If you don’t believe my interpretation of Guilin’s limestone karst hills, that’s fine. One thousand years ago, poet Fan Chengda would paint the hills of Guilin and send them to his friends, but alas, he said, “Few believed what they saw.” That being said, Guilin’s scenery is indeed unbelievable, like a painting that comes to life. Really. Blessed are those who believe without seeing!
Once arrived and still coffeeless, I planned to sleep on the bus. However, soon at the first sight of the limestone karst hills, I was fully awake. I’ve seen the beautiful karst hills of Jogjakarta, Alor, and Nusa Penida, yet Guilin’s are much bigger, both in size and range. So captivating. At the foot of the hills, the rows of houses, vegetable gardens, stores, schools… they looked familiar: a bit of Glodok, a bit of Singaraja, a bit of Singkawang, a bit of Medan. But the hills, they looked completely otherworldly.
My only a reference about Guilin was not Star Wars, but The Joy Luck Club. In the book, author Amy Tan narrates how people fled to Guilin during the Japanese invasion in the 1940’s by hiding in those hills and caves. That was why every time I saw a cave, I wondered was it once a hiding place? How many persons hid inside? How did they camouflage the entrance? Was it the cave where the old Muslim couple and their two “new” children lived?
Reading the book, my heart broke when it came to the part about Suyuan fleeing Guilin when the Japanese began to bomb the city. She carried her twins in both arms and fled. At one point she grew so ill and had to give up the twins on the roadside. She left them behind with all jewelry, hoping someone would save and return them to her Shanghai address after the war. Suyuan survived the war and immigrated to the US. For years, she wondered whether they were still alive—a very painful memory she had to live with.
What would become of the twins? It is one of the most thrilling parts of The Joy Luck Club. You should read it yourself. It’s a good book.
Anyway, it was estimated 4 million people fled to Guilin during the World War II. Now, there are about 4.7 millions of people live in Guilin. The number is relatively “small” for a big region in China. That is beneficial for residents and travelers alike. You can expect no traffic. Loved riding a bike or electric motor around the towns, stopping to take pictures or buy some snacks. And I loved every meal (arguably the authentic Chinese food, lol!) I ate.
Loved stall hopping, checking souvenirs, and tasting local food—the authentic Chinese food! I loved hiking there to the heights to see the view below. It forces you to do much legwork but the views are unbeatable. I cannot recall how many hills I hiked during the trip. Is it 5 or 6?
Everywhere I went, people talked to me in Mandarin Chinese, perhaps because I look a lot like them. On the other hand, I often caught myself speaking to them in Indonesian, because they look a lot like Indonesians! “Bu, sudah. Berapa?” I caught myself asking the kiosk owner the price. Realizing my mistake, we both laughed. You know, most Indonesians know that, according to the official textbooks, the ancestors of Indonesians were from a region some 1,300 kilometers far from Guilin, Yunnan.
Tourism in China, just like in Indonesia, is thriving, thanks to its huge domestic market. Like huge. When exploring the mighty Li River, for instance, we were the only foreigners in the big group. Perhaps upon seeing how clueless we were when the guide was explaining, three men approached us and helped us. “Don’t worry!” one of them said, opening his wallet and showed us something. They turned out to be off-duty policemen! No kidding. Like mine, it was the Shandong natives’ first visit to Guilin.
Hope I will return one day to explore Guilin more, knowing that the limestone karst hills will last long. In many places, including in wonderful Indonesia, limestone karst hills are under threats. Meanwhile, those unbelievable hills of Guilin will unlikely be blasted and mined, having been declared as world heritage by Unesco, meaning China has agreed to preserve them. It’s safe to say that in Guilin, the hills are very much alive.