Guilin’s most famous sight is a rocky outcrop on the Li River whose natural stone arch is said to mimic the moon in water. But the whole formation is better known for its resemblance to an elephant dipping its trunk in the river, from which it derives its name, Elephant Trunk Hill - or Xiangbishan. Some poets couldn’t even wait to get home to record their thoughts on this remarkable landmark; there are calligraphic carvings right in the rock.
The effect is best observed from the water, but you can climb up into the “eye” of the elephant and down into Water Moon Cave at the river’s edge. Back on the hill, even the rustic brick Puxian Pagoda follows the prevailing theme – it is said to be the hilt of the dagger which killed the poor beast. This gruesome fantasy aside, the pagoda peak gives you a great view of the surrounding area.
The Li River’s reputation as the most beautiful in all China rests on a stretch totaling less than a quarter of its length; the 60-odd miles (100 kilometers) starting in Guilin and heading south. Here dramatic karst outcrops, dense vegetation and the clear, winding river itself create magical vistas which loom large in the Chinese imagination, having inspired art and verse for centuries.
Outside of the main cities, the painters and poets who so prized the river would find life going on here much as they remember it; water buffalo tilling terraced rice paddies, fishers angling off bamboo rafts, vendors in market towns selling the bounty of this fertile region.
The river is a year-round delight, just as stunning under blazing blue skies or wrapped in winter mists. From Guilin to Yangshuo there’s never a dull stretch, but most agree that the scenic high point comes about two-thirds the way along, at the area between the towns of Yangdi and Xingping.
For the farmers who reside in the Longji region of Southern China the soaring rice terraces are simply a way of life. For the thousands of annual visitors who make the two-hour journey from the city of Guilin, however, the Longji rice terraces are an iconic symbol of Chinese agriculture and one of the most photographed sites in the country.
Here in Longji, layer upon layer of cultivated terraces stretch skywards on steep slopes, at some points they slope at over 50° angles. Despite the dramatic grades of the mountainside, however, traditional Chinese rice farmers have managed to sculpt the hillside into orderly terraces which annually yield massive harvests of rice. Though there really isn’t a bad season to visit the Longji rice terraces, the early summer months of May and June are popular for photographers as this is the time of year when the terraces are irrigated and cast a mirrored effect which crawls up the walls of the valleys.