Things to Do in Southern China
The Little Li River (Yulong River) is the largest tributary of the Li River and the most popular for travelers in Yangshuo County, China. The Little Li River starts in northern Yangshuo County near the town of Litang and meanders 22 miles (35.4 kilometers) to where it empties into the Li River near Ping Le. While the Li River is a major thoroughfare with motorboats shuttling passengers between Guilin and Yangshou, the Little Li is serene and slow-moving, just like the agrarian lifestyle of the denizens along the banks.
An excursion down the river starts a few miles south of Yangshuo’s town center. The two to three hour trip takes visitors through the towering limestone karst formations that make the area famous along shallow, crystal-clear water. During the hotter summer months, boatmen will stop at a few popular swimming holes to get a break from the heat. While a rafting trip down the Little Li is generally peaceful and relaxing, it can be quite exhilarating as well.
The Li River’s reputation as the most beautiful in all China rests on a stretch totaling less than a quarter of its length; the 60-odd miles (100 kilometers) starting in Guilin and heading south. Here dramatic karst outcrops, dense vegetation and the clear, winding river itself create magical vistas which loom large in the Chinese imagination, having inspired art and verse for centuries.
Outside of the main cities, the painters and poets who so prized the river would find life going on here much as they remember it; water buffalo tilling terraced rice paddies, fishers angling off bamboo rafts, vendors in market towns selling the bounty of this fertile region.
The river is a year-round delight, just as stunning under blazing blue skies or wrapped in winter mists. From Guilin to Yangshuo there’s never a dull stretch, but most agree that the scenic high point comes about two-thirds the way along, at the area between the towns of Yangdi and Xingping.
Impression Sanjie Liu is a unique outdoor night show directed by the renowned director, Zhang Yimou and staged at the Li River in Yangshuo. This is the world’s largest natural theater, using the setting of the Li River as its stage and the mist-shrouded karst hills as its backdrop – along with whatever weather the evening may bring. For this open-aired spectacle, which is performed twice every evening in the summer, the audience watch from designated terraces while hundreds of performers appear to float on the water before them. Most of these performers are fishermen from the villages along the river, and the show itself depicts the story of the history and culture of the local Yangshuo people. Throughout the performance, impressive lighting, sound, and special smoke effects blend in harmoniously with the natural landscape of the river and its surroundings, creating a truly mesmerizing experience.
If the Li and Little Li Rivers are the lifeblood of Yangshuo, West Street (Xi Jie) is the heart. This marble-paved street, the oldest street in Yangshuo County, is lined with boutique shops, Western cafes, Chinese restaurants and youth hostels. The traditional architecture and close quarters lend a sense of antiquity to the area in spite of the neon lights that illuminate the street at night.
By day, West Street has a sleepy vibe as travelers lounge outside cafes and hostels sipping on tea and munching on banana crepes, a local breakfast specialty. By night, the area transforms into a vivacious hot spot replete with busy night clubs, relaxed beer gardens and a seemingly endless array of restaurants serving the local favorite: beer fish, and shops touting all sorts of tourist souvenirs.
Visitors planning to do some shopping along West Street should plan to visit in the evenings when most of the smaller vendors have their stalls set up.
As the tallest structure in China and the fourth tallest freestanding structure in the world, the Canton Tower dominates Guangzhou’s modern skyline. The twisted, tapering tower rising just over 2,000 feet (609.6 meters) is home to the world’s highest and largest outdoor observatory at 1,601 feet (488 meters) above the ground. Sixteen transparent cabins carry passengers around the slanting, elliptical rooftop, offering views that extend as far as Hong Kong and Macau.
Thrill seekers can plummet from a height of 1,600 feet (488 meters) down the side of the tower with the Mega Drop. For a milder thrill, take on the Spider Walk, the world’s longest sky stairs with 1,028 steps, some of which have transparent glass flooring with views of the ground far below. For the tame of heart, the Canton Tower houses a rotating restaurant on the 106th floor as well as a 4D cinema, wine bar and science exhibition center highlighting the engineering technology behind the tower.
Just up the Li River from Yangshuo sits the tiny ancient fishing village of Xingping. While Yangshuo has a lively international community of Chinese, expatriates and travelers passing through, Xingping offers a quieter, more authentic and rural Chinese experience. Nestled amidst the towering limestone karsts, the village has been inhabited since 265 AD and retains several well preserved Ming Dynasty buildings.
Apart from wandering the narrow alleys of the village, visitors can make the ten minute walk to 20 Yuan Point, a spot along the river with the view of the karsts that is depicted on the Chinese 20 yuan note; or make the challenging climb to the Bird’s View Pavilion atop a karst just outside the village.
Xingping Village is often a stopping point on boat excursions down the Li River from Yangshuo, but you can also get there by buses departing from Yangshuo throughout the day.
