The southern part of China, covered mainly by a maze of mountains, reveals some really fantastic, almost unreal landscapes. And the main reason for it is the karst (limestone) rock, which is spread across this area, combined with the wet subtropical climate. As a result, we can see there some stunning views of strange hills in shapes like towers, cones or even pillars. And the most famous karst hills land is Guilin Karst Hills （桂林峰林）area.
Where is Guilin Karst Hills area
Guilin Karst Hills area is located in the eastern part of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in China. It is famous not only for its amazing karst mountains but also the large Li （Lijiang） River (漓江）which flows through this area, creating really breathtaking landscapes. It has made Guilin one of the most touristy places in China, attracting millions of visitors every year.
As a result, Guilin is a very crowded place, where overtourism is quite prominent. But apart of it, nature is nature. The karst hills, Lijiang River and all other natural wonders of the area existed here long before the tourist crowds have come, and now still stay like a silent indifferent watcher over these endless “ant-heap-like tourist hordes”.
Nature is nature
That was the reason why we decided to visit and explore this area- the constant unchanged (at least for now) nature, and the local life, existed here long before the overtourism invaded the area. Actually, Guilin Karst Hills area is much larger than the surrounding of the tourist spots there. It spreads far beyond the cities of Guilin, Yangshuo and the other smaller towns nearby. This area reaches the boundaries of Guangxi province to the east and almost the middle part of the province to the west. In other words, it is large almost as a country like Belgium or the Netherlands.
So, we looked at the southeastern edges of Guilin Karst Hills area- Hezhou (贺州)City. There are a few ancient towns and villages, presenting an old local Chinese architecture and culture, dating back at least a few centuries ago. The most prominent of them is Huangyao Old Town （黄姚古镇）, located some 25-30 km west of Hezhou.
And we planned the next destinations of our trip- Yangshuo （阳朔）, and Xingping （兴坪）. Yes, they are touristy. They are not “off the beaten path places”. But, as I said, nature is nature and we had to go there as explorers, not as tourists (although we had to mix with the tourist crowds). Thus we planned and built our itinerary: Huangyao, Yangshuo, and Xingping.
The nature and history of Guilin Karst Hills area
Many people go to visit Guilin Karst Hills area, attracted by the beauty, the famous image and the tourist atmosphere. But most of them don’t know too much about its nature, history, and culture.
Guilin Karst Hills area is a part of the so-called “South China Karst“- a large territory south of Yangtze River, in the provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan, and Guangdong. So, Guilin is not the only place of this type, but there are many more, much less known karst hills areas, such as Wanfenglin, Wulong, Yingxi and others. Some of the karst hills are “fenglin” （峰林） type- karst “towers”, others have a more conical shape and are called “fengcong” （峰丛）, There are also “shilin” （石林）- the so-called “stone forests”, where the hills are cut into sharp pinnacles.
All these areas are covered by subtropical forests, including a lot of bamboos. There are also many rivers, some of which large, proper for sailing. And this is the typical landscape of Southern China, where you can often see these typical forms, created by the karst and the local climate.
And life has been flourished in this environment since ancient times. It was the land of “Thousand Yue”- a group of many ethnic minorities, who lived here for thousands of years, long before the coming of the Han Chinese. Many of these minorities still live here now, such as Zhuang, Yao, Miao, Dong, and many others.
Then, more than 2000 years ago, the Han Chinese gradually conquered this area, with the rise of Qin and Han Empires. The rest of the time until now it became an incorporated territory, and its history- part of the Chinese history. However, the local ethnic minority cultures still remained until now. Zhuang and Yao are the main minorities in Guilin Karst Hills area. And Han Chinese developed a stable civilization, harmoniously mixed with these minorities.
So, one of the results of this harmony is Huangyao- a town, established more than 1000 years ago during the Song Dynasty. But the flourish of this town was in the 18th century when Huangyao became an important trade and cultural center of the area. Most of its buildings were built at that time and now remained unchanged, only slightly repaired and turned into private houses, souvenir shops, and cafes (as in every “old town”). And all this built among karst hills, with small rivers passing through the town.
