The first time I saw Karsts was in Southeast Asia, during our 2015 2014 five month trip with hand luggage. It was love at first sight. The ones in Vang Vieng, Laos, were my first. We were staying in a cabin with splendid views directly to the Karsts. A very special place for us, since that’s where we met our beloved friends Oistein and Silje. In Vietnam, Ha Long Bay, as crowded as it is, blew my mind away. Of course, the ones in Krabi (Thailand) are gorgeous. The last ones I saw where in the middle of the ocean in El Nido, the Philippines (there should be a shade of blue named El Nido). Therefore, I had an image in my head of the Li River. To my surprise, karsts here are in a league of their own: much bigger. In fact, everything in China is! Hence, we weren’t sure where to stay, in the large city of Guilin or a much smaller Yangshuo. Isn’t life hard?
The fantastic karst mountains dot about 50km of the 400km long Li River. The first ones are around Guilin, the biggest city in the area. Though the city has all kinds of tourist infrastructure, it lacks character. There is not much to see, and it was the only place in China where we felt completely cheated. To see the famous Elephant Trunk Hill, you must take an organized tour. Prince City is one of its main scams. Though you pay 20e to get in, there is not much to see. A governmental-regional company kind of runs everything, and according to what we gathered, not everybody is happy.
What to Do in Guilin
We don’t want to leave the impression that we didn’t like anything about Guilin since that’s not true. Of course, the nicest thing about Guilin is the views, so ask for a room on a high floor in a hotel close to the river. You can also have coffee or lunch in a rooftop restaurant to admire the views. The Moon and Sun Pagoda is nice, and so is the lake around it. There is a decent pedestrian street and an interesting old China style shopping center. The famous Reed Flute Cave is near the city, close to the Lujia Village where we stayed. As cool as it is, be prepared to be surrounded by the masses.
Where to Stay in Guilin
You can skip Guilin, but if you decide to go there anyway (it’s a great base for visiting the Longsheng Rice Terraces) get out of the city center and stay in Lujia Village, a lovely pedestrian neighborhood. Mountains and lakes surround the village. Additionally, there are a couple of great restaurants and coffee houses. We chose the beautiful Secret Courtyard Resort Hotel and enjoyed gorgeous views and first-class hospitality. To get to Guilin’s center, we had to take a comfortable and inexpensive taxi. Our receptionist took care of everything and made sure we got safe and sound wherever we wanted. Thank you! The Zen Hotel Guilin and the Moon Flower Hotel are two other great hotels in the area.
There are a couple of great hotels next to the river if you want to stay in the center. The Sky Garden Inn is between the pedestrian street and the Li River. It offers comfortable rooms and great views. If you want to splurge a little, the Jolie Vue Boutique Hotel offers top-notch facilities and views over the river and Elephant Trunk Hill. Therefore you can enjoy this famous formation without crowds! On the other hand, the slick modern Li River Hotel offers the best views of the Moon and Sun Pagoda. Finally, if you are into international chains, you can’t go wrong with the superb Shangri La. Once again, do not forget to ask for a top floor room!
The best base to admire the Li River is the city of Yangshuo, 50 km. southeast of Guilin. The place is magical, in the middle of tall hills. The road even crosses a couple of karsts through tunnels. There is a very cool pedestrian area in the middle, with live music, shops, bars and loads of restaurants. We ate mostly Vietnamese food and watched a varied cultural program in front of the lake. To escape the crowds you can walk by the river. You’ll be greeted by a couple of geese and horses and of course views.
What to Do in Yangshuo
We strongly recommend biking next to the river. You will find yourself in the middle of nature and get to experience local life here, friendly people carrying on with their lives and ducks happily floating on the river. It rained particularly bad one day, so all we had to do was draw the curtains, grab a book, and enjoy this natural masterpiece from our peaceful terrace. Don’t forget to take both a small raft trip and the longer one to the famous spot that ended up on the 20RMB banknote. Though we had to take a bus, it was worth it. Plus we were the only non-Chinese on the bus, and as usual in China, people were fantastic, taking care of us and laughing!
Where to Stay in Yangshuo
Ji Wo Du Village
We decided to stay some 5km south in Ji Wo Du Village directly next to the Yulong River, a tributary of the Li River. It proved a brilliant idea. We were pretty much isolated from Yangshuo’s noise and crowds but close enough to enjoy great restaurants, shows and to people watch. Our Spring Hill Hotel had fantastic views directly to massive karsts, plus one of the nicest terraces in all of China. Another great place in the area is the Yangshuo Hidden Dragon Villa. If you want complete privacy, the Yangshuo Resort is a fantastic private resort across the bridge.
