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72 Hours in Guilin

China has been rolling out a new 72-hour transit visa exemption policy in major cities throughout the country, making visiting China even easier. Now travelers from the U.S., Canada, and 49 other countries can include China as an additional destination on an existing trip without needing to get a visa. Under the policy, visitors are able to enter select Chinese cities for up to 72 hours without a visa, as long as they have a booked plane ticket to a third country or region within the 72-hour time period. This applies to the cities of Beijing, ShanghaiGuangzhou, Chengdu, ChongqingShenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, GuilinKunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Tianjin. China continues to expand this policy to additional locations throughout the destination. In the meantime, these cities are the ideal stopovers or add-on destinations for travelers already in Asia.

Guilin is a picturesque city in the northeastern area of south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It sits on the Lijiang River (or, more simply, the Lijiang or Li River – since “jiang” means “river” in Chinese). The stunning landscape of Guilin is as magical as it is varied, from impressive craggy rock Karst pinnacles that create a striking skyline, to bamboo and conifer forests with enchanting caves, and from the banks of the Li River to the breathtaking terraced fields. Guilin is also an important cultural center, with a political and economic history dating back more than 2,000 years to the Northern Song Dynasty. Now that you can visit Guilin for up to 72 hours without getting a visa, the only question is what you want to see and do while there. Here are some of the top sites and activities in Guilin to make the most of your 72-hour trip.

Li River

The Li River is truly the lifeblood of the Guilin area. It serves as a tranquil backdrop for dazzling natural surrounds, as a means of transport, and as an excellent way to tour the region. The Li River flows from north to south, passing through Guilin city, Yangshuo County, and on through several other counties until it meets the West River in Wuzhou. The river cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo is a highlight of any trip to this area, where visitors can soak in views of Karst-formation hills, cliffs, and caves, as well as quaint villages and terraced paddies flanking the peaceful waters of the Lijiang. The reflections of this scenery onto the Li’s surface have been the inspiration for centuries of artwork, and make for a stunning view, whether traveling through the area by car, bicycle or boat. Local people and wildlife can be seen along the Li River as well: Traditional fishermen in the area train cormorant birds to dive underwater and search for fish, returning their catches to the fisherman’s boat or raft (in exchange for their own snack later). Buffalo are also sometimes seen grazing along the riverbanks. Most cruises start from the dock south of the Liberation Bridge in Guilin’s downtown area, or from the Bamboo River Dock (also called Zhujiang Wharf, about 40 minutes outside Guilin city) or Millstone Hill Dock. Cruises usually take between four and five hours.

Elephant Trunk Hill

One of the most famous scenic spots in Guilin is Elephant Trunk Hill, a massive limestone formation located on the western bank of the Li River at its junction with the Peach Blossom River. This spot gets its name from the shape of the rock formation, which looks like a giant elephant dipping its trunk into the river. There are many interesting sites and lookouts at Elephant Trunk Hill: One such site is Water Moon Cave (Shui Yue Dong), which is located between the “trunk” of the elephant and its legs. It is named Water Moon Cave because on moonlit nights, the cave’s reflection looks like a full moon floating on the surface of the water; along with the moon in the sky, and the reflection of the moon on the water, it is a marvel for visitors to see. Visitors can also ride a boat through the cave to the river, and see more than 70 ancient inscriptions from the Tang and Song dynasties carved on the walls within the cave. Puxian Pagoda is a two-story pagoda on top of Elephant Trunk Hill, which was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); the pagoda provides visitors an excellent vantage point for a panoramic view of Guilin. Elephant Trunk Hill’s other attractions include Elephant’s Eye Stone, Yunfeng Monastery, and Love Island (Aiqing Dao). Visitors can reach Love Island by crossing a stone bridge carved with elephants and then meander through its bamboo groves, winding paths and stone statues dedicated to love. Elephant Trunk Hill can be explored on foot or by water on a traditional bamboo raft, which allows visitors to get a quiet and up-close look at the massive formations. Visiting hours to Elephant Trunk Hill and its various sites vary depending on the season, as does the admission price, so confirm both before heading to this iconic attraction.