And although now the tourism started to develop in Huangyao too, the authentic life is still well preserved there, and the local people still live their “normal daily life” in this place, just enriched with some tourist-related business. This made us include Huangyao in our trip to Guilin Karst Hills area.
Our trip to Huangyao
So, it was a Chinese holiday, called “Qing Ming Jie” （清明节）. It lasts three days, every year at the beginning of April. It is a holiday, and at the same time most of the people use this time to go to the cemeteries and graves to worship their dead relatives. So, as we expected, it was not the most touristy time of the year.
We started our trip by cars, from Qingyuan in Guangdong province. After 6 hours of driving, we arrived in Huangyao. We parked our car outside of the Old town, bought our entrance fees, which was 100 CNY and entered inside.
We walked on its narrow streets among the old houses, most of which beautifully decorated. As in most of the Chinese “Old towns”, there were a lot of street food and souvenirs vendors. Most of the old houses are actually turned into small shops or cafes, but there are still people living there (and running their touristy business in the old town). One of them was exclusively attractive, selling his things while dancing wildly.
I personally explored every angle of Huangyao Old Town, looking for some nice places for photos. There were not too many tourists actually, at least there were not “heavy crowds”. And yes, it was beautiful around, with the karst hills rising outside of the town. I went out of the houses, in the field between the hills, which was silent and magnificent, while the day was finishing and the night darkness gradually fell down.
Finally, it was time for our local food dinner- mainly tofu and fish, in one of the local outdoor “restaurants” beside the river. We finished eating and proceeded to Yangshuo, only some 1h 30 mins from here.
Yangshuo is known as the “elder sister” of Guilin (as Xingping is the “little sister”). It is a city on Lijiang River (or just “Li River”, as it is literally in Chinese), with karst hills around and inside it. There are even two main road tunnels, penetrating through the karst hills and connecting various parts of the city area.
Since it is considered a part of Guilin tourist area, Yangshuo has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in China (and even the world), although most people just know it as “Guilin”, not as a separate destination.
Knowing this, we expected Yangshuo to be full of tourist crowds. But nevertheless, the landscape around it is really worth to visit and explore. The city itself is just an ordinary Chinese city, without some special “old towns” or other attractions. Yes, there are some temples, there is “Western Street” (Xi Jie，西街), which is really old (although almost nothing really old has remained today, everything is renewed), but still, the main reason to visit Yangshuo is the natural landscape around it.
“Lijiang River Scenic Area” (漓江风景区)
We chose our accommodation in an Airbnb apartment, which was quite comfortable and clean. And we planned our route for the next day. I have marked on the map all the points of interest in the area and drew a route.
We decided to skip Guilin City and its destinations since our time was limited. But there was a place on the map, called “Lijiang River Scenic Area” (near Guilin City), and I decided to go there and visit it. If there is a ship for a cruise on the river, then good. If not- then we still have to enjoy the surrounding karst landscape around. At least this is what the name of this place was guessing.
But when we arrived there, we were disappointed. This place was NOT in a karst hills area. Actually, it was just a pier, from where the cruised on Lijiang River from Guilin to Yangshuo were starting. Nothing more. So, not only no karst landscape but also no convenient ships (which had to start from here, make a trip, then back here again). The name “Lijiang River Scenic area” was actually cheating- it is only a pier to this area, not the area itself. So we had to turn back to Yangshuo, to our next destination: Yulong River Scenic Area.
Shiwai Taoyuan Scenic Area （世外桃源风景区）
We discovered this place on our way back to Yangshuo. Actually, it is nothing more but a cluster of karst hills and field around it, with a few villages (not “old”, but “normal” local villages). And there was a small river, passing through a tunnel cave (underground river). There was also a small performance scene, decorated in a local “folk style”, with a few actors waiting there.
