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Guangxi Province, 500km (310 miles) NW of Hong Kong, 1,675km (1,039 miles) SW of Beijing

One of the most-visited Chinese cities, Guilin (pop. 1,340,000), located in the northeastern part of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, has long been famous for its limestone karst hills. Formed more than 200 million years ago when the oceans receded from this area, the towers sprout from a patchwork of paddy fields and flowing streams, creating a dreamy, seductive landscape that leaves few souls unstirred. Time and space meet here to produce a masterpiece of nature's handiwork. The scenery here is so alien that the makers of Star Wars decided to film the scenes of Chewbacca's homeworld Kashyyyk among the karst columns. The Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo remains one of the top river journeys in the world. Unfortunately, the cost of Guilin's overwhelming popularity is a degree of unrelenting exploitation and extortion audacious even by Chinese standards; foreigners especially are overcharged for everything.

With summer's heat and humidity and winter's low rainfall affecting water levels in the Li River, April, May, September, and October are the best months for cruising. April to August also marks the rainy season, however, so be prepared with rain gear, especially as these past few years have seen summer time flash floods in the area. July can become unbearably hot, and this is the last place on earth that you want to be holed up in your hotel room, clinging to the air conditioner. If possible, avoid national holidays, when the Li River becomes even more congested with tourist boats than usual, and the price of everything doubles at the very least.