It was time to leave Beijing, and head on to our next destination. We were heading south, into Guangxi province to the city of Guilin. The name may not be familiar to you, but you undoubtedly know about this city because of what lies around it. Guilin is nestled along the Lijiang River, and surrounding it are the famous karst formations of southern China.
Karst formations occur as a result of weathering of soluble rocks such as limestone and gypsum. Karst formations are often associated with caves, due to underground drainage systems characteristic of karst topography. While karst formations occur all over the world, China in particular is known for them, especially in ancient landscape paintings and romanticized cruises down the Yangtze.
However, Beijing lies about 2,200 kilometers (1,300 miles) to the north of Guilin. Given our time constraints, there were only two viable options to cover that distance in a reasonable amount of time: airplane or train. We opted for the second option. China has a very well-connected rail system, and most major cities are connected by multiple lines. For this trip we booked two seats on a G-class train, more commonly called a “bullet train.” These are the fastest trains in China, capable of reaching 350km/h. Ours, however, maintained a steady 300km/h, getting us from Beijing to Guilin in about 11 hours.
The trip to Guilin, though lengthy, was far more pleasant than most flights we’ve been on. The train has a dining car, there’s plenty of leg room, and the seats can only recline so far, meaning that you won’t be crushed by the person sitting in front of you (I have long legs, so this is frequently a problem wherever I go in Asia).
Our first day in Guilin we spent at Seven Star Park. This is a large park in the middle of Guilin, with two large karst formations riddled with numerous caves. Seven Star Cave is one of the largest and most extensive in the park. The park has a variety of facilities, including numerous hiking trails into the karst formation, several temples and shrines, a zoo (don’t go there – it’s depressing), and a fairground-style entertainment facility for children. It was a little surreal to have such beautiful natural scenery side by side with cotton candy stands and carnival games, but that’s tourism in China.
It was therefore quite the surprise when we saw signs about wild monkeys in the park. It was even more surprising when we stumbled onto a large troop of monkeys alongside a quiet trail in the mountain. The troop consisted of a few adults keeping watchful eyes on a handful of “teenagers” and a half dozen “toddlers.” Watching monkeys interact with each other really shows how closely related we are to them; they can be so emotive, and act just like their human counterparts sometimes. If humans were smaller, had more hair, a tail, and could climb trees, you’d never know the difference.
Our second and last day in Guilin, we headed out of the city to Guilin National Forest Park. This park is only 3km outside of downtown Guilin, and is accessible via bus, taxi, or tuk-tuk. I was not able to find out a lot of information on this park before our trip, and it didn’t seem as though the locals were very knowledgeable about it either. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful area, and most importantly, it was almost entirely devoid of other people.
The taxi dropped us off at what appeared to be a park entrance; despite expecting to pay an entrance fee, the gate was open but the ticket booths were closed and empty. No one was around, so we walked into the park. In hindsight this was probably not the main entrance to the park, but it’s where the taxi left us.
The trails here took us into the karst formations. They are much too steep to hike up to the top, but the trails snaked around the foothills, and we were surrounded by forest at all times. If for no other reason than it’s quiet and peaceful, a visit to Guilin isn’t complete without going to the National Forest Park.
And all too soon, we were once again packing up to head on to the next spot. However, in order to save time, we decided it would be worth the money to take an airplane this time, as the train would cost us nearly 15 hours of travel time (versus 1½ hours by plane). And so, onto Xiamen International Airport, and our final destination: Kinmen Island.