Actually, there are tourist boats, starting from a wharf at the road, passing through this tunnel cave, then back on another river branch to the same starting point. And when the boats passed by the folk scene, the actors (dressed in local ethnic clothing) started to beat drums and to dance- only until the boat left (around 20-30 secs.). Then they just sit down for a rest, waiting for the next boat.
We were not interesting of a boat (it was 40 CNY per person), but just made a walk around. And there were local women, waiting for visitors like us, requiring from them 30 CNY to enter and walk the area. Soon we discovered that it is just a local “tourist trap”, since there is nobody to check us, no gate or fence, and we could enter the area free from everywhere. At least she showed us where is the place.
Yulong River Scenic Area (遇龙河风景区)
We arrived at the northern end of this area. It was a really scenic area with karst hills and a large river, creating a really beautiful landscape. We discovered that actually, this area is very long, reaching the chain of a few destinations besides the road to the main highway (and including these places).
There was a gate on the northern end of Yulong River Scenic Area, and cars were not allowed to enter. Only scooters, bikes and local electric cars (belonging to the tourist destination’s management). There were scooters for rent, and they offered them for 120 CNY per scooter. But we heard that outside, in the villages we could find scooters for 40 CNY. The electric car was 450 CNY total, for 10 persons, but there were no free cars this day. Anyway, after some beautiful photos of the scenery around, we decided to go to the southern end of the scenic area, and its destinations chain, by our cars.
The southern destinations chain
These destinations are Moon Hill (Yueliang Shan) (月亮山）, Julongtang Cave （聚龙潭）, Grand Banyan Tree （大榕树）, Tianlai Butterfly Spring（蝴蝶天籁泉）, and Tuteng （Totem） Ancient Road （图腾古道）. They are all along one of the southern main roads, connecting Yangshuo to the highway. So we thought that we can just go and visit them by our cars.
But when we arrived there, we discovered that this main road is closed for cars and other bigger vehicles, from 8:00am to 5:30pm, every day. Only scooters, motorbikes and bicycles were allowed there. And indeed, they were hundreds, even thousands (and actually it is a good solution of the local authorities, if the road was opened for cars, it would be a terrific traffic jam every day there). So, we didn’t have a choice, but rent scooters to enter and explore the area, for 80 CNY (after bargaining).
As I said, although crowded and touristy, nature is nature, and the area remains incredibly beautiful. First, we went to the furthest destination- Moon Hill.
Moon Hill （月亮山）
It is one of the karst hills around Yangshuo. But the difference is a large natural arc, a remnant of a former cave, which penetrates the upper part of the hill, creating something like a “Crescent Moon” on it. And yes, it is really interesting and worth to see, not strange that it has become one of the landmarks of Yangshuo.
There is an entrance fee for those who want to climb the 20 mins trail to the entrance of the arc. We didn’t have time to hike it, instead, we just looked for a nice place to take photos of the hill. An old woman guided us to a restaurant with a place arranged for a good view, and we had to pay her 5 CNY. Later we discovered that a better view can be seen from the nearby parking lot, on the other side of the road.
Julongtan Cave （聚龙潭）
The next destination on the road is “Assembly Dragon Cave” (Julongtan Cave). The caves are typical features of the karst areas, so it was normal to expect beautiful caves in Guilin Karst Hills area too. And Julongtan Cave is one of them. It has also a museum, called Kistler Palace, presenting limestone in various shapes. The entrance fee for the cave is 45 CNY and for the palace- 25 CNY. This time we skipped it since we have seen a lot of caves in Yingxi Karst Hills area in Guangdong. Instead, we proceeded to the next destination on the road- the Grand Banyan Tree.
Grand Banyan Tree （大榕树）
This place is really worth to visit. The Grand Banyan Tree has been planted 1400 years ago, during the Sui Dynasty, and still stay more splendid and beautiful than ever. Not only the tree, but the park area around it are really stunning. There is a small karst hill with a hole on it, and a river (Jinbao River) between this hill and the tree.
