Saturday, August 11, 2007

China: Guilin, forest of Sweet Osmanthus

The karst limestone landscape of Southern China are a recurring theme in many old Chinese paintings. And it was thus a pleasant surprise for me that the group was visiting Guilin, a city set amidst picturesque karst mountains, which is very famous in China for its fantastic natural and man-made scenery. Many Chinese say that Guilin's scenery is the "finest under heaven." The name of the city literally means "forest of Sweet Osmanthus" because of the large number of fragrant Sweet Osmanthus trees in the city. It’s a three hour flight from Beijing. There are also flights from other major cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai.

As soon as we left the airport, the karst mountains greeted us. What is great about Guilin is despite the growth and urban development, they have managed to preserve most of the karst mountains as well as the old water system which linked the city together. It’s sad when I think about Baguio City since informal settlers have already occupied the once picturesque views; and there seems to nothing left of the natural environment. Same goes for the Pasig River and the esteros of Binondo and Sta. Cruz which I hope the City of Manila cleans and revives.

We arrived in time for lunch at the Shan Hu Hotel. The hotel is in downtown Guilin and it gave us a great view of the square in front of it. After lunch, we were given ample time to rest. But I decided to explore the vicinity. I visited Fir Lake beside the hotel which has two charming pagodas along the banks. After walking around, I rushed back to the hotel to catch our bus.

For the afternoon, we visited the Guihai Forest of Steles Museum. It’s a collection of over 200 steels carved around the karst mountains and its different caves. You could see that they come from different periods dating back to the Sui Dynasty since there are steles with the old Chinese calligraphy that is no longer in use.

In the evening, I went around the vicinity again. It was an incredible sight as the city's waterway areas were fantastically lit!

Today, we visited the Jing Jiang Palace, the seat of government of Guilin during imperial times. The Jing Jiang princes were generations of Ming princes dispatched by the emperor to govern Guilin.

At the back of the palace was an example of an Examination Hall where examinees sweated it out for three days and three nights answering the difficult examinations which were administered during imperial times.

In the afternoon, we went to the Jing Jiang Mausoleum, the burial grounds of the Ming princes. They are located five kilometers from the city center, at the foot of the grand Yao Mountain. Only one of the eleven tombs has been restored, namely the tomb of Zhuangjian. The setting of the tomb was panoramic as it was built amidst lush pine trees and surrounded by hills and mountains.

Ten figures can be found of each of the two side of the ceremonial way to the inner palace, which include animals such as elephants, unicorns, and pixiu. We had a forum with the local heritage managers in one of the halls of the tomb complex. Then it was back to downtown for dinner. Tomorrow we take a cruise along the Lijiang River!

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