China is one huge country and among its 674 cities, Guilin is one of the most popular destinations. But what you can do with just 3 days in Guilin? In this travelogue, I like to share my 3 Days Guilin itinerary and some travel ideas for a quality short trip. Most who have yet to visit this city will surely have seen its spectacular scenery of karst mountain landscape and the ubiquitous ‘old fisherman with cormorant’ plastered all over the internet.
Guilin is the gateway to the surrounding regions which on this trip, we explored Long Sheng and Yangshuo, which are north and south of Guilin respectively. We arrived in Guilin via Cathay Dragon Airline on domestic transfer from Hong Kong as there is no direct flight from Changi Airport.
The region can be visited year-round but you are well-advised to avoid July to September as it is the hottest season with temperature sweltering from 28°C upwards while May and June are the rainy months. Aug-Sep sees “added heat” with immense domestic tourists traffic from schools holiday and do totally avoid 1-7 October as it’s the annual China Golden Week when the entire country is on holiday. January and February tend to be the least popular time of year to visit the region as you will likely encounter rain, cloud and cold and gloomy days. On another note, the tourism infrastructures are somewhat inconsistent with varying stages of ‘infancy’. While some attractions are well modernized, others can be woefully lacking. Thus you may need to “suffer” before enjoying some attractions. Vacationing in Guilin is overall more pocket-friendly but your Renminbi will get depleted much faster once you explore a county like Yangshuo, where things are 2-3 times costlier than Guilin.
Brief Insight on Guilin
Guilin literally means “Forest of Osmanthus”, in reference to the countless osmanthus trees lining the streets or cultivated in the region. It is 3rd-tiered in the country city tier system and located in the northeast of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and designated a National Famous Historical and Cultural City by the State Council. The key industry includes the processing of local food products but in recent times, a modern high-tech industry with tertiary industry marked by tourism trading and services are gaining pace. Guilin has the most High-speed Rail (HSR) stations out of all cities in China. Guilin Main Train Station and Guilin North Train Station are on the Hunan–Guangxi railway. 1st-time visitors will be impressed by how far the city has come in eco-friendly practices, e.g all mini-scooters on the road and public buses run on electricity, rendering a quieter and cleaner ambience. Overall, the pace of life in Guilin is more relaxed compared to the larger cities.
World’s Longest Ladies Hair @ Huangluo Red Yao Village
Our trip to Long Sheng county commenced on day 2 of the trip, where we visited the Huangluo Yao Village in the Longji Scenic Area, about 100 kilometres (3hrs drive) from Guilin.
Huangluo Yao Village is located on the bank of Jinsha River, on the bottom of Zhuang Village. All the houses are sited along the river bank and built with pine wood. Visitors will surely remember the walk to the village via the rickety bamboo bridge (see pic above).
The village stilted buildings are three floors and constructed without rivet, with all joggle joints being wood. The first floor is for rearing animals like pigs, the second floor is for living while the granary is on the third floor as it has the best ventilation.
Huangluo is home to the Red Yao tribe, a branch of the Yao ethnic minority that are well-known for the vibrant red jackets and shirts are worn by their women on festive occasions. With a small population of just over 400 people spread across 60 households, what makes this simple village unique is their ‘hair-raising’ habit practised by the local Yao women, which has garnered Huangluo the Guinness’s title of “World’s Longest Hair Village”.
Until 1987, their women’s hair was deemed so sacred that it could only be seen by her family. A single girl’s hair is off-limit to anyone else and is obscured by a blue scarf. The first man who sees her hair will be her husband, with the viewing privilege granted only on the wedding day. If you see the girl’s hair unintentionally, you have to reside for 3 years as a son-in-law of the girl’s family. With the relaxation of traditions, the women have become the magnet for streams of tourists from near and far.
For the show performance at the village, the Pan Wang dance is held to show their hospitality in a special way. Should they like you, they expressed the positive emotion by pinching your hip. Or they may also use their hip to crash you when in a dancing situation.
Some male visitors in the theatre are invited to be “husbands” as part of the performance. In real life, marriages are generally between partners from different clans and villages. The marriage is subject to approval from the families patriarch but is usually love matches and compatibility between couples’ horoscope. Social events like festivals provide young people with the opportunities to meet.
Women from the tribe have an average hair length of 2.3 metres. Their jet black hair also appears to remain healthy and free of grey well into old age. Their hair is not only incredibly long but in superb condition, thanks to years of disciplined beauty regime. Apart from cleansing their hair daily in the river, they will treat their hair regularly using a unique potion made with fermented water that has been used to wash rice. This week-old fermented solution is then boiled with pomelo skins and added with tea oil made from seeds of leftover crushed tea plants. The potion is combed into their hair before being rinsed in the fresh spring water.