But the tourist business mania also has made the things not so smooth here. There is an entrance fee for the Grand Banyan Tree- 15 CNY. But if you want to cross Jinbao River to the karst hill on the other side, you have to pay 100 CNY for a raft, which is “another business, not related to the Grand Banyan Tree park management”.
However, there is a normal wide bridge to the other side of the river, but outside of the park zone. And it is free (at least there is no checkpoint gate there). But we had to go out of the Grand Banyan Tree park and cross to the holed karst hill. If we knew earlier, we could go there without entering the Grand Banyan Tree park and still see the tree, even from a little distance (anyway, it is still unclear, when I tried to go to the other side of the river for a second time, an old woman stopped me and told me that I have to pay…something).
Tianlai Butterfly Spring （蝴蝶天籁泉）
The road crosses a bridge over Yulong River (near the joining of Yulong and Jinbao Rivers), revealing a breathtaking panorama to the surrounding karst area. So, no wonder that there were crowds of tourists taking photos from the bridge.
And around a km after the bridge is the next destination of the chain- Tianlai Butterfly Spring. Actually, it is a small park with a cave and a stream inside it, forming a beautiful pool- that’s why it is a “Spring”. And “Butterfly” comes from some of the stalactites inside, shaped like butterflies. As a result, there has been created a model of a Monarch Butterfly on the entrance of the cave, which has become one of the symbols of Yangshuo. There is also a large butterfly garden with thousands of butterflies living inside. Entrance fee: 45 CNY.
Totem Ancient Road （图腾古道）
This is the last attraction on the road back to Yangshuo. Actually, we didn’t visit it, as we were informed that everything inside is a little “touristy fake”. There are some minority people making a show (and they are even not locals but from the border of Vietnam), a small museum with artifacts and some “exotic decorations”. So we proceeded back to Yangshuo, to see its evening life.
Evening in Yangshuo- the Western Street (Xi Jie， 西街)
The Western Street (Xi Jie) is actually the most important attraction inside the urban area of Yangshuo. As I already mentioned, it has 1400 years of history, although now everything is renewed. However, many of the building still preserve their old traditional architectural style.
And as we expected, the Western Street (and the nearby smaller side street) was very crowded (our Airbnb host told us that now it is actually not crowded, but during holidays like May 1 and the Chinese National Holiday in October it is almost impossible to walk on this street, it is even dangerous, because the crowds are “pressured”). Anyway, it was still a nice walk there- it is full of restaurants, disco clubs, souvenir and art shops, local street food and many other attractions. And the atmosphere is nice, with a strong “vacation feeling”.
Anyway, we back to our house, preparing for “the little sister of Guilin”- Xingping. There are many other small attractions around Yangshuo, but we just chose the most prominent of them, since exploring details may take a whole week.
Xingping is a nice town on Li River (Lijiang River), in the midst of a stunning karst hills landscape. It is located between Yangshuo and Guilin cities. So we traveled for around 45 mins from Yangshuo on the road to Xingping and arrived there a little after the morning mist disappeared under the sun.
It is actually a nice place. Although touristy like Yangshuo, it looked better. There is an “old town”, the stunning Li River with the karst hills on its both banks, and there are many other local attractions nearby, like the “Fishing Village” and Laozhai Hill, revealing breathtaking panorama to the landscape from above. However, we decided just to take the local cruise and take photos of the area, due to our limited time.
Our Xingping cruise
We walked to the main pier of Xingping. Fortunately, there were not too many people waiting for tickets, since most of the tourist were in travel groups, but individuals like us were a “minority” and we bought our tickets quickly- 60 CNY.
There were enough cruise ships, so we didn’t have to wait. Our cruise was 1 hour long. And the route was from Xingping to the south, reaching the area of Fishing Village (but without stopping there, so we didn’t see it actually). And beside the breathtaking landscape, surrounding us all the time, there are two attractions on the cruise.
