We’re down from the mountains and now in the hills. And what strange, beautiful hills they are. This is Guangxi Province, famed for its surreal karst landform tableaus, with endless gumdrop-shaped hills towering above winding rivers and swirling mists. Just look at the back of a Twenty RMB bill to see how this scenery of this place (Yangshuo, anyway) figures in the Chinese imagination.
But now take that banknote, and a pencil, and do the following: First, scratch a hundred rows of planted stalks over all those overgrown palm fronds. This is not where the wild fern grows. As far as I can tell, this province is actually just one giant sugarcane plantation. Wherever the land is even slightly flat, i.e. not a karst cliff, the mucky orange soil has been stripped and plowed and impressed into the service of a vast monoculture stretching from the mountains of Guizhou to the South China Sea. That fisherman in the picture? Replace his pole with a machete; it’s harvest time, and all that ‘cane ain’t gonna chop itself.
Second, if you’ve still got that banknote, hold your pencil almost flat and shade everything a dark grey, so much that you can barely see the original picture. Did I mention those swirling mists? Well, in winter they kinda steal the show.
But 50m visibility aside, we’ve still been pretty impressed with the landscape. Coming down the rail line from Sanjiang, we spent a day and a half in Xiao Chang’an 小长安, a small town in the Mulao minority county of Luocheng 罗城. Our arrival, clambering off the train in Rongshui 融水, was met with skepticism. Even the driver we hired, over take-out lunches enjoyed at his house, scolded us, saying there was most definitely nothing fun to do around here. But out his back window were those beautiful karst hills, and the fact he thought we were lost only confirmed for us that we’d come to the right place: a piece of less-travelled Guangxi. Over the next 36 hours, we strolled and hiked and even sampan-poled(!) between those giant limestone gumdrops, encountering thorn bushes (Nick), interesting rocks (Owen), and dead-end little Mulao hamlets, and had the kind of fun that comes from exploring a random but beautiful place that was definitely not expecting us.