Friday 23 February 2024

How to Be Vegan in China's Enchanting Guilin

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We've been to several Asian and Southeast Asian countries before as vegans (Thailand, the Philippines, Laos and Malaysia) ... today, we're going to be writing about being vegan in China, specifically: in Guilin. Nestled in the southern reaches of China, Guilin emerges as a beacon of natural splendour and cultural richness. Renowned for its mesmerizing karst landscapes, meandering rivers, and a tapestry of ancient traditions, Guilin is a destination that beckons travellers seeking an escape into a realm of serene beauty. In this comprehensive exploration, we embark on a journey to unravel the secrets of Guilin, from its iconic limestone peaks to the heart of its cultural heritage.... but first, we'll address the challenge of being vegan in China!

How to Be Vegan in China When Visiting Guilin

When I first went to China I was a meat and dairy eating 17-year-old who, I'm ashamed to admit, was hoping to try 'exotic' meats. But when it came down to it and I took a bite into mouse, I felt upset and confused - until I realised it was actually 'just' chicken. Oh the cognitive dissonance! Nowadays, I neither eat chicken nor mouse, meat nor dairy (nor fish, nor honey, nor eggs).
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Whilst China has mad skill when it comes to cooking tofu, way less interest in dairy than in India or Europe, not to mention the variety of vegetables and ways to cook them, travelling to China as a vegan can be a bit of a struggle thanks to the language barrier (I'm assuming you, like me, don't speak Mandarin - Google Translate comes in handy!) I think a whole post can be dedicated to tackling China as a vegan, but today I'm just going to give you a taste. The "meat" or should i say "tofu" of this post will be about travelling to China itself.

So as a starter, let's quickly look at a few dishes you can find in China as a vegan. In restaurants and at food vendors some plant-based dishes can usually be found but always watch out for animal oils or beef/pork/chicken stock. Also, most restaurants will have pictures on their menus so that might help. Here's a list of common dishes and names of vegetables:

  • 青菜 / qing cai: bok choi;
  • 素鸡 / I have no idea how to pronounce this, sorry: a mock duck made from seitan;
  • 煎饼不要鸡蛋 / jian bing buyao jidan: a pancake that is savoury, ask for it sans the egg;
  • 地三鲜 / di san xian: aubergine, pepper and potato;
  • 麻婆豆腐 / ma po dou fu: tofu in a chilli sauce, ask for it without the minced meat;
  • 土豆丝 / tu dou si: shredded potato;
  • 红豆包子 / hongdou baozi: red bean buns that are sweet;
  • 青菜包子 / qingcai baozi: steamed buns with vegetables;

Furthermore, guizhou hotpot soup is supposed to be vegan, also the soy milk and the aforementioned steamed buns that (baozi) you can buy from basically any street vendor. In general, if you ask, any restaurants will probs make you some kind of veg & tofu / seitan meal. Just say that you eat 全素/素食 (sorry, have no idea about the pronunciation but you can copy+paste the symbols and show them your phone - or use Google translate! If I could count how many times that helped us out around the world...) Anyway, here are further some words and phrases:

  • a word that you can use for vegan food is 纯素 (chun su), meaning 'only vegetables'
  • 'zhe cai shi chun su de ma?' would be 'is this dish made only with vegetables?',
  • 'ni you chun su de cai ma?' is 'do you have any dishes which are just vegetables?',
  • specifying eggs and fish might be helpful: 'bu chi ji dan' and 'bu chi yu'.

HappyCow is pretty limited outside of Sanghai and Beijing so I recommend using Dianping, aka the 'Chinese TripAdvisor' or Baidu. Just search for this: 素食, this will show you every vegan restaurant in your area. Also there's this chain called Wagas, they make vegan smoothies and wraps (with kale, pumpkin, salsa, etc.), I'd recommend them too. I've heard that Shanghai has some places that make superb vegan pizzas and vegan burgers but I haven't been able to check them out tbf. Indian places and Muslim noodle vendors might also be worth checking out.

