Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Tales of Guilin and the Beautiful River


                                                           by Jim Goodman

tour boats on the Li River
       Guilin has been a tourist attraction for many centuries before the word ‘tourist’ was even coined.  Ancient poets lavished praise, calling it the most beautiful place under Heaven.  Artists journeyed there to make pictures of its incredible scenery of steep hills and weirdly shaped mountains.  In fact, too incredible, for the artists often found that back home people doubted their works were realistic portraits, not fantasized.  There was no landscape like that anywhere else in China, so they couldn’t be real.
Camel Hill, Guilin
       
      The paintings were not exaggerations, though, and the fanciful scenery is very real and the main attraction of the city.  Guilin straddles the Li Jiang—Beautiful River in English—with oddly shaped hills jutting up throughout the city, as well as all the way downriver south to Yangshuo and beyond.  The unique setting is what draws people, for Guilin has no old town to appreciate.   The Japanese occupied the city during the war and before they were forced to evacuate in 1944 they razed the entire city, destroying every building except their own headquarters.
       Guilin County lies in the northeast corner of Guangxi Autonomous Zhuang Province.  Guilin is a Han city, though, and the nearest minorities, mainly Miao and Dong, live a hundred kilometers away.  It lies on a completely flat plain, with several streams branching off the Li River to run through the city.  Ponds, some used for fishing, mottle the urban area as well.
Elephant Trunk Hill at night
       Residents enjoy an active social life.  On Binjianglu, a downtown street, crowds assemble for tai qi exercises and ballroom dancing.  At night the karaoke joints are popular, but also bars, restaurants and shops tend to stay open late and large numbers of people just like strolling around.  They can be quite friendly to foreigners, shouting “Hello” as they pass by, or stopping to practice their English. They are proud of their city and its beauty and appreciate it when visitors agree with them.  Restaurants serve the usual Chinese dishes, with an accent on fish from the river and eels, shrimps, snails and turtles from the ponds.  A couple of them also offer more exotic fare like rabbit or snake.
Single Beauty Peak in central Guilin
     