More Things to Do in Southern China
For the farmers who reside in the Longji region of Southern China the soaring rice terraces are simply a way of life. For the thousands of annual visitors who make the two-hour journey from the city of Guilin, however, the Longji rice terraces are an iconic symbol of Chinese agriculture and one of the most photographed sites in the country.
Here in Longji, layer upon layer of cultivated terraces stretch skywards on steep slopes, at some points they slope at over 50° angles. Despite the dramatic grades of the mountainside, however, traditional Chinese rice farmers have managed to sculpt the hillside into orderly terraces which annually yield massive harvests of rice. Though there really isn’t a bad season to visit the Longji rice terraces, the early summer months of May and June are popular for photographers as this is the time of year when the terraces are irrigated and cast a mirrored effect which crawls up the walls of the valleys.
Moon Hill (Yueliang Shan) is perhaps the best known and most recognizable of Yangshuo’s limestone formations. Named for the moon-shaped hole in the top of the karst, Moon Hill rises over 250 feet (76.2 meters) above the surrounding countryside. On a clear day, you can watch as clouds meander across the sky through the 164-foot (50-meter) tall moon hole.
Those willing to climb the 800 marble steps to the top of Moon Hill will be rewarded with one of the most spectacular views in the province. For travelers seeking an adrenaline rush, there are 23 routes to the summit and the karst and rock climbing enthusiasts will find everything from vertical climbs to serious overhangs on the way to the top.
Moon Hill is best visited in the late afternoon after the majority of Chinese tourists have come and gone and the hawkers have quieted down. If you’re feeling extra energetic, rent a bicycle and cycle there and back through the local villages.
Guilin’s most famous sight is a rocky outcrop on the Li River whose natural stone arch is said to mimic the moon in water. But the whole formation is better known for its resemblance to an elephant dipping its trunk in the river, from which it derives its name, Elephant Trunk Hill - or Xiangbishan. Some poets couldn’t even wait to get home to record their thoughts on this remarkable landmark; there are calligraphic carvings right in the rock.
The effect is best observed from the water, but you can climb up into the “eye” of the elephant and down into Water Moon Cave at the river’s edge. Back on the hill, even the rustic brick Puxian Pagoda follows the prevailing theme – it is said to be the hilt of the dagger which killed the poor beast. This gruesome fantasy aside, the pagoda peak gives you a great view of the surrounding area.
The Chen Clan Academy, also called the Ancestral Temple of the Chen Family, is to Guangzhou what the Forbidden City is to Beijing. The complex consists of 19 traditional southern Chinese buildings that were erected by the Chen Family in the late 1800s as a place for the members of all 72 Chen clans in the province to stay as they studied for their provincial exams.
In 1905, the traditional examination system was dissolved and the area became an industry college for the clan. In 1957, the complex was designated as a Guangzhou City preserve, and in 1959 the local government began using the Academy to house local folk arts.
Serving as the Guangzhou Museum of Folk Art, the Chen Clan Academy is the largest and best-preserved clan complex in Guangdong Province and houses an exquisite collection of Cantonese folk art. The structures themselves are works of art, with carvings on nearly every column, ceiling beam and wall.
Shamian Island (literally translated as “Sandbar” Island), a 44-acre sandbank separated from Guangzhou by a canal, was given as a concession to the French and British governments after the First Opium War in 1841. The island quickly grew into a prosperous expat enclave where trading companies from Europe, the United States and Japan came to do business.
The stone mansions, churches, yacht club and sporting venues drew the envy of Guangzhou residents, who didn’t even have paved roads until the early 1900s. Local Chinese authorities restricted traders to the small area and forbade them from learning Chinese or bringing over their children and wives.
Today, many of the colonial mansions have been restored to their former glory, and the island, now partly pedestrianized, is home to a series of bars, cafes and boutique shops. The neo-gothic Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church has reopened for worshippers in recent years and is worth a visit.
Located in the hills northwest of Yangshuo lies an area with the beautiful name Longji, which translated into English means “the rice terraces on the backbone of a dragon.” The glittering, green fields swing their way gently up the slopes to lofty heights that are far away from the noisy tourist regions in the lower altitudes. Probably due to the climbs up the steep stairs and walkways being not that easy, the rice terraces breathe a sense of tranquility that is rare in modern China. In the midst of these rice fields lies Ping’an village, a place where time has almost stood still.
The traditional wooden houses are crowded together, as if they want to be as close as possible, and on the front steps, old women feed chickens and dogs lazily guard door ways. Although the region is well developed and houses now have water and electricity, the lifestyle is very simple and the area around Ping’an village is home to the Zhuang minority.
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- Things to do in Guilin
- Things to do in Guangzhou
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- Things to do in Eastern China