The Magic Mountains of Guilin

guilinAn eminent poet and scholar-official during the golden age of Song dynasty China, Fan Chengda was also something of an early travel writer. One of his diaries recounts a four-month journey from Suzhou to Guilin on what was then the Middle Kingdom’s southwestern frontier, where, in the spring of 1173, he took up a post governing the mountainous and ethnically diverse Guangxi region. Though banditry and a backward economy plagued his time there, Fan couldn’t help but be inspired by the surreal scenery around him. “I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw,” he wrote. “There is no point in arguing with them.”

It’s easy to see why Fan’s pals in the Song literati were incredulous. There is something almost supernatural about Guilin’s craggy karst landscape, even to a modern-day traveler armed with the knowledge that these limestone pinnacles were created by millennia of water erosion. When confronted with the magic of the region, I swiftly fell into a more poetic state akin to what Fan must have felt when he described the topography as “like jade bamboo shoots and jasper hairpins, forests of them extend without limit.”

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