The first is taking a photo with a local and his big cormorants (it is actually a local attraction and a job for many locals of a village nearby). And the second place is the exact spot of the image on the 20 CNY banknote. There the guides show a banknote, comparing it with the real image outside, and everybody takes photos there, holding their 20 CNY banknotes.
Xingping Old town （兴坪古镇）
We back to Xingping and made our last exploration of the town, including a lunch on the street. It was in Xingping’s “Old town”. It is actually only one main street with a few smaller side streets, leading to the main road or the nearby Yi River, a branch of Li River. This area is populated for more than 1500 years, but the “Old town” street is of course renovated. Anyway, the historical atmosphere is nice. It was not very crowded when we were there, and we had lunch in one of its local restaurants.
Other places of interest in the area.
Our itinerary to Guilin Karst Hills area was limited, so we didn’t have enough time to explore everything, but as we always do as travelers- just chose the most important points for better initial exploration. In fact, you need at least two weeks to explore everything in details, only around Yangshuo, Xingping and Guilin, and much more time if you want to explore the whole Guilin Karst Hills area, reaching Hezhou and Huangyao.
So, here I can mention some other places and activities of Yangshuo and Xingping (only) area, that we didn’t experience, but if you have more time, you can try them:
Bird’s View Pavilion （Laozhai Hill, 老寨山）– a beautiful pavilion on one of the nearby hills, offering a stunning panorama from above.
Fishing Village （渔村）– a small village with some old style houses, on the Li River’s left bank.
Dahebei Village （大河北村）- the village in front of the main Xingping pier, worth to visit for a walk.
Impression Sanjie Liu – a famous folk play, performed in East Street theater in Yangshuo, which actually made Guilin Karst Hills area popular in the world.
Liugong （留公）– a nice village in the “old town” style.
Fuli market （福利市场）- a big farmer market with impressive local atmosphere.
Antenna Hill– the hill exactly over the Western Street, with a large antenna, offering some of the best views to the city.
Many other hills and villages in the area– since the whole landscape is unique, you don’t need to search exactly some specific “tourist destination” to explore more of it.
How to reach Guilin Karst Hills area
We reached it by car. However, I have a Chinese driving license, so for me, it is not a problem. But most of the visitors to the area obviously would not have this document, so they can’t rent a car, unless with a driver. Then there are the three main other ways to reach this area.
First- by plane. Guilin has an international airport, where you can arrive and make it a starting point of your Guilin Karst Hills area exploration.
Second- by speed train. If you are coming from Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong or any other big city in China, you can take a speed train, which is also very comfortable. From Guangzhou, it takes around 2h 30 min. to Guilin and less than 2 hours to Hezhou.
Third- by bus and slow train. There are some overnight sleeper buses and trains from Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai.
Traveling around Huangyao, Yangshuo, and Xingping
Once arrived at the airport or some of the bus or train stations, you can take a local bus or taxi to most of the destinations nearby. But the best options are hiring a scooter or bicycle. There are many places where you can find scooters and bikes. The prices are different in different places, but you can bargain.
Another option is just to make a cruise on Li (Lijiang) River and thus to move from Guilin to Yangshuo. And you can arrange it not just as a way to move from one place to another, but can turn it into an exciting experience.
In such a touristy place, no wonder that you can find plenty of accommodation options. There are a lot of hotels, hostels and guesthouses, from budget to splurge and luxury.
Although the area is highly touristy, especially in Guilin, Yangshuo, and Xingping, a trip there is really worth. What we saw was very commercial, with a strong “smell of money” indeed. But that’s normal for destinations with overtourism.
Anyway, I can say that if you are going there like a tourist, you may have a good experience, but also you may feel disappointed- from the “tourist traps”, from the crowds and waiting queues, from the too many “fake things”, specially made for tourists. But if you go with a traveler’s state of mind, looking for what is real and natural and don’t pay too much attention of the “modern human factors and their issues”, you can have a really great experience in one of the most unique natural areas on Earth.
Check out some guides, maps and other info about Guilin and the area around!
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