The woman status dictates how her hair is being worn. A young unmarried woman will wear her hair covered by a black scarf. A childless married woman wears her hair down in two braids while a married woman with children will wrap her hair around her head like a turban and wear it with a bun in the front.
The Yao tribe also produces exquisitely embroidered cloth. With plenty of time on their hand, the tribe women do a lot of needlework with their delicate hands. A mother will start embroidering an ethnic wedding dress for her daughter from childbirth, to be ready when she’s of marriageable age decades later!
Experience Bamboo-Cooked Chicken and River Fish @ Long Sheng
The local cuisine at Long Sheng is simple and reflective of the surroundings, which can be described as “farm to table” with fresh ingredients.
Simple home-cooked dish of fish caught in the Jinsha River is prepared with loads of local vegetables and spices. I didn’t quite enjoy eating this fish as it was bony and does not have much flesh.
Free-range chicken cooked in bamboo stem over charcoal fire is a signature dish of the county, available in every single restaurant along the county street. The texture is somewhat tough, dry and not much flavour.
Spectacular Rice Terraces @ Long Ji
The breathtaking Longsheng Rice Terraces (also known as Longji Rice Terraces) are what brought us here and are certainly worth the long drive. The terraced fields are built along the slope winding from the riverside up to the mountain top between 600 to 800 metres above sea level. The terraced fields were mostly built about 650 years ago. For the best photo opportunity at this venue, an overnight stay at one of the lodges in Ping’an Village is highly recommended, for better pictures during sunset and sunrise.
One of the more enjoyable activities is to slow down and enjoy a drink or snack at one of the cafes fronting the valley while taking in the sight.
It was hot during our visit but the lovely ambience will certainly justify the trek and as it going downhill, it is less physical demanding too. Just remember to bring along drinking water, sunblock and a hat.
Aerial view of the rice terraces from a height of about 150m captured with a drone. The white trails are one of the walking paths while the dots on the trails are visitors moving along it.
A farmer’s rest house on the rice field. It’s interesting to note that the rice here is cultivated not for commercial purposes but mainly for tourism and self-consumption.
A couple of local kids playing at the trail provided for an interesting photo opportunity on the terraced field.
Go Local @ Ping ‘an Village
The Ping’an Village as viewed from Jiu Long Wu Hu (9 Dragons, 5 Tigers) lookout point. The Longji Rice Terraces cover several villages in Long Sheng County, with the most popular terraced field areas around Ping’an (‘Peace’) village, where the Zhuang minority people live.
The village main goods transport mode are donkeys. The uneven ground level and winding inclines are not good with conventional machinery.
Porter service for guests staying at the village lodges. This lady porter is very strong, running up and down the slope to secure business from exhausted guests. Porter fees can range from RMB20-65 per piece (1 way) .
The villagers live in traditional wooden three-story stilted houses but quite a fair number of family-run guesthouses are built with a dining deck exploiting the amazing view of the valley.
A signboard at one of the lodges showing the humorous village culture.
A typical family-operated lodge with services all displayed at the lodge’s “introduction page”.
Visitors walking downhill meant these are day visitors, going to the carpark where their driver or guides are waiting. While those sweaty visitors clambering uphill, are guests who have booked a stay at the lodges.
The mountain walking paths are somewhat narrow but animal and human beings co-exist just fine. The ambience of the village is decidedly rustic and will appeal to those who looking for a laid-back vacation.
Daxu Ancient City @ Yangshuo
The 3rd day saw us going southward to explore Yangshuo county, about an hour drive from Guilin. En route to our cruise at Lijiang, our driver took us to the county popular Daxu Ancient city (Gu Cheng), alongside the Li Jiang.
Daxu Ancient Town was built in 200 AD and the stone-slate-paved city stretches 2 kilometres along the Li River, with archaic architectural buildings scattered along the street. As it was early morning when we arrived, the shops along the street have yet to start business for the day.
A street-side vendor selling one of the fruits in season. In the pic, you see the Wampee (Huang pi) fruits, which are most often sold in bunches. Juicy, a little crunchy and with its unique fragrance, the fruit requires effort to feast on the flesh within. The grape-like fruit tastes sweet, with a hint of sourness while the larger, brown-yellow ones tend to be sweeter in flavour.
