A Whole New World

Dazhai Village engulfed by a sea of 650-year-old rice terraces on a sunny day.

Suddenly, a violent storm broke out across the valley. Rain poured down. Everything turned gray under the thunderous falling water; the thick layers of moisture covered everything behind us. With neither a local nor a traveler in sight, we began peddling our bikes faster through the huge rock formations surrounding the Yulong River in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. As we moved, they emerged from the ground, colossal and endless, one after another, extending as far as the eyes could see on a stretch of land seemingly unfit for human habitation. The vast vegetation defying gravity climbed the vertical cliffs of the karst peaks over our heads: The scenery was brutal.

I have visited Guangxi twice. People say the first time is unique, but that wisdom didn’t apply in my case. On my second visit, I still couldn’t believe what I saw. Last summer we arrived in Guilin, a famous tourist city in Guangxi, with oversized luggage and a plan of a five-day trip. Since I had visited before, I was anticipating my family’s reaction and underestimating my own. I didn’t think I would be so blown away again.

The drive from the airport to the hotel was the least beautiful leg of the trip. As one nears the city, a land sprinkled with individual green mountains is finally revealed. The buildings, highways and cars are not much different from those found anywhere else in China except that they mingle with karst peaks.

Before sunset, the Sun & Moon Twin Pagodas in Guilin reflect off the lake.

When night fell, I decided to leave the curtains open when I went to bed. Early the next morning, I woke up to a wonderful view. On the way to the Longsheng Rice Terraces, the bus ride was bumpy. The sound of its engine mixed with that of the river flowing down the mountain, and the bus seemed to teeter dangerously off the cliff, frightening my relatives, which gave me déjà vu of my first days on Chinese roads.

Our hotel was located right on the top of the hill in the scenic area within Dazhai Village, and we had to walk an hour to reach the place. Some parts of the path were covered in mud; luckily we left our suitcases back in Guilin. Carrying light backpacks, we easily made it to the highest part of a mountain covered by thousands of green rice terraces. A cheerful atmosphere, flowers everywhere and a panoramic view from the balcony of the guestroom welcomed us. After taking a dip in a swimming pool filled with water flowing straight down the mountain, we set off to explore the village. Right before the sunset, we walked to one of the most amazing scenic spots, where magnificent 650-year-old rice terraces continue to be farmed. Down the hill were reservoirs, canals and tunnels that produce income for locals. Up the hill was a dream landscape, an excuse to forget daily mortal life in favor of an incredible feeling. Happiness seems to wash over visitors. A day later, we dined at an Indian restaurant in downtown Guilin and strolled along the lakeside to capture the glinting Sun & Moon Twin Pagodas reflecting off the surface.

On August 9, 2017, the climax of the trip finally arrived. My cousin hadn’t stopped asking about “the cruise” the entire time. Yet according to her appraisal afterwards, the cruise wasn’t luxury, which wasn’t cheap either. The food wasn’t tasty or appealing and the cabin was noisy and chaotic. However, at lunchtime, more than a hundred people disappeared from the deck and it became peaceful. By then, the most breathtaking view on Earth surrounded us. Again, we watched those singular karst peaks loom over the horizon and rise from it as we moved down the river. On the banks, giant bamboos swayed as the wind blew, among which water buffalos were taking baths. Sailing on the Lijiang River feels like a step back from reality; senses lose credibility and thoughts collapse. That is how I felt the first time around, but also the second, so I vowed to make a third trip. I wanted to take everyone close to me there.

Karst landscape in Yangshuo just before a thunderstorm.

Upon arriving in Yangshuo, a colorful crowd appeared near the little port of the city. Dozens of street stalls decorated a large gallery that guided us to the parking lot. Vendors insisted on showing us all sorts of goods. Since I love haggling, I wanted to stop and ask about the prices, but I was lugging a massive amount of luggage and we were herded too quickly by the crowd to the entrance. Furthermore, we were on a mission to contract a car and knew it may not be easy. Everyone was looking for the same thing. After half of an hour, a young guy who laughed at my Chinese took us to Jima Village, where we stayed for a couple of days.

And there, as I expected, we found the highlight of our voyage to Guangxi: The hotel, lost in karst paradise, had hosted us the year earlier when my parents came to visit. I chose the same place on purpose, and the owner of the little hotel remembered us. The cuisine, the views, the environment, the landscape of the area and everything else were stunning. We sat on the rooftop of the building, had long conversations, read, wandered around and watched bamboo rafts cross the river.

The next day we rode bikes among the surrounding peaks. And right then, the thunderstorm happened. And right there, we felt the world wasn’t the world anymore.  

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