Mount Hua

According to legend, the Queen Mother of the West was holding her Flat Peach Carnival when she accidentally spilled some of her jade wine down from paradise, which caused a colossal flood here on earth. The flood destroyed all of the villages in the Huashan area so the deity Shaohao informed the Jade Emperor of the disaster. The Jade Emperor promptly sent the deity Juling to earth to stem the flood. As Juling descended from the clouds he rested his left hand on one side of the peak and his right leg on the other, which ripped the mountain into two halves and allowed the floodwater to rush out. His handprint supposedly remains on the Immortal’s Palm Peak, which sits high up on Mount Hua.

Standing at an impressive 2,100 metres (7,070 ft.) at its highest peak, it is no wonder that Mount Hua is listed as one of the Five Great Mountains of China. It is located approximately 120 kilometres east of Xi’an, near a city called Huayin. It sits at the eastern end of the Qin Mountains and is made up of five peaks. Although the mountain is undoubtedly a phenomenal natural specimen, it is more well-known in China for its spiritual and religious significance. Each of its five peaks has an intricately woven folktale behind it, which is intertwined with the Chinese mythology that is now known to be part legend and part historical fact. To the locals and to the average visitor, Mount Hua has an unmistakably mystical feel about it. If you’re looking for somewhere where you can embrace your spirituality and discover more about the fascinating schools of thought behind Chinese philosophy, then a trip to Mount Hua is a must.

The five main peaks of the mountain are simply named East Peak, South Peak, West Peak, Central Peak, and North Peak, with South Peak being the highest and North Peak being the lowest.

Every peak has inherited a second name according to its features or the legendary stories behind it.

Central Peak is known as Jade Maiden Peak. The story behind its name is a perfect example of how Chinese legend has become inseparably intertwined with history. There is a Taoist Temple at the top of this peak called the Jade Maiden Temple. Legend has it that the daughter of Duke Mu of Qin[1] (569 – 621 BC) loved a man who was talented at playing the tung-hsiao[2]. In order to avoid this temptation and cultivate her spirituality, she gave up the royal life she had become accustomed to and became a hermit, secreting herself on the Central Peak of Mount Hua. From then on, the temple was established and the peak was named Jade Maiden Peak after the Duke’s daughter. Near to the Jade Maiden Temple you will also find the Rootless Tree and the Sacrificing Tree, which also have mystical stories behind them that add to the ethereal feel of Central Peak.

Unfortunately not every story behind each peak is quite so magical. The South Peak is called Landing Wild Geese Peak simply because, according to legend, geese returning from the south often landed on this peak. It is home to the beautiful Black Dragon Pool and the Baidi Temple or Jintian Palace, a Taoist Temple that is nationally considered the host temple of the deity Shaohao. South Peak is also the site of the infamous Plank Road, a plank path built along the side of a vertical cliff that is only about 0.3 metres (about 1 foot) wide and forces the intrepid hiker to look down at the almost bottomless gulf below them. Although there is a chain running along the cliff-face that hikers can clip themselves on to, the experience of creeping along the narrow path and having to constantly hook and unhook yourself from your only safety net, so to speak, is only for the bravest of travellers.

Like South Peak, North Peak is rather simply named Cloud Terrace Peak because the clouds that accumulate around the peak look like a flat terrace. It looks so uncanny that you might get the impression you could almost step out onto the clouds. On one side of the peak is the Ear-Touching Cliff, which is so narrow that you supposedly have to press your ear to the cliff-face to climb it. Although this may seem like a joke, it is important to note that some of the paths on Mount Hua, such as the infamous Plank Road, are notoriously treacherous. The government has tried to put in as many safety measures as it can to make them safer but it is advised that you take the risks into careful consideration before venturing out onto the more dangerous paths. Historically there have been fatalities on these paths when visitors have not been careful or not heeded the warnings.

The West Peak is called the Lotus Flower Peak because there is a Taoist Temple there called Cuiyun Palace which has a huge rock in front of it that looks like a lotus flower. There are seven other rocks by Cuiyun Palace that are supposedly the site where the legendary hero Chenxiang ripped the mountain apart to save his mother, the Heavenly Goddess San Sheng Mu, in the folktale “The Magic Lotus Lantern”.

The East Peak, also known as Facing Sun Peak, is the best place to watch the sunrise and takes approximately 4 to 6 hours to climb. It is home to the famous Immortal’s Palm Peak mentioned earlier. Immortal Palm’s Peak is ranked as one of the Eight Scenic Wonders of the Guanzhong Area and is so-called because of the natural rock veins on the cliff, which look like a giant handprint and were supposedly caused by the deity Juling when he fell from heaven.