To get to Yangshuo take any of the frequent buses that stop at the village entrance on the main road. Otherwise, there are plenty of inexpensive taxis and tuk-tuks.
Yulonghe Scenic Area
The Yulonghe Scenic area is further along the Yulong River, west of Ji Wo Du Village. Actually, there is a direct road that connects the scenic area with Yangshuo city. Yulonghe offers peace, quiet, and equally impressive karsts. One of the best hotels in the area is the Longting Hotel. The Yangshuo Tea Cozy is another good option. Our favorite is the Ancient Garden Boutique Hotel. It consists of a bunch of old houses scattered in the middle of nature. There is no public transport in the area, so you have to get a taxi to the city or arrange transport with your accommodation. Do not worry! Since you are in China, your hotel will be more than happy to assist you.
In all honesty, the hotels in Yangshuo don’t have the best views, but the city is a good place to stay if you want to socialize. Most hotels in Yangshuo are near the noisy pedestrian area, so ask for a quiet room. One of the best options is the Four Sea Hotel. The charming Zen Tea House West Street is a little bit more secluded. If you prefer something a bit more upscale the Amari Yangshuo is a fantastic option. Unsurprisingly, the best hotel in Yangshuo is just outside of the city. The Alila Yangshuo is an old factory right next to the river.
Guilin and Yangshuo are not the only bases for exploring the Li River. We discovered Xingping Town roughly 35km down the river from Guilin and 15km north of Yangshuo. Recently a small fishing village it’s becoming the next tourist base. The town itself is now home to several hotels and restaurants. Additionally, the hordes of tourists pass through to reach the famous landscape portrayed on the 20RMB bill during the day. There is a small, yet charming ancient town in the very center. The rest of the town is not that nice, plus there are plenty of package tourists wandering around.
What to Do in Xingping
As mentioned above, the landscape around the Li River is so beautiful that it ended up on the 20 RMB bill. The funny thing is that it was so foggy when we go to the bill’s location that we almost couldn’t see a thing! Nevertheless, most Chinese tourists were frantically fighting their way to take that one shot. After all, how could you possibly go back home to friends and family without the iconic photo? Since the place is overcrowded, try to go early in the morning or go to another equally nice place nearby.
Where to Stay in Xingping
Xingping is much smaller than Guilin or Yangshuo and so is its accommodation offer. Nevertheless, it is a great base to explore the area. Though the Yangshuo Xingping Autumn Inn is right in the old town, it is away from the noise. Across from the small river, you will find the elegant Melody Inn, just 5 minutes from town. Though the Courtyard Vacation Hotel is farther away, they rent bikes so you’ll be in town in 10 minutes. Besides, the scenery around the hotel is unbeatable. If you want to be completely in the middle of the mountains, stay at the Yangshuo Xingping Island Resort, on the peninsula across Xingping.
How to Get to Guilin, Yangshuo and Xingping
We believe that the best way to travel around China is on fast trains. Two fast train lines cross path in Guilin, which has 3 train stations. Trains from Guangzhou to Guiyang stop at Guilin West Station, while those from Nanning to Changsha stop at Guilin and Guilin North Stations. Take note that the train station called Yangshuo is actually next to Xingping, 20km from Yangshuo city.
Almost every train connecting Guilin with Guangzhou stops at Yangshuo train station. Guilin has an international airport with flights to many destinations in China and the region. From Guilin to Yangshuo, there are frequent buses and the ride takes around 90 minutes. For a more scenic trip, you can take a boat between the two cities.
How to Organize the Perfect Visit to the Li River
Happy Frog recommends spending at least 4-5 days in the area. Why rush through such beauty? The best way to enjoy the area is to explore it by yourself. To do so, rent a bike, walk around or hike in the hills. With time and focusing on nature, you will be able to avoid the masses. Finally, taking a boat tour or two is a must. If you still didn’t have enough of this surreal scenery, take the train to Guangzhou. It was quite a neo-futuristic experience to enjoy the mighty Karst Mountains from the comfort of a Chinese super fast train. And Guangzhou itself is such a pleasant surprise! We took said train from Guangzhou and went down on Yangshuo train station. From there we took a taxi directly to our hotel in the Ji Wo Du Village. Every minute of both rides was worth the trouble!
Final Verdict on Where to Stay in the Area: Guilin or Yangshuo?
In my opinion, you shouldn’t choose between the two cities unless you have very little time. In that case, you should stay near Yangshuo, in Ji Wo Du Village or the Yulonghe Scenic Area. If you have extra time, spend at least one night in charming Xingping. If you are continuing north towards Fenghuang and Zhangjiajie in Hunan, stay in Lujia Village in Guilin. Don’t forget to ask your hotel for a top floor room. I still can’t forget the spectacular views!