Buddhist temples or Buddhist buffets selling 'temple food' can be a good bet too, they're mostly vegetarian/vegan, pretty cheap and the food is good quality (you can also find fancier ones with more expensive food). Do ask whether there's egg in your chosen dish or not - sometimes these Buddhist places will say if a dish has eggs, milk or fish or oyster sauce in it but it's probs a good idea to just ask anyway. Remember: only about 20% of the Chinese population is Buddhist (Confucianism is a much stronger religious tradition in China), and oysters are regularly consumed by many Buddhist monks (they don't think of them as animal products bc they don't have blood I've heard?)
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On animal stock and lard being used in almost anything, even the plant-based dishes... yeah, watch out for that. Ask. Buddhist monk food is often made with mushroom powder based stock, which is good news. But in the end, there's nothing really you can do and it might be the best to just cook for yourself at home.

If you want some add MSG in your food (who wouldn't?), the 'Lee' brand of vegetable stock seems to be accidentally vegan. And there's more good news too: the Chinese state has made a law to reduce 'mukbang' (a kind of binge eating tradition that involved a lot of meat) in the last couple of years and very recently they have introduced their official 'vegan' food certification... so, definitely on the right way! Now back to our travel guide to Guilin:

Guilin's Natural Wonders

Here's a list of nature sites we recommend visiting:

Karst Landscapes: Nature's Masterpiece

Guilin's defining feature is its karst topography, where limestone formations rise dramatically from the earth, creating a landscape that seems plucked from a surreal dreamscape. The Elephant Trunk Hill, resembling an elephant drinking from the Li River, stands as an iconic symbol of Guilin's natural artistry.
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Visitors can explore the intricate stalactites and stalagmites of the Reed Flute Cave, a subterranean wonder adorned with colourful lights that illuminate the mesmerizing formations.

Li River Cruise: a Journey Through Tranquillity

Embarking on a Li River cruise is an immersive experience that allows travellers to soak in the breathtaking scenery of Guilin. As the cruise meanders through the picturesque landscapes, passengers are treated to views of the iconic karst peaks, lush greenery, and charming villages along the riverbanks.
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The journey often leads to the town of Yangshuo, where the landscape transforms into a poetic canvas of natural beauty.

Yangshuo Countryside - Cycling Through Rural Splendour

Venturing beyond Guilin, the countryside around Yangshuo unveils a different facet of Chinese life. Exploring the area by bicycle or on foot immerses travelers in the rural landscapes, with terraced fields, traditional villages, and meandering rivers creating a pastoral panorama. Local markets offer a glimpse into everyday life, and encounters with friendly locals add a personal touch to the journey.

Longsheng Rice Terraces - Terraced Splendour

A short trip from Guilin takes travellers to the Longsheng Rice Terraces, where the landscape is sculpted into a series of terraces ascending the hillsides. These rice terraces, known as the Dragon's Backbone, provide not only a breathtaking sight but also a testament to the ingenuity of ancient agricultural practices. The terraces change colours with the seasons, creating a dynamic and visually stunning environment.

The Cultural Riches of Guilin

Here's a list of cultural sites we recommend visiting:

Guilin's Historical Legacy

Guilin's cultural heritage is deeply rooted in its history, evident in landmarks such as the Jingjiang Princes' City. This historic site preserves the architectural grandeur of the Ming and Qing dynasties, offering a glimpse into the city's royal past. Strolling through the city's ancient streets and alleys, visitors can feel the echoes of bygone eras.

Seven-Star Park - Nature and Culture Converge

Seven-Star Park, Guilin's largest park, seamlessly blends natural beauty with cultural significance. Amidst the lush greenery and ancient trees, one finds landmarks like the Seven-Star Cave, an extensive underground cavern adorned with stalactites and stalagmites.
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The park also houses the Flower Bridge, a picturesque crossing that provides stunning views of the surrounding landscapes.

Minority Cultures: Longstanding Traditions

Guilin's cultural mosaic is enriched by the presence of minority groups, including the Zhuang and Yao ethnicities. Exploring their villages and engaging with their traditions offers a deeper understanding of the region's diversity. Colourful festivals, traditional clothing, and unique customs contribute to the vibrant tapestry of Guilin's cultural identity.

Practical Tips and Recommendations

Here are some practical tips and advice for your visit to Guilin:

  • The Best Time to Visit Guilin: Guilin's climate varies throughout the year, and the best time to visit depends on personal preferences. Spring and autumn offer mild temperatures and pleasant weather, while summer brings warmth and occasional rainfall. Winter can be cool, but it's also a quieter time for exploration.
  • Transportation within Guilin: Navigating Guilin is convenient, with options ranging from public buses and taxis to more unique experiences like bamboo rafting along the Yulong River. Renting bicycles to explore the city and its outskirts at a leisurely pace is a popular choice among travellers.
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  • Language and Communication: While Mandarin is the official language, English may not be widely spoken in some areas. Learning a few basic phrases in Mandarin or having a translation app can enhance the communication experience.
  • Respect for Local Customs: Respecting local customs and traditions is integral to a positive travel experience. Understanding basic etiquette, such as removing shoes before entering someone's home, contributes to cultural sensitivity and mutual respect.