As early as the 2nd century B.C., it was recorded that a Taoist temple named the Shrine of the Western Peak rested at the base of the mountain. Taoists believed that the god of the underworld lived inside the mountain and this temple was used primarily by spirit mediums to contact this god and his underlings. Unlike Mount Taishan, which attracted many pilgrims, Mount Hua only seemed to attract Imperial pilgrims or local pilgrims due to its relative inaccessibility. Historically this earned it the reputation of being a retreat only for the hardiest of hermits, regardless of what religion they followed, as only those who were particularly strong-willed or spiritually enlightened could master the treacherous climb. Nowadays there are a number of temples and religious structures littered throughout the mountain, including a Taoist temple atop the Southern Peak that has been converted into a teahouse. At the foot of the mountain you’ll also find Xinyue Temple and the Jade Spring Temple. The sheer number of temples and religious constructions on and around the mountain demonstrate just how spiritually significant it is.

With all of the myths, history and spirituality behind it, Mount Hua has truly lived up to its reputation as one of the Five Great Mountains of China. When climbing the mountain and visiting the many temples on its peaks, you’re guaranteed not only beautiful scenic views but also a sense of spiritual calmness.

Xinyue Temple

Xinyue Temple rests at the bottom of Mount Hua. It was built to honour the god that is believed to live inside the mountain and was constructed during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 24 A.D.). Its stunning appearance and monumental size have earned it the name “The Forbidden City of Shaanxi Province”. Important scenic spots in Xinyue Temple include Haoling Gate, Five-Phoenix Pavilion, Lingxing Gate, Golden City Gate, Haoling Palace, the Emperor’s Study, and Longevity Pavilion. In the Five-Phoenix Pavilion there is a place called the Small Steles Forest where there are many impressive steles[3], including one of the most famous steles in the world: the Huashan Monument.

The Jade Spring Temple (Yuquan Temple)

The Jade Spring Temple is a Taoist temple that rests at the foot of Mount Hua. Its main function is to hold Taoist activities and to allow its monks to practice Taoism. It was built by Jia Desheng during the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127) to honour his teacher Chen Tuan[4] (871 – 989). Its name originates from a charming tale about a girl named the Golden Fairy Princess. Supposedly the Golden Fairy Princess was washing her hair beside the Jade Well on Mount Hua when she accidentally dropped her beautiful jade hair clasp into the well. She searched far and wide for her precious hair clasp but to no avail. Miraculously, as she was washing her hands with the spring water at the temple, she found her lost jade hair clasp. Since this spring was connected to the Jade Well, the princess decided to name the temple the Jade Spring Temple. Important scenic spots at this temple include the Long Corridor of Seventy-two Windows, which is a unique construction among Taoist temples across China.

[1] Duke Mu of Qin: He was the fourteenth ruler of the Zhou Dynasty State of Qin.

[2] Tsung-hsiao: A kind of Chinese flute that is held vertically rather than horizontally.

[3] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

[4] Chen Tuan: He was a famous scholar and hermit of the Quanzhen branch of Taoism. He helped to combine elements of Quietism, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, which greatly aided the development of neo-Confucianism.

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Dianchi Lake

With a nickname like the “Sparkling Pearl Embedded in the Highland”, you know that Dianchi Lake has a serious reputation to live up to. It is a freshwater fault lake nestled at the foot of the mountains just south of Kunming and stands at an impressive 1,886 metres (6,189 ft.) above sea level. It covers a total area of just under 300 square kilometres (115 sq. mi), making it nearly as large as the entire country of Malta and ranking it as the eighth largest lake in China. It stretches 39 kilometres (24 mi) from north to south and 13 kilometres (8 mi) from east to west, with an average depth of 4.4 metres (14 ft.). So, unless you’re a professional basketball player or an Olympic swimmer, we strongly recommend you stick to a boat when navigating this watery behemoth!

Its natural banks have been formed by mountains and four hills rise in each direction, giving the lake a truly picturesque appearance. There’s the Jinma or Golden Horse Hill in the east, the Biji or Jade Rooster Hill in the west, the Baihe or White Crane Hill in the south, and the Sheshan or Snake Hill in the north. The mystical names and ethereal quality of these hills give the lake the appearance of an otherworldly paradise, particularly when you catch sight of the stunning scenery reflected in its waters.

Unfortunately, pollution has rendered the lake water undrinkable and it is currently ranked at Grade V, the lowest water purification level, meaning it is unfit for agricultural or industrial use. Though this pollution has caused the lake’s fish population to wane, fishermen still ply their trade on these crystal clear waters in much the same way as their ancestors did over one hundred years ago and it is still possible to swim in designated parts of the lake.

