Guilin is a place I was looking forward to going to very much because I saw pictures from a friend's recent trip and was instantly mesmerized with the scenic views. This meant that I needed to take around a 19 hour train ride but after visiting Guilin, I was glad I went through the trouble of visiting because it was well worth it. Most of the beautiful landmarks in Guilin are outside the city and are easily done as day trips, but Guilin itself as a city is definitely worth exploring. I regret not spending more days here, and I hope that if you visit you'll enjoy it as much as I do!
For more important information, please refer to my guide on Beijing. However, Google Maps did not work very well in Guilin. I would recommend using Apple Maps or another app in order to get around efficiently in Guilin. Also, for any train-travel related information, the Man at Seat 61 has VERY comprehensive guides on train travel all over the world, and his guide on China was very helpful and easy for me to understand! For China specifically, I would recommend using Ctrip to buy train tickets because it can be difficult to buy tickets directly from the source.
In order to get to Guilin, I took a long-distance overnight train from Beijing vs. taking the high-speed train in order to save money on accommodation. This was a very interesting experience as I got to meet many Chinese locals and really learn how the locals travel and their ways of life. I would definitely recommend this! When I got on the train, I found my specific car and bed berth - I got a hard sleeper, which isn't "hard" at all. My bed was very comfortable and clean, and my compartment had 6 people with a bottom, middle, top bunk. I had the top bunk, but if I had the option, I would have paid more for a bottom bunk - it's way more convenient. They also constantly had people selling various goods and fruit - I would recommend holding off on buying anything until the next day, since the prices drop by then!
During the ride, I was able to get to know my compartment-mates. I was easily the youngest person in my train car, with a few young kids. Otherwise, everyone was pretty old. My compartment-mates asked me a lot about life in America and American politics, so I talked about the impacts of how Trump is affecting international politics. While I was talking, I didn't realize I had attracted a crowd around me, eager to learn about America - it was one of the most interesting bits of my trip, hands down!
After that, it was time to sleep, as the lights dimmed and the announcements stopped. When I woke up, I only had a few hours until the train arrived in Guilin so I just took in the view and relaxed for a bit before the train arrived. Once the train arrived, I was excited to explore!
Once I got to Guilin, just follow the crowd to get out of the station. Once you're outside, you'll see lots of hawkers trying to get you to go on their tours or take you somewhere in the city. To get around in Guilin, you can either take taxis or take the bus. I opted to use the bus to get around Guilin, but I know taxis are a relatively effective and cheap way to get around Guilin. If you're interested in taking a taxi at the train station, there is a taxi stand so it's recommended that you wait in that line. To start off my day, I decided to walk to my hostel (Guilin Central Hostel) to see parts of the city.
On the way, I stopped by Elephant Trunk Hill, which is an iconic sight in Guilin. To fully see the elephant's trunk, you have to pay to get into a park but you don't really have to pay if that's all you want to see - walk on the road where it says "Lijiang River Cruise Ticket Center" on the map. The picture below the map is the photo I got while standing near there - not too bad!
I started to walk towards the Sun and Moon Pagodas, which looked beautiful during the day but I would recommend going at night because then, it lights up and it looks amazing!
I got to my hostel and checked in to drop off my stuff for the day, and I was just surprised at how nice the hostel was! The receptionist gave me a free map and gave me recommendations on where to go and eat, which doesn't happen that often. For a 4 person room, the room was spacious, the bed was big and comfortable (it even had a heating pad so you could feel warm as you lie on the bed), and the bathroom was incredibly clean. Overall, it was one of the nicest hostels I've ever been to! After getting settled in, I started to head off towards Reed Flute Cave.
I decided to take the bus to the cave because there was a bus near my hostel that went directly there. To take the bus, you can only pay in cash (it costs 1 CNY every time you hop on, maybe 2 CNY if it's a nicer bus). I just carried small bills with me so that I didn't have to worry about asking for change.
When I got to the cave, there's an area where you can buy your tickets. You have to walk a little bit to get to the actual cave entrance, but just follow the signs that say "Cave Entrance" and you should be fine. The cave itself is not anything I've ever seen before as it was totally unique to me! Basically you walk along a set path and there are many colored lights that illuminate the rock formations. Halfway through the tour, I didn't realize that you could have joined a free tour of the cave - oops. I sneakily added myself to the group as the guide told us about the history of the caves and each formation. It was very interesting and I would definitely recommend. When you walk out, you do have to walk through a gift shop and past some people trying to sell you things.