China visa: How To Get One, What Types There Are

China offers various visa types, including tourist (L), business (M), work (Z), and student (X) visas. Determine the most suitable visa based on your purpose of travel. For a leisure trip to Guilin, the tourist visa (L visa) is commonly applicable. Research the jurisdiction of the Chinese embassy or consulate where you will submit your visa application. Complete the application form accurately, pay the visa fee, and schedule an appointment if required.
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Compile necessary documents such as a visa application form, passport-sized photos, hotel reservations, and a detailed itinerary. Ensure your passport is valid for at least six months beyond your intended departure from China. Familiarize yourself with additional requirements, such as health declarations or vaccinations, if applicable. Once your visa is approved, collect it within the specified time-frame. Arrive in Guilin and other parts of China with your valid passport, visa, and any additional required documentation. You can click here for detailed information.

Accommodations in Guilin

There are many different kinds of accommodation available in Guilin, including:

  • Luxury retreats: Guilin offers a range of accommodations catering to diverse preferences. Luxury travellers can indulge in opulent retreats such as the Shangri-La Hotel Guilin, which boasts panoramic views of the Li River and karst peaks. These establishments often provide world-class amenities, spas, and fine dining experiences.
  • Boutique stays: For a more intimate experience, boutique hotels like the Aroma Tea House offer unique settings infused with local charm. Nestled along the Li River, these establishments provide personalized service, often incorporating traditional design elements and local artwork.
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  • Riverside Resorts: Riverside resorts, such as the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, provide a tranquil escape surrounded by nature. Located on the outskirts of Guilin, these accommodations offer serene landscapes, comfortable lodgings, and activities like yoga and cycling to connect guests with the natural surroundings.
  • Budget-Friendly Options: Travellers on a budget can find a variety of guest-houses and hostels throughout Guilin. The Wada Hostel in Yangshuo, for instance, provides affordable accommodations with a laid-back atmosphere, catering to backpackers and budget-conscious travellers.

Guilin Beyond the Basics

Here are some extra tips that you might be interested in:

  • Photography Tips: Guilin's landscapes are a photographer's dream. Capture the essence of the karst peaks during the golden hours, explore hidden corners for unique perspectives, and don't forget to document local life in the countryside. Guilin's natural beauty provides a canvas for captivating photography.
  • Hidden Gems: Beyond the well-known attractions, Guilin harbors hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Explore secret caves, lesser-known viewpoints, and off-the-beaten-path trails to uncover the quieter, more authentic side of Guilin.
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  • Cultural Events and Festivals: Timing your visit to coincide with local festivals can enhance your cultural experience. Festivals like the Water Splashing Festival and the Longji Terraced Field Cultural Festival showcase traditional performances, vibrant costumes, and community celebrations.
  • Sustainable Travel: As tourism grows in Guilin, it becomes crucial to prioritize sustainable practices. Engage in eco-friendly activities, support local businesses, and follow responsible travel guidelines to contribute positively to the preservation of Guilin's natural and cultural heritage.

Wrap Up: How to Be Vegan in China When Visiting Guilin

In concluding our exploration of Guilin, we find a destination that transcends mere travel—it is an immersive journey into the heart of nature's artistry and the cultural tapestry of southern China. From the iconic karst landscapes to the ancient traditions and warm hospitality, Guilin beckons adventurers seeking a harmonious blend of serenity and adventure.

As you traverse the Li River, cycle through picturesque villages, and immerse yourself in Guilin's timeless charm, you discover not just a destination but a transformative experience. Guilin's allure lies not only in its physical beauty but in the stories woven into its ancient streets, the traditions preserved in its festivals, and the genuine warmth of its people. For those who yearn to explore a destination where nature and culture dance in harmony, Guilin stands as an invitation—an invitation to discover, to connect, and to be captivated by the enchanting landscapes and rich heritage that define this gem in southern China.

Remember: Guilin is not just a place, it's a narrative waiting to be written by every traveller who sets foot on its sacred soil, leaving an indelible mark on the canvas of their memories!

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