The history of the lake is delicately intertwined with the history of Yunnan itself. Throughout the Yuan (1271-1368) and early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the alluvial plain at the north of the lake was extensively irrigated to provide farmland for locals. However, evidence suggests that the lake may have been settled by farmers as early as the 2nd century BC! It was once the capital of the Dian Kingdom (500-109 BC), an independent state that eventually became part of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), and was also subsequently the centre of the Nanzhao (738-902) and Dali (937-1253) Kingdoms. With such a regal background, it’s no wonder people regard Dianchi as a pearl in the Yunnan countryside.

Along the lake, you’ll find a number of attractions that are sure to delight you. Daguan Park is bursting with beautiful rock gardens, elegant pavilions and sturdy bridges, with the Daguan Pavilion at its centre. The pavilion was built in 1828 and has one of the most famous Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) couplets engraved upon it. This couplet is 180 characters long and is thus one of the longest couplets in Chinese history, brimming with poetic grace and imbued with historical significance.

The White Fish Park on the west bank of the lake is so named for a small hill, which looks like a white fish opening its mouth. This park is characterised by its verdant gardens and is particularly beautiful during spring, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom and the crisp white sails of fishing boats can be seen far off in the distance.

dianchi lake 04At Haigeng Bank, Dianchi’s south bank, visitors can walk among the slender willow trees gently billowing in the breeze and take advantage of the natural swimming pool that is set up there during summer. Nearby you’ll find the Yunnan Folk Customs Village, where tourists can learn more about the resident Bai, Yi, and Dai ethnic minorities. With all of these wonderful attractions on offer, Dianchi Lake isn’t just any lake; it’s practically a theme park!

The Cangshan Mountains

A long time ago, the Plague God terrorised the city of Dali and its people suffered from endless calamity. In order to save them from this pestilence, a brother and sister from the tribe went far away to study magic. When they returned, they were so skilled in the arcane arts that they were able to banish the Plague God to the top of the Cangshan Mountains. When he reached the highest peak, he froze solid. The sister transformed into the God of Snow, settled on Xueren Peak, and vowed to keep him at bay. She is the one who keeps the mountains capped with snow year round so that he never thaws out.

From Malong, with its 4,122-metre-high summit, to Cangshan’s other 18 peaks, which each reach heights of over 3,500 metres, this mountain range is not for the faint of heart. Scaling its peaks entails hours of arduous struggle, scrabbling up the rock and beating back the sweltering heat. Or you could just take the cable car! Two cable cars operate on Cangshan and provide easy access to its peaks. The mountain range itself is massive, with plenty of natural and manmade attractions to fill an entire day, but how you choose to take advantage of it is up to you!

Cangshan has garnered great fame as the only place in Dali where you can see the city’s Four Famous Scenes; wind, flowers, snow, and the moon. Of course you can’t actually see the wind, but on top of those lofty mountains you can certainly feel it! It boasts a diverse plant population, with over 3,000 plant species thriving on its peaks. Eighteen streams run between the peaks and provide ample water to the verdant flora and dense forests. The mountains’ great elevation means that, in spite of the temperate climate, they are perpetually capped in snow, and the moonlight reflected off of their silvery summits is considered a sight unmatched throughout Yunnan.

Yet all of these delights pale in comparison to Cangshan’s most exciting feature; the clouds! The clouds above Cangshan are notoriously changeable, and can go from silky white to ink black in a matter of minutes. Several cloud formations, including the Yudai Cloud, which looks like a fairy holding a jade belt, and the Wangfu Cloud, which looks like a wife expectantly waiting for her husband, are so common that they have even been named.

According to local legend, the Wangfu Cloud is actually the spirit of Ah Feng, a princess of the ancient Nanzhao Kingdom. She fell in love with a poor hunter named Ah Long, but when her father discovered the two together he had Ah Long killed and thrown into Erhai Lake. Ah Feng died of a broken heart and her soul floated up into the sky, where it waits patiently for her lover to return. So you see, there’s more to clouds than meets the eye. If you look hard enough, you may even see the spirit of that goldfish you once flushed down the toilet!

If you plan on hiking up the mountains, we recommend first heading from Dali Ancient Town to Zhonghe Temple. You can either take the cable car, which takes about half an hour, or hike on foot, which takes between 2 to 3 hours. Zhonghe Temple is the only place on the mountain range with a restaurant and stores where you can replenish your supplies, and also acts as a nexus for many of the hiking paths. If you fancy a steady hike, we recommend the Cloud Pass, which starts at the temple and is 20 kilometres long but is well-signposted, reasonably flat and has been paved. It leads to several streams, winds around many of the peaks, and even leads to three of the temples on the mountain, including Inaction Temple and Qingbi Temple.