A sign of the time, with the China revolution manifesto artwork now being used as marketing material. China has since come a long way indeed.
Karst Mountainscape @ Li Jiang
Before reaching the Li Jiang River Cruise, our driver drove us up Chuan Shan Hill to check out scenic spots. This was the 1st lookout point. I don’t particularly like the lighting but is good to record for memories.
A 2-min drive further drive along the route let us capture this backlighted view, which was what we have in mind. Such scenery abounds in Guilin but is especially beautiful in Yangshuo county.
The karst mountainscape is typical of the Guilin landscape and living in this region is like living with a Chinese drawing. A surreal feeling indeed.
Go River Cruising @ Li Jiang
The massive crowd at the Li Jiang River Cruise ticket office was one of the letdowns of the trip. After a 2-hr queue, we were given a 2-min time frame to board our ferry, failing which our tickets will be void. On the ferry, the loud chatter from excited children, locals and the cramped non-aircon interior really sunk the experience. I just wished we did not come for this cruise. Be reminded to avoid the peak periods when visiting Guilin.
Once the ferries touched pre-arranged point, it U-turn and return to the embarkation point, for the next batches of visitors. You can imagine the Li Jiang swollen with chugging smoke-belching motorized ferries.
The photo “opportunity” or the lack of it. Once at the faved photo location, the ferry staff organised the guests to take turns at that spot, so that they can shoot the guests’ pictures for sale along the entire journey, rendering the cruise as if it’s simply a photo-sale event. The staff photographer blares non-stop with her mini body-mounted loudspeaker, directing guests on how to pose, hand on chin, hand on cheek, etc. This trip was really badly conducted. Those expecting quality time will be sorely disappointed.
The Li Jiang has really nice scenic views but it is just regrettable that it’s badly delivered while the infrastructure at the river bank (like public toilet) are woefully under-capacity. One can only hope the county authority is listening and make improvements soon.
Meet “Cormorant and Old Fisherman” – the Icon of Guilin
We were pleasantly surprised to see the renowned “Cormorant and Old Fisherman” at the river bank. Grandpa Huang (70yo) is the face and de facto ambassador of Guilin tourism. It was an amusing situation to observe how Grandpa Huang conducts his business, a 1-man show and business ‘consortium’ pulling in the money non-stop at the Li River.
One of Grandpa’s business assets, his trusty cormorants, other than his bamboo raft, of course.
We had a super-rushed photo session of possibly 1min. Grandpa Huang’s service charges are simple – A wefie with him (wearing polo shirt) costs RMB 10 (S$2) or take 1 angle of him with slight ‘performance’ – wearing his fisherman vest with a pose – RMB 50 (S$10). For more poses, like net casting or with him taking a live fish (from a cage at his bamboo raft) and feed his cormorant – it’s RMB 300 (S$60). For the more elaborate photo sessions, like early morning sunrise dedicated for staged photography, it’s subject to much higher rates.
Guess Grandpa Huang was happy with us as he “rewarded” us with 1 extra pose as he said, “Come, I show you my famous pose”. It was our lucky day.
Eat Home-cooked Food @ Yang Shuo
The local cuisine our driver introduced us en route to our next destination was at one of the more popular family-run eateries which served simple home-cooked food. Their signature dish was the river fish, which was kept in metal cages in the river just across the restaurant. The fish diet consists only of river weed, so freshness and clean taste are assured. The serving portion is huge and more than enough for 5 person, although there was only 3 of us. The dish is priced based on weight and considerably more pricey than a similar dish in Guilin.
Their free-range chicken dish was just as huge portion but there is not much meat and rather tough but much tastier than the bamboo-stem BBQ chicken we had in Long Sheng the day before.
Try Bamboo Rafting @ Yulong River
This is the most popular way to enjoy the scenery of the Yulong River. There are two raft routes which last 40–50 minutes and 1½ hours. In contrast to the noisy smoke-belching ferry on the Li River, bamboo rafts on the Yulong River are pushed along slowly by a man with a bamboo pole, for a quieter riverine experience.
You can enjoy a rustic river scene along the way in peace and the raft accommodates only 2 pax each.
The high season for visiting the Yulong River is from April to October when the weather is mostly sunny and warm and suitable for outdoor activities. The ideal time is probably late summer for pleasant warmth and less rain, though the mists and fresh growth in spring also add to the charm.
Our driver suggested a tip of RMB 20 for the boatman, so that he will push slower and let us enjoy the scenery better, whilst explaining the various mountains along the way. The tip definitely worked as all the rafts that were launched after us had bypassed us along the journey.