Reed Flute Cave

Located just three miles from downtown Guilin, Reed Flute Cave is another must-see while in Guilin. The cave’s name comes from the reeds growing outside the cave, which locals use to make flutes. Once you enter the cave, however, it’s as if you’re in another world, with spectacular stalactites, stalagmites, stone pillars and various rock formations created from centuries of water erosion and carbonate deposition giving the cave its nickname of “a natural palace of art.” Illuminated with colorful lights,  the 787-foot-long cave is a fantastic spectacle. Small pools throughout the cave reflect the lights and rock formations, providing even more stunning scenes. The cave tour lasts about an hour and visits various spots, such as Crystal Palace, Dragon Pagoda, Virgin Forest, and Flower and Fruit Mountain. Once outside the cave, visitors can explore the surrounding park, with its zigzagging paths, elegant pavilions, ponds, bridges, and reed flute vendors. Remember that haggling with vendors for the best prices is completely acceptable – so your souvenir will be more of a bargain, as well as beautiful and memorable!

Longji Terraced Fields

The Longji Terraced Fields span across several villages in Longsheng County, about a two-hour drive northwest of Guilin (but still within city limits, so you’re fine to visit here during the 72-hour visa-free period). The terraced fields here are some of the most fantastic scenery in Guilin: the sun reflects on the water of the paddy fields, with their tiered band-like arrangements wrapping around the hillsides and making for striking imagery. Longji means “dragon’s backbone,” named for the terraces’ resemblance to a dragon’s scales. Visitors standing on top of the mountain and looking down at the terraces can see the dragon’s backbone twisting throughout the hillside below. But this ancient irrigation method is not just beautiful; it also makes the best use of the land and water, maximizing the planting area. The most popular sites within the Longji Terraced Fields are Ping’an Zhuan terrace and Jinkeng Red Yao terrace, with the former having been developed much earlier in history and therefore the largest in scale. It is well developed with modern facilities, including hotels, dining and more. It is also often more crowded with tourists. The latter is quieter, and has less tourist offerings, but many natural and cultural offerings. There are about 41 square miles of terraced fields in southeast Longsheng County, plus several ancient villages and the Yao and Miao ethnic minority cultures who still live and work there.

Daxu Ancient Town

The rural town of Daxu is one of Guilin’s ancient gems. This well-preserved ancient village is located approximately 14 miles southeast of Guilin city, on the east banks of the Li River. Daxu’s iconic historic architecture, bluestone streets, and traditional culture transport visitors to a time long ago. Daxu was built more than 1,000 years ago. During the Ming Dynasty, it thrived as a trade hub due to its proximity to the Li River and was considered one of the “four renowned ancient towns” in Guangxi Province. Daxu’s 13 main docks from this time still stand today and some are still in use. Though Daxu is close to the modern city of Guilin, it has maintained its historic architecture and traditional way of life, with ancient temples, including the Gaozu Temple and Hanhuang Temple, both from the Qing Dynasty; mile-long bluestone street, on which the stones are smooth from centuries of carts, foot traffic and weather, is lined with well-maintained antique buildings; the traditional market, where visitors can buy souvenirs such as ceramics, handmade sandals, and local delicacies like quail eggs and dumplings; and Longevity Bridge, a picturesque stone arch which provides scenic views of the Li River, Millstone Hill and Snail Hill. The Seven Stars Tombs, though ancient, were not discovered until the 1990s. The seven tombs are mysteriously arranged in the same pattern as the Big Dipper constellation, with the tombs’ sizes varying based on the brightness of the stars in the constellation. This site is the first of its kind discovered in China, and the tombs and their significance provide an element of mystery in this traditional town. Finally, visitors looking to really get off the beaten path can pick fresh strawberries at a farm just outside of Daxu Old Town, as well as stroll the country roads and take in the Chinese rural lifestyle.