The best time to visit Cangshan is late summer to early autumn, so that you avoid the rainy season but still benefit from the warm weather. However, the weather is extremely changeable on the mountains so we strongly recommend you carry warm clothes with you. Be sure to prepare enough food, water and other supplies, as the hike to the nearest store is a long one and the last thing you want is to end up nibbling on the grass!

Zhenyuan Ancient Town

The history of Zhenyuan Ancient Town stretches back over 2,000 years. It is located on the eastern edge of the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau and is sheltered in the lush, green mountains of Guizhou. Zhenyuan was instated as a county in 202 B.C. by Emperor Gaozu and has remained an important part of Guizhou’s history ever since. However, as a tourist attraction, it has yet to receive the accolades that it deserves. It is a melting pot of Dong, Miao and Han ethnicities, meaning its architecture exhibits features and styles from many different cultures. It is home to a stunning sequence of temples known as Qilong or Black Dragon Cave and boasts the finest section of the Wuyang River, yet few tourists outside of Guizhou visit Zhenyuan or even know of its existence. Zhenyuan is a pearl hidden within the mountains; an “Oriental Venice”.

The town is relatively small and only covers approximately 3 square kilometres (about 1.2 square miles). It was once one of the major transport and trade hubs in Guizhou, as it was easily accessed via the Wuyang River. The river itself winds through the town and splits it in half, effectively dividing it into two parts. The south part of the town is called “Old Wei Town”, with “wei” meaning “fortification”, and the north part of the town is called “Old Fu Town”, with the “fu” meaning “government”. Zhenyuan is a water town, with many boats still traversing its water, and thus has earned the name the “Oriental Venice”. It is also one of the best places to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, which takes place on May 25th according to the Chinese lunar calendar. They hold a dragon boat race on the Wuyang River every year, where long, elaborately decorated dragon boats are paddled to the beat of a large drum and race one another down the crystal clear river.

Black Dragon Cave (Qilong Cave)

Black Dragon Cave’s name can be quite misleading, as it is not actually a cave at all. It is a complex of ancient temples that slowly climb their way up the side of Zhonghe Mountain, just to the east of Zhenyuan Ancient Town. The temple complex covers a monumental area of about 21,000 square metres (approximately 220,000 square feet). The temples were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and have managed to outlast two wars without sustaining much damage. They have been renovated since, but still maintain a lot of their original features and character.

The complex is made up of temples dedicated to Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism and, since all of the buildings adhere to the architectural styles of their respective religions, the complex is a myriad of elaborate styles and designs that make it relatively unique amongst temples in China. The complex encompasses a few, particularly attractive sites such as Zhusheng Bridge, Zhongyuan Temple, Ziyang Shuyuan or the Academy of Classical Learning, the Longevity Palace, and Yuhuang Ge or the Jade Emperor Pavilion. The temple complex is said to appear like a beautiful stone garden clinging to the mountainside of Mount Zhonghe.

The National Wuyang Scenic Area

The Wuyang River flows 95 kilometres (59 miles) through the Miaoling Mountains, all the way from Huangping to Zhenyuan, and eventually joins the Yuanjing River in Hunan province. Three distinct scenic spots in Zhenyuan, Shibing and Huangping counties, known as the National Wuyang Scenic Area, have become famous tourist attractions, of which the scenic area in Zhenyuan is considered to be the most beautiful. Visitors can either walk along the river or take a relaxing, scenic cruise. Traveling downstream, the towering peaks and glittering clear waters will undoubtedly make you feel at peace and provide the perfect opportunity for some nature photography. As you traverse the Wuyang River, you’ll come across various scenic spots that have been given fanciful names based on their appearance or on legends related to that spot.

The Wuyang Three Gorges are the most magnificent section of this scenic area. This is a 35-kilometre waterway that is made up of the Dragon King Gorge, the East Gorge and the West Gorge. Amongst these three gorges you’ll find powerful waterfalls crashing into the river, mysterious caves, the gentle gurgling of springs and the jagged figures of rocks emerging from the karst mountainsides. It is truly breath-taking to witness and we strongly recommend you take advantage of one of the local cruises in order to make the most of this scenic spot. It is said to be as spectacular as the Yangtze River Three Gorges and as mystical as the Li River in Guilin.