The logistics of transferring rafts from endpoint back to the various start points are backbreaking. Just a lorry to transport the rafts but once at the jetty, it’s solely human strength.
Finally, after about 1.5 hours, we reached the endpoint where our driver was waiting for us.
Climb Xiang Gong Mountain @ Yangshuo
The day final attraction was the Xianggong Mountain. Before achieving its status as one of the best photo spots in Guilin, it was simply another karst hill on the west bank of Li River. It garnered worldwide attention overnight after a local photographer won the bronze prize in the 10th International Photography Competition, with a picture taken at the top of this mountain.
Xianggong Mountain is one of the best shooting spots in Guilin. One of the most ideal times is during early dawn as this is a sunrise venue, with golden sun rays beaming through the mountains and also (it seems often) river mist (as opposed to ocean clouds).
You can also spot this bunch of “An’ Trees, or a species of the Eucalyptus tree. These trees were planted for the timber industry as they grow fast. But there have been disputes that it depletes the nutrients in the soil that it grows on and also possibly contribute to drought through high water consumption.
Experience Historic Streets @East -West Street Alley
During our last day in Guilin, we visited the tourist enclave of Guilin East-West Alley. According to Chinese Fengshui theory, East-West Street was a hidden place of White Tiger and Tsing Dragon, a place where it is auspicious for human beings. This is more of a night venue but as our flight home was in the mid-afternoon, it was the final place we could visit.
Lots of umbrellas at one of the alleys, to beautify the lanes. But the relentless afternoon heat still bears down on the venue.
One of the ancient remnants of a bygone era at the East Lane of Zhenyang, Jiangnan Lane and Lanjing Lane, where are the only historic alleys left from Qing and Ming dynasties in Guilin.
The Guilin East-West Street size is about 7-football fields. And it also can be divided into two parts – Traditional Culture Street and Fashion Style Street. The Traditional Culture Street features many old restored buildings while the underground part is Fashion Style Street where high-end shopping areas including restaurants and entertainment are located.
One of many drinks and snack stalls along the alleys selling watermelon or coconut drinks. I must say the presentation was very attractive and enjoy brisk business in the scorching mid-day sun.
One of the most popular franchises for Guilin noodles – Ming Gui MiFen, sort of the fast-food chain of local food.
Our last plate of Guilin mi fen for the trip, just order the basic noodle and add the pickled bamboo shoots and long beans, chillies, etc by yourself, at the condiment station. Only RMB6 (S$1.20)
Special Mention – Chun Ji Roasted Goose Restaurant
This popular restaurant was highlighted to us by our driver. After a meal at the diner, we understand why it’s the no.1 must-eat diner in Guilin.
The restaurant signature Roasted Goose. RMB 68 (S$13.50) for 1/2 a goose. Very nicely done, crispy skin with low fat and a nice dipping sauce.
We also picked the Guilin signature river fish cooked with beer, pretty good and not fishy or taste of mud at all.
The line of chefs behind the see-through open concept kitchen preparing meals are certainly a sight to behold. Each a master in their own right.
Choice of Hotel – Shangri-La Guilin
The imposing facade of the hotel sets you at ease immediately with a feeling of safety, classy and a good night ahead sleep.
An inviting grand entrance to the opulent hotel. You will feel privileged to be staying at the top-rated accommodation in the whole of Guilin.
View of the swimming pool and the bridge over River Li, from my 6th-floor river view room at the Horizon Club. This hotel has both indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an outdoor playground and plenty of lawn space for families with kids.
The room has very good amenities and a super comfortable bed. There is even a Chinese tea making set and daily fruit basket. All the creature comfort you would expect in a luxury hotel are available here and more.
This short visit to Guilin served to open my eyes to the fabled beauty of the city. Being a 3rd-tiered city did not erode our trip experience one bit. In fact, the inconsistent level of infrastructure development lends an “exotic” vibe to the ambience. The local authority only needed to improve certain public sanitation and tourism facilities at some attraction to achieve a semblance of “perfection”. Another bugbear would be the lack of direct flight from Singapore at the moment and domestic transfer flights do add up a fair bit on travel time and cost.
Overall, it’s a lovely city to visit but just be reminded of the human and weather season, engaged a good competent local guide/driver and plan a longer time (perhaps 7-days) so that you visit more of the attractions.
Many sincere thanks for coming along my pixels journey. Should any readers be keen to enjoy this experience in the future, please feel free to drop me a message.
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is non-prejudiced, factual, objective and that of the author.