had a great view of where two rivers met each other. Sitting on the fork in the river was a small city of shacks. You could really see how this was still just a small developing city. It was so crazy beautiful up there. We spent almost an hour just sitting on the mountain top experiencing it. We took lots of pictures and just tried to comprehend the view.

Eventually it was time to leave and we hiked back off the mountain. Once at the base we began looking for a bus to Yongsho, our next destination. This was a bit harder than we thought since the bus information wasn’t really marked anywhere and the town was so small that the internet didn’t really have information about it. At least not information about the busses. After struggling for a little while, and being told by one local that we were already in Yongsho (we definitely weren’t), we found the bus we were looking for.

The ride itself was pretty easy and I was so exhausted from the past few days that I just passed right out. The ride took around an hour before we reached Yongsho. This city was more built up than the village we had gotten lunch at, but not quite as large as Guilin. We all got off and attempted to find a place to rent bikes to ride around the area. Unfortunately, it was getting a bit late in the day and we were all a little cranky from waking up from our bus naps early. We had some disagreements about whether or not we should just head back to Guilin now, since we might get stuck on a mountain after dark if we didn’t. Some people thought that we’d be fine biking for an hour before sunset, others didn’t.

We eventually compromised by deciding to not bike out onto the mountains (since we don’t want to get stuck after dark), but also not head back to Guilin just yet. Instead, we found a small public park with a small mountain in it and climbed up that. It didn’t take long to climb and once at the top we sat down for a while and lamented about how beautiful it was in Guilin and how little time we had to explore it all.

For dinner, we climbed back down the mountain and explored a nearby market square. It was fairly western and very new, as it had ‘Grand Opening’ signs all over the place. We walked around for a little bit before finding a Chinese Western combo restaurant. I got some sweet and sour chicken and split a pizza. It was very good. Afterwards we got some ice cream (it had been in the 70’s all day long and was still quite warm after sunset), and continued walking around. We ended up at the taxi pick up location.

The ride back to the hostel was one of the best taxis I’ve been in. Nice, reliable, and easy. Nothing unexpected happened and we all got to relax a little. Once we got back to the hostel we planned tomorrow and got to bed.

(4/3) Risky Business

Today we went to the rice terraces. These were also not actually in Guilin, but rather a 2- to 3-hour drive north. We got ready at the hostel, I had another pancake breakfast, and got in our cab. This time we had booked the cab through the hostel (we’re learning) and so it was direct and easy. I slept a bit in the car, since I was still exhausted from yesterday, while we took the highways north. After we had been going for a few hours the nice wide highways slowly turned into narrow mountain roads. However, our driver didn’t seem to notice.

Driving in China is much more aggressive than it is in the US. There’s much more swerving and sudden stops. The lanes are more suggestion than rule and the same goes for speed limits. I’ve actually gotten used to this on the main roads throughout my travels in China, but everything gets more intense on mountain roads. The roads we took to the rice terraces were very narrow, and sometimes made worse by fallen rock that obscured half the road. This didn’t stop our driver from being a manic though. He would blast around tight switchbacks, blasting his horn to warn others, cut into the oncoming traffic lane at random, and overtake large trucks on blind up-hills. I don’t think that was actually that abnormal, but it still uneased me.

We eventually made it to the ticketing office, but this was somewhat removed from the actual rice terraces so we still had another hour drive. Once at the terraces proper, we grabbed a quick lunch of fried rice, and the grabbed a cable car to the top of the mountain. The cable car was interesting because it didn’t disconnect from the cable in the station. Normally cable cars can disconnect at the station and slow down to make boarding and exiting easier, but not in this case. That meant that the car flew through the station, and we had to jump on as quickly as possible. The counterpoint to this through was that the actual ride up the mountain was super slow. We rose at a blistering 1 m/s and it took close to a half hour to reach the top. The people in the car in front of us were taking pictures with a selfie stick poking out of the side of their car the entire ride up. Someone called this ‘risky business’ which was a perfect description not only for that, but so many things that happen here.

Once at the top we looked around for a bit and got some pictures before beginning our hike. The mountains that the rice terraces were built into looked like normal mountains, as opposed to the kind we had seen the day before. The terraces had been carved out of all of the mountain sides and just kept going and going. Built in between the terraces were very small farming villages that were just nestled in the side of the mountains. There were stone paved paths winding their way through the fields, which is what we hiked on for the most part. The paths were not very clearly marked, and we got lost more than once. At one point, we almost wandered out of the terraces by accident.

The villages were very interesting to see. They were small farming villages but in a way, they were also tourist attractions. It was a very strange mixture of shop and stalls designed to sell to travelers, and small somewhat rundown homes that people lived their lives in. I felt a little out of place there to be honest.

We wandered around for hours through the terraces. We had a vague idea of where we wanted to go, but had trouble heading directly there. Towards the end of our time in the terraces (we had a set pick up time with the taxi that we couldn’t miss), we found the first area we had wanted to see, the ‘Music of Paradise.’ It was high up on the mountain and gave some good views of the fields.

At this point we had run out of time and so headed back down. There was a main gravel road going through the mountain that we were able to take down to the trail head. We passed through a few more villages on the way and some guys in the group did some shopping. We made it back to the cab and got back on the road. We did some more risky business driving to get off the mountain, and then I just passed out.

I woke back up when we got back to the hostel and we headed out to dinner at a place called McFound’s. McFound’s was a very frustrating experience. They had a quite large menu, but when we tried ordering from it, we learned that they didn’t actually have half of the things on it. Over half the group had to order two or three times before finding something that they would actually serve us. I strongly considered walking out of the restaurant because I had this weird notion in my mind that restaurants served food. Crazy, I know.

I was eventually served a plate of sweet and sour ribs, which weren’t actually bad but in no way made up for the hassle of ordering. We left our risky business dinner, and finally had some time to explore Guilin itself. We walked around the downtown area which was fantastic. It had a great atmosphere, similar to the of a beach town in the US. In the center of town were the Sun and Moon Pagodas. These were two beautiful pagodas that were brightly lit with yellow and white respectively at night. They were really pretty to look at, but apparently not that great to go into. We just snapped some pictures from the lakeside.

We walked around the base of the lake for a little bit, got some ice cream, and then walked over to Elephant Hill. This was another attraction in Guilin. It’s a hill/mountain near the river that supposedly looks like an elephant. We didn’t get to find out if it did though, because massive trees had been planted between the side walk and the river bank to block anyone from looking at the hill. The only way to see it was to pay an entrance fee. Even if we had wanted to do this, we couldn’t since it was closed for the day.

It was getting a bit late at this point, so we all just headed back to the hostel and crashed for the night.

(4/4) Sid From Ice Age

Today was a bit more relaxed than the previous two. Alex, Peter, Matt, and I had a flight back to Shanghai late tonight, but Tristan, Jack, and Charlie were taking a train that left early afternoon instead. This meant that they were basically only traveling for the day, while the four of us had another day of activities.

We got a bit later of a start, and I had yet a third pancake breakfast at the hostel. Once done we packed our bags, stored them in the luggage room of the hostel, checked out, and hopped on a city bus to the Yoashan Mountain. This mountain is the tallest in the Guilin Mountain Range, and isn’t too far from the city. Despite this, the bus dropped us off in actually the middle of nowhere. It was just a dirt road with farms on either side. We could see the mountain off to the side, so we just started walking there.

On the way, we passed a cemetery, which was very busy because today was the day of the Qing Ming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day. This is a national holiday in China and is meant to be a festival honoring your ancestors. People travel to graveyards and tombs, clean them, and place decorations on them. It was really cool to see something so authentic. The tombs all had colorful streamers and decorations on them, and lots of people were visiting.

We kept walking along the road and eventually came to the base of the mountain. We kind of wanted to climb it, but weren’t sure where the trails were, or how long it would take. There was a chairlift though, but we weren’t sure how to pay for it since we could only see an empty line and no ticket office. We walked through the line and got denied entry since we needed tickets. Confused, we were pointed towards the exit, and after some wandering found a very small and unmarked office selling tickets which was located down a large staircase and around a corner. How could we have missed that?

We went back through the line with our tickets and took the chairlift up. It was quite slow (which was a bit more understandable, since it was a chairlift not a cable car) and took around 25 minute to get to the top.

We walked around at the top for a while and it was actually a little underwhelming. It was extremely overcast and very chilly. There wasn’t anywhere to actually hike around the top, just little statues and some buildings. We explored everything we could, but after 30-45 minutes there was nothing left to see, so we took the cable car back down.

We walked back to the ‘bus stop’ and waited to grab a bus back to the city. We waited there for around 15 minutes and although many busses passed us, none stopped. A little confused, we walked a few minutes to a slightly more built up area and got onto a bus there. We hopped bussed a few more times until we got to the terminus of the line. We grabbed some fruit as a pre-lunch snack, and then hopped on yet another bus.

We rode it to a park called the Seven Star Park. We got some fried rice for lunch and then went inside. When looking at the park map, we saw something called Muddy the Monk which became a must-see. It was pretty easy to find and we got some pics of our boy Muddy.

Muddy the Monk!

The park itself was fairly large and had a few mountains in it. We spent most of our time there climbing up and down them. On the way up our second mountain, we found a clearing which was full of monkeys. They were all over the path and getting fed food by a group of Chinese people. They would scurry around and pick up food, or jump between trees. They were super cute. We spent a good 20 minutes there just taking pictures of them but it was hard to get a good shot because they kept running all around us.

After the second mountain, we walked around the flat areas of the park for a little bit. There were lots of fields that people were relaxing and flying kites in. We walked through the park and came out very close to the city center on the other side. We decided to just walk to our next destination: Elephant Hill.

We decided to pay the fee to see the hill, since it was one of the major attractions of Guilin. On the way to the hill, a little Chinese boy came up to us asking to speak English with us. He was maybe ten and as soon as he started talking with us, his mother ran in front and started filming us on her phone. He started by asking where we were from, and we told him the United States, and that we were students in Shanghai. He then asked where he was from, wanting us to guess. We didn’t really have any idea so we guessed Guilin. He told us we were correct and told us we were very smart. Then, with very little transition, he asked us if we’d like to hear a joke. We said absolutely. This is what he told us:

“Joke topic: Hospitality”

“A man is a guest in a woman’s house and she serves him apple pie. As he is eating the apple pie, the woman realizes that she doesn’t have any cheese for his pie and tells her son to go get some. The son comes back with some cheese and puts it on top of the man’s pie. The man puts the cheese in his mouth and asks the boy where he got the cheese from. The boy responds ‘from the rice shop!'”

Hilarious. We quickly laughed at the joke and he seemed very happy. Once he had told his joke, he just seemed kind of done with the conversation. We tried to keep talking with him and asked when he had started learning English. He replied with ‘What?!’ and then said goodbye and left. Very strange. It was possible that he had just rehearsed a set amount and wasn’t comfortable having an improv conversation with us. It was a really funny interaction.

We eventually arrived at elephant hill and bought our way in. We got some pictures of it, and it sort of does look like an elephant with its trunk in the water.

We crossed the river and climbed up to the top of the elephant. We found a viewing area at the top and stopped to rest there for a bit. While looking around we saw a mountain that had three sort of ‘humps’ to it and a hole in the side of a cliff on one end. After some discussion about what it looked like, we decided that it was Sid from Ice Age, lying on his back. Once that was decided, there was no other way I could look at it.


Sid from Ice Age

We climbed down off the elephant and headed to the other end of a park where there was an island called the Island of Love. There was a map of it and it had something called the mysterious village at the back of it. Curious about this, we headed over. We first found a public square of sorts and sat down for a while, under the watchful gaze of Sid in the distance. I was so tried from the weekend. It’s been nonstop hiking and climbing and my ankles are on fire. We rested there for what felt like a half hour before heading to the mysterious village.

This lead to the most confusing part of the day, and probably the whole Guilin trip. The mysterious village was a collection of wire sculptures of people in oddly suggestive poses. There were two people wrapped up in on giant overcoat, a man and a woman rolling around on the ground, and even a woman riding on a man’s back. We posed to mimic the last one. We had a blast joking around with them.

We left the village and headed into town to get some dinner. We found a market street which was very busy but had a surprisingly small amount of food. We walked around for a bit and eventually settled on what we thought was a restaurant but was actually mainly just a bar. We ordered food from their menu, and then watched as they ran around to a bunch of stalls on the street to get us said food. Super funny. It wasn’t actually bad though, just funny how we got it.

Once dinner was over, we walked to the hostel to get our bags, hailed a cab and went to the airport. We got tickets and cleared security and then had to wait for about an hour in a crazy hot airport. Like stupidly hot. At least 90 degrees. People were sitting around us in winter jackets and I was there in a T-shirt thinking it was way too hot. We got on the flight and I slept for most of the way back to Shanghai.

We landed and taxied back to ziroom. Since our flight didn’t leave Guilin until 11:30, we didn’t get back to our room in Shanghai until about 2:30am. We jumped right into bed since we had class at 10.


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