On top of Black Dragon Cave and Wuyang Scenic Area, Zhenyuan is also home to an unlikely scenic spot of great historical significance. At the northwest edge of the town, you’ll find Shiping Mountain, which acts as the entrance to one of the southernmost sections of the Great Wall. Unlike the Badaling section of the Great Wall in Beijing, this 3-kilometre stretch of the Great Wall has not been renovated and is largely in ruins but is none-the-less beautiful. It was built during the late Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and from its perch on Mount Shiping it provides a breath-taking view of the surrounding countryside.

Compared to most small towns in Guizhou, Zhenyuan is relatively easy to get to. There are direct trains from Guiyang to Zhenyuan that take about 4 to 5 hours and from there the ancient part of the town is about a 10 minute drive from the train station. There are also regular trains from Kaili City to Zhenyuan, which only take about 2 hours, and also a few long haul buses from Kaili to Zhenyuan. Once you’re in Zhenyuan, there are plenty of guesthouses on the waterfront that are reasonably priced and offer a wonderful view of the Wuyang River.

Yangshuo

Yangshuo is a small town tucked away in the Karst Mountains of Guangxi, yet it has become something of an anomaly in China. By ratio, Yangshuo boasts one of the largest populations of English speaking Chinese people and foreign expats in the whole country. As a matter of fact, some locals say it even rivals Beijing and Shanghai as an international hub. Nestled amongst the verdant mountains and beside the rippling waters of the Li River, Yangshuo is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in Guangxi. It is an ideal place to start any tour of China, since the abundance of English speakers and balanced mixture of Western and Eastern influences makes it an easy introduction to the country.

The name “Yangshuo” derives from the Chinese words “yang” (阳) and “shuo” (朔). “Yang” is the well-known antagonist to “yin” in Taoist philosophy and symbolises positivity, masculinity and light. “Shuo” means “new moon” in Chinese, so the implication is that, night or day, Yangshuo is one of the brightest places on earth. Considering how modern Yangshuo has become, the town has a history that stretches back over 1,000 years. It was founded in 265 A.D., during the Jin Dynasty (265-420), and in 590, during the Sui Dynasty (581-618), the county seat was moved from Xingping to Yangshuo. It has remained the county town ever since, although it is still under the administrative control of Guilin city.

On top of the resident expat population, there is also a substantial constituency of native ethnic minorities, such as the Yao, Hui, Zhuang, and Miao people. This ethnic diversity means that the souvenirs, performances and cuisine on offer in Yangshuo are particularly varied. Stalls featuring Tibetan silver, Dong embroidered cloth, and Miao batik abound throughout the streets of Yangshuo. These little handcrafted trinkets make perfect souvenirs or mementos. There are two main tourist streets, known as West Street and Diecuilu, and they boast the majority of the souvenir stalls. Since the town is located deep within the countryside, there are also numerous fruit and vegetable farms in the vicinity. As you walk down the streets of Yangshuo, you’ll be met with a plethora of fresh fruits you may have never tried before, such as mouth-watering mangosteens, dubious smelling durian, and tantalising persimmons.

Yangshuo was first put on the map by Lonely Island in 1980 when they featured it in their travel guide. Since then, it has remained incredibly popular with foreign and domestic tourists alike. The landscape in Yangshuo has become so popular that it even featured in the movie Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith as Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk and also featured as a level in the landmark 1993 video game Doom. The image of the Li River on the 20 yuan note is also very close to Yangshuo and so, if you don’t fancy taking the long cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo, travelling directly to Yangshuo to visit the site is far quicker.

Not only is Yangshuo a perfect place to tour the Karst Mountains and the Li River, it is also a popular cycling and rock-climbing destination. As few public buses travel into the countryside, cycling is the ideal method of exploring Yangshuo County and visiting several of the tourist attractions, such as Moon Hill and Big Banyan. You can hire mountain bikes in the town centre for between 20 to 70 yuan (£2 to £7) per day depending on the condition of the bicycle. If you opt for one of the cheaper bicycles, we recommend you check the brakes and suspension before you agree to rent it.

In 1992, American rock climber Todd Skinner first popularised Yangshuo when he pioneered a number of the now established climbing routes, including the “Moonwalker” on the arch of Moon Hill. Nowadays there are plenty of tourist services in Yangshuo that focus exclusively on rock climbing and, with over 200 climbing routes in the vicinity, you’ll be spoilt for choice! Low Mountain, Twin Gates, Baby Frog, The Egg, Bamboo Grove and Wine Bottle Cliff are just a few examples of the scenic climbing spots on offer.

Thanks to the Western expats now living in Yangshuo, the town boasts a variety of Western-style restaurants, cafés and bars that you won’t find in other Chinese towns. The food on offer in most of these restaurants is of a good standard and can provide a much needed rest from Chinese food if you’ve been travelling around the country for too long. Although most places close around 2am, Yangshuo boasts some of the most exciting nightlife in Guangxi. Many hostels will have their own bars and, coupled with the established bars and nightclubs in the town, this makes for a lively and unique atmosphere in the evenings. These hostel bars provide a wonderful opportunity to meet other travellers and backpackers on your journey.

Since the town has been geared up for tourism, there are plenty of hostels and hotels in Yangshuo. Prices and standards can range greatly between them, so we recommend doing some research before you book one. In spite of its popularity with foreign tourists, Yangshuo is not the easiest place to get to. There is no airport or train station in Yangshuo, so you must travel there either by bus or by boat. A boat cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo can take upwards of 4 to 5 hours and is quite expensive, but is worth it for the spectacular views along the Li River. Otherwise, express buses run from Guilin Bus Station to Yangshuo every 10 to 20 minutes and take just under an hour. There are also buses running from Guilin Train Station to Yangshuo every 5 to 10 minutes but these take just under 2 hours.

The Longji Rice Terraces

Although rice terraces wind their way around mountains throughout China, the Longji Rice Terraces are considered to be the most magnificent of them all. They are located in Longsheng County, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) outside of Guilin, and are sometimes referred to as the Longsheng Rice Terraces. The word “longji” means “dragon’s backbone” and these rice terraces earned their unusual name because the terraced fields climbing up the mountain look like dragons’ scales whilst the summit of the mountain range resembles a dragon’s backbone. This gives you an idea as to the sheer scale of these rice terraces.

These terraced fields were all manmade and were first built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), although many of them weren’t completed until the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The majority of them were built over 650 years ago by the Zhuang and Yao ethnic minorities, and are still in use today. They stretch from the riverside right to the summit of the mountains, ranging from between 300 metres to 800 metres above sea level. In some cases, the terraced fields reach heights of approximately 1,100 metres above sea level. They cover a colossal area of 66 square kilometres (25 square miles), which is about three times the size of London Heathrow Airport.

The rice terraces were initially designed to make use of land that was previously thought too difficult to plough. By flattening small surfaces of the mountain, farmers were able to plough them and, via a particularly ingenious irrigation system, pump water into the ploughed fields so that rice could be grown there. This method is still widely used by farmers to this day and the Longji Rice Terraces are no exception. The rice terraces are farmed by the people of Ping’an Village, Longji Ancient Zhuang Village, and the Jinkeng cluster of Red Yao villages. This means that, no matter what season you travel to the rice terraces, you’ll be met with a unique and beautiful sight. When asked which season is the best to visit the terraces, most locals will respond by saying every season is the most beautiful.

In spring, the terraced fields are flooded with water in preparation for the planting of rice seedlings. The crystal clear pools glitter up the sides of the mountain and reflect the flawless blue skies and wandering clouds. In summer, the rice stalks have begun to grow and the mountains are awash with verdant greenery. The lush jade hues of the rice terraces as they trickle down the mountain are amplified by the warm sunlight. In autumn, the rice stalks have turned a golden-brown and are ready to be harvested. The mountains look as though they have been plated with pure gold and rival the magnificence of Beijing’s Forbidden City. In winter, the terraces are left to recover and are covered in a thin blanket of snow. These snowy ribbons running along the mountains resemble white dragons racing each other upstream.

We recommend you plan your visit to the terraces around the seasons so that you get the view you most desire. The terraces are open year round but you do have to pay to enter them. There are three main entrances to the rice terraces: one at Ping’an Village, one at Longji Ancient Zhuang Village, and one at Dazhai Village, which is part of the cluster of Jinkeng villages. From there, you will be given a small pamphlet about the rice terraces and a rudimentary map of the various hikes you can take along them. Most of the paths are well signposted, so you need only follow the maps displayed at various intervals if you happen to lose your map. If you’re still feeling unsure about the hike, you can hire a private guide or, in some cases, there will be some older local women waiting at the entrance who can speak enough English to act as your tour guide.

The hike from Ping’an to the summit takes about 2 hours but the hikes from the Jinkeng cluster of villages can take slightly longer. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even hike from Ping’an to the Jinkeng villages, which takes about 3 hours. If you plan on spending longer than a day at the rice terraces, then there are some more advanced hikes that can take several hours and will reward you with access to the less tourist oriented parts of the mountains. However, if you plan on taking simply a daytrip to the rice terraces, you need to plan carefully as the last buses to Longsheng leave around 4.30pm, so it is recommended you aim to leave the scenic area by about 3pm.