It was getting close to dinner time, so I decided to go back to the hostel and do some laundry before going out to eat at the Zhengyang Road Pedestrian Street. This food market had some of the best food I've ever ate. I decided to change it up and instead of figuring out what I wanted to eat, I decided to just eat anything that looked good to me and it worked incredibly well. I got fried chicken on a stick, some grilled clams, and a few other things that were all really tasty! On the way back to my hostel, I stopped by a bakery to buy some bread for the next day which had extremely tasty pastries.
For my second day, I dedicated the whole day to seeing the Li River and Yangshuo. I decided to do something I typically don't do and join a tour group for this day. I booked my tour through the hostel the day before, which made it very easy. All I had to do was to meet at the lobby at 7am, and a bus would pick me up and drop me off after the tour. My plan was to do the tour, come back and pick up my stuff from the hostel, and then catch my overnight train to Shanghai - however, later you'll see that this didn't exactly go to plan.
I went downstairs at 7am and I ended up chatting with the receptionist because the bus was running late - turns out she was interning at the hostel because she wanted to improve her English. I thought that was pretty cool. When the bus came, I hopped on and we were off. In my tour, I was easily the youngest person there except for some children. My tour guide was very nice and friendly who spoke in both English and Chinese, but by knowing both languages, I knew that the Chinese-listening people were getting way more out of the tour than the people who only knew English. This is because she went to a lot more detail in Chinese vs. English. We ended up arriving at a wharf outside of Guilin, and I was glad I opted to take the tour - getting here on my own would have been a pain, even if I used my Mandarin and took a taxi. We all got onto a huge boat that would take 4-5 hours on the Li River before getting to Yangshuo.
The Li River is definitely one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen - the river is very serene and you're surrounded by lush, green mountains on all sides. It's hard to describe how great it was until you experience it for yourself. Halfway through, they served us lunch. Then, a little after lunch, we passed the specific part which is featured on the 20 yuan bill - I tried to get a picture of the bill with the mountains but it was too hard.
After a while, we arrived in Yangshuo. Yangshuo took my breath away because it's a very cute and pretty town - if you have a few days, I would definitely stay over for the night and explore the surrounding region. The moment you get off, people are trying to sell you tours, fruit, and anything else you could imagine. I didn't like the fact that were constantly trying to sell me a good, but Yangshuo's beauty won out. My plan was to catch a bus back to Guilin a little early, because my tour guide said that there would be traffic. So, I decided to walk around the city and explore the main pedestrian street.
I started to walk to the bus stop, but then this is when Google Maps started to fail on me. It turns out it was sending me in the wrong direction and couldn't tell where I was! So, I messaged my tour guide and asked her how to get to the bus stop. She was able to send me an updated location, and I had to use the GPS in WeChat to get to the bus stop. Also, it started pouring so I had to get from one side of town to the other side. I tried to hail a taxi but all of them had people inside, so I started to speed walk towards this bus stop. Once I arrived, a guy asked if I was heading towards Guilin and I said yes and hopped in - at this point, I didn't care if he was going to overcharge me. It would be cheaper than buying an entirely new train ticket. So, the bus started to leave towards Guilin.
It turns out that there was traffic on the way back, and the rain wasn't exactly helping. At this point, I was becoming very stressed because I still had to get to the hostel to pick up my bags and then head to the train station. A tip for the future: if you know you'll miss your train, cancel your ticket because you can get some money back. But for some reason, I was very optimistic that I could make it.
Once the bus stopped in Guilin, I hopped out and tried to hail a taxi but they were all taking other people. So, I decided to walk back to my hostel while keeping an eye on open taxis but it turned out there were none. It's still raining, and eventually the clock hit 7:20pm, which was when my train was and I knew I missed my train. I made it back to the hostel very depressed and sopping wet and asked them if there was an open room for the night - and it turned out there was (I got lucky). Then, I had to re-book a train ticket to Shanghai for the next day since I had a train from Shanghai to Beijing in a few days and I didn't want to miss that train too. I ended up staying at the hostel for the rest of the night because I was simply too sad to do anything. Also, I wanted to dry off, I was soaked.
The moral of the story here is that you should leave yourself some wiggle room if you're trying to make a train or a flight, etc.! You don't want to be in a position when you're stressed and anxious, which usually affects your decision making. But nevertheless, I had a wonderful time in Guilin that I wouldn't trade for the world. I only wished I stayed here longer.