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Magical landscape of karst mountains, waterfalls
2014-11-05
By Mark Melnicoe

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CHINA’S Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is known for its scenic beauty, but for most people the image starts and stops with Guilin, the region on the Li River celebrated for centuries in classic poetry and paintings. A road trip during the National Day holiday week through the opposite side of the province, along the border with Vietnam, revealed that Guangxi has much more than the Li River going for it.

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After renting a car in Nanning, the provincial capital, I headed first for Daxin as a stopping point before going to Detian Falls the next day. On the way to Daxin, barely more than an hour out of Nanning, I came to Longhu Shan, or Longhu Mountain, a beautiful piece of primeval rainforest that is home to thousands of wild monkeys, including a population of about 3,000 macaques. Scenes there looked like they could have come right out of Africa or the Amazon rainforest.

Just as I entered the nature park a powerful storm hit, but after about an hour of intense rain and lightning, it let up as suddenly as it had appeared, and the place became magical. With the sun peeping out and the trees dripping wet, I hiked along a route that took me down and over a river via a bamboo bridge, then steeply back up stone stairs to a snack stand where a vendor sold me bags of peanuts and pointed to a large macaque sitting on a tree maybe 10 meters away, just staring at us. He said there were more monkeys along the way, pointing south.

That was an understatement. After maybe 10 minutes, I came to a spot that showed it wasn’t the people who were eating all the peanuts. At a bi-level structure, visitors were feeding too many monkeys to count. Some had babies clinging to their undersides, some were big, some were small. Some were dominant, others meek. This was apparent when seeing the strong ones intimidate the others away in their effort to hog the food.

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All appeared to be macaques, and it was fascinating to see how adroit and quick they were at peeling bananas or shelling peanuts and chestnuts.

Longhu Shan, at least for me, was easily worth the 60-yuan (US$9.8) admission charge. One could spend hours on the extensive system of trails and bridges, viewing monkeys not only being fed but also climbing, swinging and leaping from branch to branch in their natural arboreal environment. It was hard to believe this place was only about 70 minutes from Nanning.

After enjoying the monkeys, I was off to Daxin through some utterly spectacular karst countryside that was every bit as scenic, and in fact similar to, the Guilin/Yangshuo area. The limestone mountains shot up in their unique shapes and patterns throughout the drive to Daxin, and then on to Detian Falls the next day. Since nothing like these mountains exist in the West, the karst landscape seems enticingly exotic. The entire area is covered with trees and shrubs, creating a green canopy along roads that dance along the Tropic of Cancer. The overall effect was jaw-dropping, and despite this being a holiday week, I had the road almost to myself and could stop for photos practically at will.

Even without a reservation, I had no trouble finding a decent hotel room in the rather non-descript town of Daxin for 288 yuan, including a buffet breakfast.

The next morning, it was off through more mesmerizing karst terrain that took me through long tunnels and past other waterfalls, including the gorgeous Shatundie waterfall. Detian Falls itself is the star attraction in this border region. It is among the largest transnational falls in the world, as it flows mostly in China but partly in Vietnam, where it’s known as Ban Gioc Waterfall.

Approaching it for the first time, one can hear its roar before seeing it. It tumbles in three stages — stair-step style — and measures more than 120 meters across. The vertical drop totals 70 meters. When the flow is lighter, Detian consists of numerous waterfalls, as if designed by a master landscaper, cascading across the border in an amazing formation laced with foliage and rocks, backed by green karst mountains rising into a mist-laden sky.

This was the one extremely crowded locale I experienced on my National Day week trip, but it was worth it, despite the rather steep 80-yuan admission price. As I got into the scenic area, I jumped onto a covered raft for 30 yuan and was taken out to the waterfall. The raft afforded fantastic views of the Chinese side, which is much bigger than the Vietnamese side.

A bit downstream from the falls, a few black market traders could be seen crossing the river in small wooden boats, buying and selling goods with Chinese people on our side of the river. It wasn’t possible to see what products were involved.

I decided not to spend the night in the dingy, overpriced hotel at Detian, opting instead to drive that day to Mingshi. It took 20 minutes to escape the parking lot, from which I emerged onto yet another spectacular route through more mountains. Eventually I stopped to ask someone how to get to Mingshi, and they pointed the way, after which road signs helped get me there.

After about an hour of more stunning countryside, I rolled into a lush, green valley with the Mingshi River running through. I drove into an area of whitewashed buildings that seemed to be one of the few populated places, and as I parked, I was immediately besieged by an older woman directing me to stay in her place. Perfect, I thought, as I was looking for another relatively cheap room for the night. Her “hotel” consisted of several bedrooms in her extended family’s rustic home. There was no check-in, no deposit — just a verbal agreement on 250 yuan for the night. Dinner was in a “restaurant” comprising an array of tables on an outdoor slab of concrete, set up with a barbecue next to a rice field. The combination of rice, bullfrog, congee and beer hit the spot.

The next morning it was time for a bike ride through this area that some call “Little Guilin.” I went to the nearby Mingshi Mountain Villa, which rented high-quality Giant mountain bikes. The price was a little steep for China — 120 yuan for four hours — but the chance to pedal through this area was not to be missed. Each bike conveniently had a map of five different routes on a little plastic board attached to the handlebars, ranging from 8 to 25 kilometers. I opted to do two of the routes that wind through the mountains.

I spent the next three hours riding through the karst landscape and along the meandering Mingshi River, which originates in Vietnam. I crossed several bridges, rode on asphalt as well as dirt surfaces, through mud puddles and rice paddies, and came upon a few farmhouses. At one, three little girls who were playing as I rounded the corner began giggling wildly and chasing my bicycle. At another, I momentarily lost the trail and rode into a small compound, where an old woman started yelling at me and waving me off. As I looked for the trail, three more older people — a man and two women — emerged and I tried to ask them for directions. They became much friendlier, and even asked me to have lunch with them. But it was only about 10:30am and I was not at all hungry.

“Bu yao, xie xie,” I said in my best Mandarin imitation, and we settled for a couple of photos together.

A few minutes later, I zipped around a corner in quest of a spot to swim in the river and stopped my bike in a muddy spot and, as I looked up, realized I was face to face with a water buffalo. I had inadvertently ridden into its pen, but it didn’t seem to mind a bit. I left my bike with the friendly beast and took a quick swim in the cool, clear river.

If the beauty of Mingshi is almost a secret to most Chinese, the people of Guangxi certainly know of it. An ancient legend says that long ago a monster dragon from the south sea visited Guilin and was so taken by the scenery that it wanted to take part of it back to the south sea. It stole a piece and hid it in its bag as it flew back to the southwest. But the god of heaven (yu huang da di) got wind of the dragon’s deed and sent the thunder god to kill it. During this assault, the scenery fell out of the dragon’s bag, scattering around Mingshi, and this is why Mingshi is blessed with the same kind of beguiling landscapes as Guilin.

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