Guilin people are also familiar with how they got their marvelous mountains in the first place.   According to local mythology, long ago lived a ruler who called himself ‘King of All under Heaven.’  One night he had a dream of fighting the Dragon King of the South Sea and losing.  He then ordered his subjects to fill up the south Sea with dirt and stones from the mountains of central China.  As time passed and his subjects suffered, a goddess intervened and gave the people her special hairs that, when tied to a rock, moved it easily. 
       Suddenly the task seemed achievable.  Soon the King seized possession of the magic hairs and made a whip of them to move whole mountains faster.  The Dragon King began fretting.  But Shark Girl volunteered to go seduce the King and steal the whip.  She succeeded and so the moving hills stopped at Guilin.
Crystal Palace of the Dragon King, Reed Flute Cave 
       Many of the hills have names, sometimes because they resemble something else, like Camel Hill in the city’s southeast and Elephant Trunk Hill next to the river.  They may also have origin tales that include elements of Chinese myths or history.  An example of the former is the story of Single Beauty Peak, a very steep hill in the middle of the city.  It incorporates elements of the Weaving Maiden and the Cowherd, star-crossed lovers who are only allowed to meet once a year, when the cowherd crosses the Milky Way on a bridge of magpies.
Maitreya Buddha sculpture
       The Single Beauty Peak story begins when an official representing the Heavenly Emperor comes to a village with fine wooden houses and demands all the trees and house beams and posts for the construction of a celestial palace.  When the villagers refuse, a storm and fire ensue, destroying both forest and village.  Afterwards the hero Xiao Da plants a melon seed given him by two phoenixes that shoots out a vine that enables him to climb all the way to Heaven, where he meets the Cowherd just as he is about to cross the magpie bridge.
      Xiao Da also crosses over and happens upon the celestial palace under construction.  It is being made with the wood swept away by fire from his village.  He even finds a house post that he had inscribed his name upon and wants to take it back to earth.  He gets away with the post by cleverly distracting the Earth God guarding the site, crosses the magpie bridge and hastens down the vine.  But the latter then sends an eagle to split the vine and Xiao Da has to release the post.  He eventually splashes into river, while the post lands upright in the city center, where it remains today as the Single Beauty Peak.
poems and statues, Returned Pearl Cave
Guan Yin of 1280 arms
       Nearby Fupo Hill gets its name from an early Han Dynasty general Ma Yuan, nicknamed General Fupo--Restraining Wave.  After a tribal uprising in the area expelled the Chinese garrison and took over Guilin, Emperor Wu Di dispatched Ma Yuan to quell the rebellion, preferably at the least cost to lives.  Ma Yuan arranged a parley with the rebel leader Bo Yue and persuaded him to settle claims with an archery contest.  While Bo Yue made an impressive show of skill when it was his turn, Ma Yuan climbed Fupo Hill and shot an arrow that pierced the next hill and carried on a long way to land at the original Han-tribal border.   The hill where he stood now bears Ma Yuan’s nickname and the legend accounts for the open cleft in Pierced Hill.
sculptures carved from the rock at Returned Pearl Cave
       Other hills have origin tales to account for their shapes.  A father who waited in vain on the top of a hill for the return home of his prodigal son turned to stone and became Old Man Hill.  In the Elephant Trunk Hill story, a sick elephant abandoned by the emperor on his march through the area recovers its strength after treatment by sympathetic villagers.  In return he helps the people plow the fields.  When the emperor learns the animal has recovered he demands it return to the capital.  The elephant refuses, but eventually the emperor tricks it into drinking water while he stabs it from behind.  Instead of falling over, though, the elephant turns into stone.
       Walking around Guilin, every couple of blocks offers a fresh vista.  But if it’s a foggy or rainy day, one has the option of the subterranean scenery of its caves.  The biggest and most rewarding is Reed Flute Cave, within a hill across the Peach Blossom River past the northwest part of the city.  In the past, reeds grew here that people fashioned into flutes; hence, its name.
Li RIver near Xingping
      Along the passageway inside, stalagmites jut up from the ground in the shape of lions, mushrooms and breasts and the vertical fissures along the wall resemble waterfalls.   The trail terminates at a capacious cavern, said to be able to hold a thousand people, called the Crystal Palace of the Dragon King.  From the center of its smooth ceiling hangs a stalactite resembling a chandelier-like grouping of icicle-shaped rocks.  A broad pool lies below, bounded on the far side by stalagmites shaped like the hills along the Li River, a case of the inside aping the outside.
sunset near Xingping
       None of the other caves can match Reed Flute Cave for its rock formations.  But aome, even though basically long tunnels, are interesting for what man put into them, primarily religious sculptures and votive inscriptions.  One cave features Ming and Qing Dynasty free-standing statues of a Guan Yin with 1280 arms, a sage with incredibly long eyebrows, a stately Lao Zi and a corpulent Maitreya Buddha with children crawling over his belly. 
       In Returned Pearl Cave the sculptures are carved from the rock walls.  Also grouped near the tunnel entrance are flat carved slabs inscribed with ancient poems and Buddhist sutras.  In mythical times the cave was home to a dragon.  While it was out, a young fisherman found a pearl that lighted the whole cave and took it home so his mother could have light while she was sewing and mending clothes.  But she bade him take it back, because it didn’t belong to him.  He returned the pearl and the dragon later rewarded the youth with a magic needle to sew with and a lamp that never ran out of light.
Camel Crossinn the River near Xingping
       With a plethora of story-enhanced attractions, Guilin has long been geared up for the tourist business.  This means a broad range of accommodations, but also an annoying number of ubiquitous ticket booths.  City authorities even erected a thick stand of tall bamboos that blocked a view of Elephant Trunk Hill unless you paid for a ticket to step inside of it.  But the booth closed at night, when Elephant Trunk Hill, like a few other monuments, was illuminated.
       Despite the high prices, many visitors still take the half-day boat ride downriver to Yangshuo.  On this stretch the Beautiful River certainly lives up to its name.  Passengers marvel at the continuously changing shapes of hills, with exotic names like Beautiful Woman Peak, Fairy’s Pen, Expectant Husband, Mitten Mountain, Lion Riding a Carp and, near Xingping, 20 km north of Yangshuo, Camel Crossing the River. 
steep pinnacle on the Li River near Xingping
Xingping farmer going home
       Boats don’t stop at Xingping, but this picturesque river port is a short taxi or bicycle ride from Yangshuo and worth an overnight stay.  Sunsets can be quite stunning from here.  A hike upriver offers a delightful view of oddly shaped hills, including one at the river’s edge that rises straight up 90 degrees.  In the afternoon the tour boats return to Guilin, mostly without passengers, as the tour groups lunch in Yangshuo and go back to Guilin by minibuses.  Rice fields flank the hills, children play in the river and fishermen ride rafts of a few long bamboo poles tied together and cast nets.
Ylongshan, central Yangshuo
Li River scene near Xingping
       In the past people also used cormorants to catch fish.  They tied the bird’s neck so that it couldn’t swallow the fish it caught so they could remove it from the beak.  But the use of electric stun guns upstream to immobilize fish sharply reduced the fish population around Xingping and Yangshuo.  By the turn of the century fishing with cormorants was all but a memory, reduced to re-enactments at the request of tour groups.
Yangshuo
       Yangshuo, the tour boat terminus, is smaller than Guilin, but has an equally impressive setting.  Groups of stunning hills to the east and southeast cast their reflections in the river.  Steeply sloped hills like upright loaves of bread flank the town, while the more unusual Dragon Head Peak hems in the northern side of Yangshuo.  Green Lotus Peak towers over the southwest quarter and near the city’s central park stands Yulongshan, with a staircase ascending to a viewing pavilion a third of the way up the cliff and on to another pavilion at the top of the pinnacle.
       In terms of the tourist business, Yangshuo was always more oriented towards the budget traveler crowds, who tended to stay much longer than in Guilin.  Like Xingping, the rural atmosphere was a short walk from town, up river or down.  There was no two-tier pricing system, nor the abundance of ticket booths that wrought so many frowns on travelers’ faces in Guilin.  The people are friendly, just as proud of their city’s beauty as the folks in Guilin, and just as appreciative of the visitors who share that impression.
Moon Hill
       The hilly landscape continues downriver as well as along Li River tributaries.  The easiest and most enchanting excursion out of Yangshuo is to take a bicycle ride across the river to Moon Hill.  The road is flat and takes less than an hour, but that’s not counting inevitable stops to admire the scenery.  It is especially gorgeous along the Yulong River, which branches off from the Li Jiang a little past the bridge, with small hills whose sides rise perpendicular to the rice fields around them
       Further on is a park featuring a gigantic banyan tree and from here is a view of a distant mountain with an oval crevice in it (also the result of Ma Yuan’s arrow?).  Less than two km ahead is Moon Hill, the most famous mountain with a hole in it.  The opening here is just below the rounded summit, in a shape resembling a six-day setting moon.  Through the hole, or from the top of the pathway to the summit above it, a wide cluster of peaks of sundry shapes and sizes stands in the distance, beckoning the bold traveler to further discoveries of odd peaks, timeless rural atmospheres and perhaps another set of origin tales that explain the unique landscape.

rural landscape north of Xingping

                                                                        * * *                        

1 comment: