Published: Verve Magazine, Travel, January 2007
Sitanshi Talati-Parikh lets her imagination fly in this southern China town, dominated by winding waterways and pre-historic caves
I play an interesting game in my mind: I’m a small girl living on the river banks of the Lijiang, growing up amidst the silhouettes of the hills that aspire to be mountains and call a little hut by the riverside home, with the bare minimum required for life. Patched clothes, scraggy knees, strong limbs and a smile that could ride the peaks.
I scamper along the foggy river, watching the karsts (limestone hills) swim by, and discover a home amongst the pagoda-capped Elephant Trunk Hill and Chuanshan (hill with a hole). Coming close to the Erlang Gorge, I look for the nine horses in the famous Picture Hill. At Huangbu (Yellow Cloth) Beach, I am bathed in chrome hues, as the river widens and you can see seven graceful peaks that resemble seven serene young girls. The legendary Xingping Wonderland soon begins and the Caishi Hill, with thick bamboo groves, emerges steadily in front of the ancient town.
Time does fly and so does the imagination. This river is what dreams, verse and myriad paintings are made of. You can wind around the jade ribbon forever, lying awake in mystical anticipation of a life that is so removed from the real world until you are rudely awakened by salesmen. They slide alongside the river cruiser on scanty wooden rafts, knocking on windows, reaching out to the balcony, selling their curios and haggling in a language that needs no language. Jade sculptures, hand-painted Chinese fans, Beijing 2008 Olympics T-shirts. Commercialisation hits even the most serene locations.
The cruise stops at the vibrant market town, Yangshuo, brimming with little stores and cobbled restaurants that can simply swallow tourists up. In comparison, the town of Guilin (an hour’s flight from Shanghai) is charming and contained. A different sort of life flows here, by the riverside, with restaurants, bars and trendy boutique shops, hugging the embankment. As I stroll down later that night on the Zhengyang Pedestrian Street, the walking street in the main city centre, I feel like a tourist who has come home. Picking up the latest style accessories fashioned by local brands or grabbing a martini and pizza at an open-air restaurant, sipping to the sounds of live pop music lends the city an international flavour.
Located in the north-east of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, this southern China town is famous not only for its beautiful hills and waterways, but also for its extraordinary caves. I munch on a fresh sugarcane stalk and eye the baked sweet potato stalls at the foothill of the Reed Flute Cave. The cave, though spectacular in its limestone formations, appears ethereal due to clever lighting effects. The Seven-Star-Rock Cave, deriving its name from the neighbouring peaks that bear resemblance to the Great Bear constellation, is as interesting as the geological finds in the Stone Museum.
The people of Guilin are nothing if not imaginative. They see patterns and figures and count symbols amongst all the garrulous formations and mountains. Caves that speak of a different time are all nestled in these hills, hewn with imagery and Buddhist sculptures. Their creativity spans into their handicrafts, the beautiful spun silks, the inviting pearls and the clever marketing skills of those who sell these wares.
As I breakfast on the famous Guilin rice noodles, I learn to savour the flavours of the region and the sauce that is made from over 30 special Chinese herbs. The stir-fried and steamed cuisine is known for its sweetness and delicate use of spice and chilli. Despite my brave palate, I am wary of the wild plants and animals, which often find their way into the food of the region like the huge jar of snake wine on our cruiser!