Guilin is a city in the Kwangxi Province of China. Known for its sharp 'karst' (which most people know as limestone) hills and the Li Jiang (Li River), Guilin and the region around it are considered one of the top beautiful places in China. Unfortunately for us, it was a bad time of the year to visit Guilin because it is winter and the water of the Li River is very low. I am told that the best time to visit is from April to October.
We avoided organized tours because we knew all China tours will include visits to silk/pearls/herbal pharmacies/tea stores, which are a waste of money (because the prices are much higher than that in the local stores) and time (at least one visit a day to these stores because the guides make a commission from your purchases). Travelling on our own is more fun than in a large organized group, and we can choose the places we want see. However, there are disadvantages, such as having to look for accommodation and transport. We learnt this trip that Chinese taxi drivers are also in the rip-the-tourists game, and if they recommend you a hotel, you can be sure you'll be getting a bad deal.
On arrival at the Guilin Airport in mid-morning after a 4 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Hub was taken in by a guy who told us he could drive us to a good hotel in his mien bao ce ("bread car", because of the shape). The Education Hotel (yes, we wondered what education we would be getting) was reasonably clean and we were happy to know that our driver turned out to be a tour guide for a tour company so the rooms he got us at 260 Yuan/RM130/US$36 for the 2 + 1 beds and 210 Yuan/RM105/US$29 for the twin bed room were discounted. It wasn't until our last day in Guilin that we realized that at that price, instead of a 3-star hotel, we could've got a 4-star hotel. The lesson learnt here is that it is best you do your homework and get information from people who've been there before. Like me.
Driver was very persistent, a very Chinese trait it turned out. He insisted we visit the Prince Palace that's older than the Summer Palace in Beijing. We went, and it was a bummer at 65 Yuan per pax. The highlight of the Palace was a cave in which the elixir of life could be found. Before we knew it, we were trapped in the cave etched with pictures of warriors and idols on the walls and we were told to seek out our respective life guardians/spirits according to our birth year according to the Chinese animal zodiac. These life guardians will supposedly give us a long healthy life if we bow to them. One of my kids said it was spooky, but this was where I told them, and felt it, "Greater is He who is in us than he that is in the world" because Jesus is way greater than a few hundred wall carvings. I just thought it was so stupid to believe that everybody born under a certain sign will have the same life, and that praying to a carving on the wall will make anyone's life better. After that we were told to climb a small hill to get a view of Guilin, and again it turned out to be some spiritual climb because at the top there was a shrine. I took it positively; my thighs needed the exercise.
Driver took us to his favorite Guilin mifen place but the mifen was not exactly what I wanted. The noodles were Guilin mifen but not prepared in the famous Guilin mifen style. It was ching tang mifen (clear soup noodles), light and tasty. Soup on a cold day is so comforting. And at 2.50 Yuan/RM1.25/USD 0.35, how can we not love it?
Pickled long beans, a very essential condiment for Guilin mifen. Ming immediately loved this.
Most Asians think that Chinese aren't big on chilies. Wrong, because in many parts of China, no meals would be complete without chilies. My father's first wife still eats a chili everyday and she's in her late 80s. In Sichuan, dried chilies are used in every dish. It is said that Guilin has three jewels: Guilin wine, Guilin fermented bean curd (foo yue) and Guilin chili sauce. Authentic Guilin chili sauce is totally different from the Lee Kum Kee's Guilin chili sauce in Malaysia. The real stuff is fresher, hotter and very lightly salted, sometimes not even salted except with black beans.
In a Guilin mifen shop, you have to tell the cashier what size noodles you want. Sizes are by weight, in Chinese liang. One liang is 100 grams and there are 10 liangs in one jing. We usually had two liangs, which is a lot of noodles. That size usually costs 250 Yuan/RM1.25/US$0.35, the cheapest bowl of noodles we've ever eaten.
You pay the cashier and she gives you a receipt which you take to the kitchen counter and get your bowl of noodles, with your choice of thinly-sliced meat topping. Then you take your bowl of noodles to the condiments station where you can add as much pickled long beans, pickled radish, chilie sauce, spring onions, pork soup and flavored soy sauce called lu sui (which is the most important condiment for Guilin mifun and the recipe for this is kept secret) as you want.
The driver wouldn't let us go and we had a hard time getting away from him. Hub paid him 150 Yuan/RM75/US$21 for the fare from the airport to the hotel and another 100 Yuan/RM50/US$14 for taking us around and we were relieved to finally get off the van. It was quite chilly, and we went into ' Little Hong Kong', a large basement mall in the center of the shopping area, and got ourselves winter jackets at unbelievably low prices--men's jackets for 150 Yuan/RM75/US$21, a woolen trench coat (which became my coat for the trip) for 240 Yuan/RM120/US$33 and a trendy jacket for 120 Yuan/RM60/US$17.
We wandered the shopping area, filling up with snacks and drinks. Although it was cold, it was fun to walk because there was so much to see. The main street is closed off to traffic every night and stalls are set up along a long stretch of the street.
We got back to the hotel around 9 pm, dropped our shopping bags and ventured across the road to a row of wooden run down stalls with dim lighting for more food. I started with bbq meat and veg, and then decided to try what most Guiliners eat for breakfast. I have never heard of you cha (oil tea), a dish considered so authentic to Guiliners that if you can eat it, you are one of them. There are many indigenous tribes in China, and you cha is a dish of a certain tribe in Guilin.
Guilin you cha, about 10 Yuan/RM5/US$1.40.
A bowl of you cha is made up of rice puffs and a your selection of toppings that include peanuts and fried tid bits over which you pour a tea made of pounded and toasted tea leaves, ginger, spring onions, garlic and oil. Ew! It was slightly bitter but the aroma was like the onion bath my mom gave me to wash away fever when I was little. All of our faces puckered at first sip but Wey surprised us all by drinking 2 bowls of the vile soup. I think it was just to prove to us that he was more courageous. I shudder when I think of it. I would rather drink yak tea.
Wooden huts and stalls usually provide little tables and stools, making us feel like Goldilocks.
After that disastrous snack, we hopped into a coffee shop next to our hotel for another round of Guilin mifen, fried and with soup, before dropping flat out in our beds.