1. Karst (SEE, GEOLOGISTS?? I PROMISED!)
There's a famous saying about Guilin: "Guilin has the best scenery under heaven". It's really an stupid saying. It's not memorable or creative at all, and anyway it's probably false. It just sounds like something a guy said once. San Jose is a pretty nice place. There you go, San Jose. That's your new city motto. You can ditch "The Capital of Silicon Valley", which you absolutely should because you're not the capital of Silicon Valley, because Silicon Valley is not a governmentally recognized geographic area. I'm not sure if that's actually our city motto or not, but it's on our garbage cans so close enough.
"Guilin has the best scenery under heaven" is on garbage cans in Guilin. It's also carved into the side of Duxiu peak:
("Guilin has the best scenery under heaven" (桂林山水甲天下) is the first seven characters of the third column from the left)
Well it turns out that Guilin has great scenery. Whatever, Wan Zhengong, I regret nothing: your aphorism still blows.
The defining characteristic of Guilin scenery is, indeed, the karst (again, this is limestone eroded by dissolution). The karst is strange because it's everywhere and in places you wouldn't expect -- spires of weathered rock seem to explode out of flat farmland, and in the cities buildings and roads abut steep limestone formations hundreds of feet tall. It's surreal and totally unlike hilly places in the states, which I guess were formed by plates pushing against each other or whatever it is that makes mountains. The geologists in the room know what I'm talking about.
According to my travel book, the karst is a "tourist phenomenon" today but historically it has been a huge problem, because it's a barrier to transportation, communication, and agriculture, which led to underdevelopment and eventually to a century of civil conflict and ethnic strife. But that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make in exchange for pleasant limestone outcroppings. They really are quite nice.
Naturally, while we were in Guilin, Gus and I saw (and, in some cases, climbed) a fair amount of karst, including a very famous formation called Camel Mountain.
Eh, it looks like a camel. See, Wan Zhengong? I didn't feel the need to carve that observation into the side of a mountain. Get that "best scenery under heaven" stuff out of my face.
So, other than the karst, Guilin is a little boring. My travel guild calls it "an attractive place to spend a day." I was there for 3 nights. My non-karst time was spent wandering the city and stopping at coffee shops, most of which are named after places other than Guilin, so drinking coffee there felt like traveling to places less boring than Guilin. Sichuan! Italy! The Shire!
Maybe it's called Shire Hobbiton because Guilin's karst is supposed to be reminiscent of the craggy vistas of Middle Earth, but that's obviously crazy because Guilin was used for location shooting for the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk in Star Wars III, and so it's clearly got a totally different topography from Middle Earth. The nerds in the room know what I'm talking about.
We also saw a gay bar in Guilin, which was surprising because the Chinese government isn't really into the idea of "gay" "people". I sort of wanted to check it out just to see what it would be like, but we weren't really sure whether it was open or not. In the end, I popped my head in, but I decided against going all the way in because I was too tired.
After Guilin we went to Yangshuo, which is beyond the scope of this post. More info TK.