If you’re having trouble choosing which villages to visit, there’s no need to worry! We’ve dedicated a group of articles to describing the benefits and pitfalls of each of the villages that give access to the rice terraces, from the larger village of Ping’an right through to the small Red Yao village of Huangluo.

Guilin

In China, there is a popular saying which goes “the scenery in Guilin is the greatest under heaven” (桂林山水甲天下). So beautiful are the Karst Mountains around Guilin that, when the Song Dynasty poet Fan Chengda sent paintings of them back to his colleagues, they could not believe what they saw. The name “Guilin” (桂林) is comprised of two characters: “gui”, which means “osmanthus”, and “lin”, which means “forest”. “Guilin” can therefore be translated to mean the “Forest of Sweet Osmanthus” and the city is so named thanks to the prolific number of osmanthus trees that keep the streets and parks smelling so sweet. The lush Karst Mountains, blossoming osmanthus trees, and majestic Li River combine to make an ethereal paradise. It is no wonder people doubted its existence!

Guilin is a prefecture-level city in the north of Guangxi and is the third largest city in the region, after Nanning and Liuzhou respectively. The city has a population of nearly 5 million people. It is important to bear in mind that Beijing’s population is over double that of Guilin so, by Chinese standards, Guilin is a relatively small city. It is also home to 14 different ethnic minorities, including Zhuang, Yao, Miao, Dong, and Bai people, to name but a few. This thriving community of Han Chinese, non-Chinese and various ethnic minorities means that Guilin is one of the more culturally diverse cities in China. Surrounding the city, Karst Mountains loom up from 100 metres at their lowest to over to 2,100 metres at the peak of Kitten Mountain, the tallest peak in the south of China. This is the source of the Li River; a water-body so magnificent that it was deemed worthy to be printed on the 20 yuan note.

The Li River is not only a thriving tourist attraction; it was the very reason why Guilin was initially settled. In 314 B.C. a small settlement was established on the banks of the Li River. In 111 B.C., during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), Shi’an County was established on what is considered to be the site of modern-day Guilin. Thanks to the Li River, this county town was developed into a transportation hub during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, as the river was the only way to transport goods from Central China to South China at that time. In 1921 it became one of the main headquarters for the Northern Expeditionary Army led by Sun Yat-sen[1] but it wasn’t until 1940 that it was finally named Guilin. In 1981, the State Council listed Guilin, alongside Beijing, Hangzhou and Suzhou, as one of the four cities where the preservation of historical and culture heritage and the protection of natural scenery should be treated with paramount importance.

As you can see, on top of being an area of great natural beauty, Guilin significantly influenced the development of China, and its many attractions reflect this. Jingjiang Princes’ City, Guilin Art Museum, Guilin Museum, and the Li River Folk Custom Centre are just a few of the many places where you can learn about Guilin’s rich heritage. There are also a number of charming parks in the city, such as Black Hill Botanic Garden, Seven Star Park, and West Hill Park, where you can while away a peaceful afternoon and admire the many osmanthus trees. Aside from these wonderful local attractions, Guilin has become popular with tourists primarily because it is only a short trip away from some of the most magnificent places in Guangxi, such as Yangshuo County Town, Daxu Ancient Town, and the Longji Rice Terraces. From ancient transportation centre to modern-day tourist hub, Guilin has always been the heart of Guangxi.

[1] Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925): A Chinese revolutionary who played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, abolishing imperial rule and founding the People’s Republic of China.

Enjoy the fantastic land view in Guilin on our travel: Explore the culture of Ethnic minorities in Southeast Guizhou

Elephant Trunk Hill

If you visit the city of Guilin, you will undoubtedly come across elephants. Whether they are in a business’ logo, a restaurant’s name, or on the front of a travel brochure, elephants have become a symbol of Guilin, and this is all thanks to Elephant Trunk Hill. Locals in Guilin say that if you have been to Elephant Trunk Hill then you have been to Guilin, which shows just how important this natural wonder is to the city and its people. Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbi Hill) is a Karst formation that has naturally formed on the western bank of the Li River just outside of Guilin city. It is so named because it looks like a thirsty elephant dipping its trunk into the river to drink. It rises over 55 metres over the waters of the Li River and measures 108 metres in length and 100 metres in width. In the past, it has been referred to by many names, such as “Li Hill”, “Yi Hill”, and “Chenshui Hill”, but it is now widely known as Elephant Trunk Hill.