Yangshuo County

Also within Guilin city is Yangshuo County, which offers its own set of natural and man-made attractions for visitors to the area, all of which can be explored under the 72-hour visa-free policy. There is much to see in this area, and visitors can join a tour group, hire a guide and car, or rent a bicycle and see the region on their own. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Yangshuo in 1987 and insisted on touring the Yangshuo countryside by bicycle, much like the locals do. The government later built bicycle paths for visitors to enjoy the natural scenery of the area more safely and freely.

Some of Yangshuo’s prime spots are detailed below.

Yulong River

The Yulong River is a major tributary of the Lijiang and flows for more than 22 miles by Karst limestone formations typical to Guilin, past rice paddies, and through the riverside villages of Yangshuo. Local people use bamboo rafts as their main form of transportation along the Yulong, and visitors today can tour the area while relaxing in a chair atop one of these rafts. Most raft tours start at the 400-year-old Yulong Bridge and head down river. Swimming is also popular here, since the water depth and current are much lesser on the Yulong than on the Li River. For visitors not eager to get in the water, bicycling through the towns along the Yulong River is another excellent way to experience the quaint villages and local culture while still soaking in the stunning views.

Moon Hill

Yueliang Shan – which literally translates to “Moon Mountain” – is located just outside Yangshuo. It is named for the large circular hole that carves through the massive hill, the remains of what was once a limestone cave millennia ago. Visitors can pay a small admission fee (less than $3) to climb the 800 steps (about 20 minutes of walking) to Moon Hill’s arch. The views from the top are well worth the effort to climb the steps. Some visitors choose to continue on to the top of Moon Hill, though the extended path is steeper and less well-paved than the path to the arch. Moon Hill also offers 14 rock climbing routes on its northwest face, which vary in difficulty from amateur to professional level. The views from Moon Hill are breathtaking, with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, craggy karst formations and hills with names such as Flaming Mountain and Heavenly Horse Galloping in the Sky.

West Street

The oldest street in Yangshuo (it’s more than 1,400 years old), West Street stretches for almost 1,700 feet, undulating through shops, cafes, kung fu academies and various vendors. West Street is paved in marble and features architecture typical of a southern Chinese village; however, it is known for its co-mingling of various cultures and foreign languages, and is sometimes known as “the global village.” English (or at least select phrases) can often be heard and shops feature bilingual signs. Traditional Chinese culture is still very prevalent, especially in the cuisine and shops’ offerings, but modern stores and entertainment dot the streets as well. West Street is an excellent place to stop for a drink or snack and to rest your feet while taking in the sights and sounds swirling around this commerce center. Also check out the souvenirs, from embroidered silk cloth to wax-painted weavings. At night, West Street is illuminated with colorful lights and features bars and pubs with live music and dancing.

Impression Sister Liu Light Shows

Just a mile from West Street is the Impression Sister Liu Light Show, set amongst the world’s largest natural theater, which utilizes the Li River as its stage and the 12 famous peaks and night skies as its backdrop. Imagine seeing an incredible theatrical performance, complete with music, costumes, lighting, drama and hundreds of performers. Place that amidst spectacular outdoor scenery and you have a glimpse of the Impression Sister Liu Light Shows. The production took more than five years to create and is a dynamic performance that takes place rain or shine. The legend of Sanjie Liu – a “singing goddess” first featured in a film in 1961 – is the inspiration of this show, as well as the stunning surrounding scenery. The integration of Guilin’s natural beauty with the performing arts is awe-inspiring. To learn more, visit http://en.yxlsj.com/

Rock Climbing

Yangshuo is one of the top rock climbing destinations in China. Climbers ranging from beginner to advanced will find routes to challenge them, with new routes being logged by serious climbers all the time. Yangshuo’s karst formations are particularly conducive to climbing, with famous rock climbers Todd Skinner and Chris Sharma being the first to map Yangshuo’s routes in the 1990s. The flat valleys, paved highways and stable dirt roads that traverse between the karst hills make the climbing routes easily accessible.  Moon Hill, White Mountain, Fuli New Rock, Swiss Cheese and Wine Bottle are among some of the routes. Fall is the best time to climb in Yangshuo (September through November), and the Yangshuo Climbing Festival takes place then too. Climbers can access the area year-round or head in with climbing guides from the five outfits in the area.