The Rice, Rivers, and Rocks of Guilin

The Rice Terraces near Guilin are one of China’s most famous landmarks.

And for good reason: they’re stunning. Picture miles and miles of rolling hills terraced in green and gold. If you visit during the right season, you’ll find the curved basins filled with water, shimmering in the sunset and reflecting the thousands upon thousands of rice plants jutting up from the muddy deep.

Guilin, in the northeast of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is very much a travel hipster’s mecca. Hostels cost $5 a night on average, there are copious rock formations, hikes, and rivers, as well as seedy karaoke clubs and meals that involve horse meat

But that’s not why you came.

It was the rice terraces. You left the Nanjing Earthen Buildings too soon for this — left the tobacco-growing hills of Fujian and the flash-flood, tea-leafed, guest-accommodating 土楼 to come here.

And you’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if you’re hiking across giant dragon’s scales made of clayey soil and silver irrigation water.

You’ll need to take at least three buses to get there. Head to Guilin’s all-traveler bus station (桂林汽车客运总店), book your tickets to the 龙胜梯田//long2sheng4ti2tian2, also known as the 龙脊梯田//long2ji2ti2tian2.

Guilin City itself is the seat of the prefecture of the same name. It administers 17 smaller political divisions, two of which are termed “autonomous counties” and are home to the 瑶族/yao2zu2 (Yao ethnic minority) and 苗族/miao2zu2 (Miao/Hmong ethnic minority).

The majority of the Yao people, also known as the Mien people, live in the hills of southeast China (Hunan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan), Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. They are famous in China for their bright headscarves, intricate needlework in dress, and, of course, their ingenuous terraced agriculture.

The Miao (Hmong) people have a storied history, beginning in the southern Chinese area, but marked by cultural and linguistic division, relocation, and refusal to be subjugated by the majority-Han Ming and Qing empires. The term “Miao” itself is not a name used by the Miao (Hmong) population in Southeast Asia, but is used by Miao Chinese peoples in China.

Be awed. This place is awesome: hillsides costumed in rice terraces while foals nibble on grass and flower and just revel, satisfied.

The next day you’ll wade through the large puddle/small pond outside your hostel on the way to the long-distance bus station.

You’ll want to grab a ticket to either Yangdi (yang2di1//杨堤) or Yangshuo (yang2shuo4//阳朔) via Yangdi. This is where you’ll get on a bamboo raft and speed down the 美丽漓江//mei3li4li2jiang1.

And incredibly 美丽 is the 漓江. With its karst stonescapes and hazy backdrop, the Li River is like a scene out of a Chinese watercolor painting. That’s no exaggeration — tap in “Li River watercolor” to any search engine for proof.

Get your guide to let you disembark somewhere before Xingping Village (兴坪村//xing1ping2cun1) so you can trek the rest of the way.

Take a detour through the citrus orchards. Stop for a lunch of cold rice noodles with cha shao, chili, onion, chives, and pickled beans in broth.

Go slow: the famous “back of the 20 yuan note” scene will still be there when you arrive.

Spend the entire next day eating mangoes, loquats, and rambutans in the city. Guilin City proper is home to some incredible scenes of the Li River and craggy granite towers sprouting up between urbanite.

The Seven Star Park (七星公园//qi1xing1gong1yuan2) is pricey (75 kuai) but worth it for the views, and if you visit while it’s raining, you’ll have the place to yourself. Artists, believers, historians, and tourists all have something for them: caves with historical inscriptions and Buddhist statuettes with incense at their feet, residence studios, vistas that let hikers peek out through the misty green at the city and mountains…

Look back before you leave. Take a picture of where you were at the top of the mountain from where you are now at the bottom of the mountain.

Turn around, hail a taxi to the train station, head home to Shanghai.


Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai from September 2014 to July 2015 while studying Mandarin at Fudan University and teaching English. Since then, he's continued writing and working in Ventura County, California.