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Published September 06, 2009, 12:00 AM

Guilin offers spectacular views and glimpse into past

There is a noticeable bounce to the plane as we fly over tropical south China.

By: Daryl Ritchison, Special to The Forum, INFORUM

There is a noticeable bounce to the plane as we fly over tropical south China. The turbulence is only adding to my anxiousness of landing in Guilin, as it is not every day you realize one of your lifelong dreams. You see, I have wanted to go to the Chinese city since I was in elementary school and first laid eyes on a picture of the beautiful, yet peculiar-looking hills found in the southern part of China about 200 miles northwest of Hong Kong. A look out the window shows a sea of gray occasionally broken by a plume of clouds organizing into a thunderstorm. As we descend slowly through these clouds, my eyes are fixed out the window, waiting and hoping the clouds do not obscure a topographic wonder that can be seen nowhere else on Earth.

Then, as if transported to another world, the low gray clouds wrap themselves around the limestone hills in a shroud of mist, giving my eyes a glimpse of what I envision must be J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

My first impression upon seeing the landscape around Guilin is wonder, with my eyes not quite believing what they are seeing.

I found myself just staring out the window of the bus that was taking us to our hotel from the airport, which is nearly 20 miles out of Guilin.

No wonder this terrain has inspired thousands of paintings through the centuries and millions of photographs since the area was reopened to tourism in 1973.

The bizarre landscape was formed by a process called karst.

In geologic terms, karst areas are formed from the dissolution of limestone from rain and ground water.

There are many karst regions in the world, including one in Florida, but Guilin’s rare topography was formed in a unique situation. It was the slow uplifting of an ancient seabed in combination with a monsoonal climate over time that allowed the less resistant limestone layers to be eroded away, leaving the other worldly features we see today.

Many visitors probably do not care what caused the formations, but instead appreciate the marvel of it all, including the local culture, food and the many recreational activities available in the area.

One of the best spots to take in the scenery is in Yangshuo, which is about a one-hour drive via bus from Guilin.

Upon arriving in Yangshuo, you may be amazed at its size. After traveling through

so-called villages with populations of 300,000 or 400,000, you actually arrive at what could be described as a real village, or at least a small town, albeit a very busy one.

The town has kept its ancient layout, yet at the same time does not seem Chinese. It is a hot spot for Western travelers, which makes it a bit easier to get around without knowing much Mandarin as most of the signs and menus are also in English.

Once in town, there are two things you must do: Take a cruise down the Li Jiang River (generally referred to as the Li River by Westerners) and rent a bike and ride through the countryside.

There are several options for selecting a cruise down the Li Jiang. One way is to negotiate a ride with one of the many boat operators waiting for customers along the river. Another is to take a large cruiser if you go during the wet season.

But some of the best scenery lies just to the north of Yangshuo, so we take a 45-minute bus ride up river to Yangdi Town.

There are no roads along the Li Jiang River, so we take a serendipitous course, with one harrowing road having me holding on to the seat in front of me tightly more than once, but we arrive at the river with boats waiting.

We negotiated in Yangshuo for two boats to be waiting for us upon arrival. At first glance the boats make me a bit nervous. Bamboo boats have been used for hundreds of years, but these boats use a more modern material with PVC piping as the main floatation device. Although these boats lack in aesthetics, they are safe and are widely used in the area.

The boats give us something the large tourist boat cannot offer: an unobstructed view of the stunning scenery and being in the open air, enjoying the cool breeze coming off the water.

Along the river we see water buffalo, cormorant fishermen (they use cormorants to catch the fish), an occasional tiny village and local residents washing along the way.

Each hill seems to have a name and a story. It is like going back in time and easily imagining being on a bamboo boat in China several centuries ago.

You can expect to pay anywhere from 100 to 300 Yuan ($20 to $60) for up to six people to ride on one of these smaller boats and much more for the larger cruisers.

For just 10 to 20 Yuan ($1 to $3) you can rent a bicycle for a day. Getting lost in the countryside might be the most fun you can have during your visit.

You will peddle by fields of rice in multiple stages of development, tiny farm villages, smaller tributaries of the Li Jiang and again bear witness to the stunning scenery.

Along the way, you will see the local residents carrying on farming traditions that span millennia and, like your boat ride, it will make you feel like you left the 21st century.

An ancient Chinese adage says, “He who travels in Guilin finds himself in a fairy land,” and no truer words have ever been spoken.

Daryl Ritchison is a meteorologist for WDAY and AM 970.