Between the “trunk” and the “legs” of the elephant, there is a large hole or cave known as Shui Yue or Water Moon Cave. It is a semi-round cave that has been completely penetrated by water, with the Li River flowing directly through it. The cave is 17 metres long, 12 metres high and 9.5 metres wide, meaning visitors can easily pass through the mouth of the cave on foot. Though this stunning cave is undoubtedly a beautiful sight during the day, it becomes most magnificent at dusk and nightfall. When the sun begins to set, the surrounding rock around the Water Moon Cave casts a shadow on the water and light can only pass directly through the cave itself. The light passing through the open mouth of the cave creates a reflection on the water that looks just like a full moon, hence the name “Water Moon Cave”.

This natural phenomenon is unique to Water Moon Cave and has served to inspire Chinese poets and artists throughout the ages. If you travel into the mouth of the cave, you’ll find inscriptions on its walls applauding its beauty that date back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Among these inscriptions, there is even one by the poet Lu You (1125-1210), who was one of the four great poets of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).

There is another, smaller cave embedded into the side of Elephant Trunk Hill that is often referred to as Elephant Eye Cave. It is so-called because it goes straight through the hill and is just above the “trunk” of the elephant, making it look like the “eyes” of the elephant. This cave is about 2 metres high, 5 to 10 metres wide and 52 meters long. Visitors can climb Elephant Trunk Hill to Elephant Eye Cave and are rewarded with a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape from the cave. If you’re an avid photographer and are feeling adventurous, we strongly recommend scaling the heights of the hill to reach Elephant Eye Cave, as it provides many unique photographic opportunities.

Far off in the distance, on the elephant’s “back”, you may notice a small pagoda jutting out of the lush greenery. This is a 14 metre-high, two-storey pagoda called Puxian Pagoda, which was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is dedicated to an enlightened being or bodhisattva from the Buddhist faith known as Samantabhadra or Puxian in Chinese. Some people believe it looks like a beautiful vase on the elephant’s back, while others reckon it looks more like the hilt of a sword, and there is in fact a rather tragic legend behind the placement of this pagoda.

The legend goes that, in ancient times, the Emperor of Heaven decided he wanted to conquer Earth. The Emperor led his troops to Earth while riding on the back of a mystical elephant. However, the strain of carrying the Emperor so far proved too much for the elephant and he became seriously ill. The local farmers nursed the elephant back to health and as a gesture of his immense gratitude the elephant deserted the Emperor and stayed on Earth to helped the farmers plough their fields. On discovering the elephant’s betrayal, the Emperor flew into a murderous rage. One day, when the elephant was drinking from the Li River, the Emperor threw a sword into his back, which turned him to stone. The kind elephant, who is now the Elephant Trunk Hill, is said to still watch over the people of Guilin and welcome visitors to the city he loves so much. The pagoda was built on the site where the sword supposedly landed in the elephant’s back.

79年版伍拾圆-桂林象鼻山

Elephant Trunk Hill Park

In 1986, Elephant Trunk Hill Park was built on the banks of the river surrounding Elephant Trunk Hill. It’s location on the waterfront makes it the perfect place to relax. The park is elephant themed so dotted throughout the park you’ll find adorable stone elephant statues poking their heads out of the water or standing near the paths. The trails that wind throughout the park have been designed so that, from a bird’s eye view, they spell the Chinese character for elephant (象). Just offshore from Elephant Trunk Hill, there is a small island that visitors can access via a stone bridge, which has been delightfully carved and decorated with elephants. This island is called Love Island and, with its peaceful bamboo groves, beautiful stone statues, and ideal view of the river, it’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy some private time with that special someone.

There is also a temple of great cultural significance in the park called Yunfeng Temple, which was built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It is just southwest of Elephant Trunk Hill and is ranked as one of the four most famous temples in Guilin city. It had to be rebuilt in 1897 but is none-the-less magnificent. The temple has played an important political role in the area, being both the gathering place for the members of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1850-1864)[1] and one of the safe houses of Sun Yat-sen[2] and his followers during the Revolution of 1911. The temple is now open to the public and exhibits several wonderful historical and cultural artefacts that were found in the Guilin area.

Elephant Trunk Hill is easily accessible by road or by water. You can either take a cruise down the Li River, which will make a stop at Elephant Trunk Hill Park, or you can take one of many public buses from Guilin and get off at the Elephant Trunk Hill Park stop (象山公园站).

[1] Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: An oppositional state in China that was formed from 1851 to 1864 and controlled some parts of southern China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

[2] Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925): A Chinese revolutionary who played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, abolishing imperial rule and founding the People’s Republic of China.