The dramatic karst landscapes around Yangshuo. Picture: Steve McKenna

It's not a bad view to wake up to. Glancing out of the train window through half-sleepy eyes, I'm faced with a mist-tickled cluster of soaring green shards. Planet Pandora, from the movie Avatar, comes to mind.

For good reason, as it happens. Blessed with UNESCO World Heritage-listed status, the beguilingly beautiful landscapes of southern China are said to have inspired Pandora's magical "floating mountains".

I've taken the overnight train from Guangzhou - the heartland of Cantonese culture, in China's far east - to Guilin, a city in Guangxi, an inland southern Chinese province.

However, while my first glimpse of this lusciously verdant region is promising, as soon as I step off the train, I'm cursed by a truly miserable spell of weather. I'd been warned that this might happen any time between March and August, though the rainy season is at its worst in May, apparently. I've come in April.

The long and short of it is that it pelts down, virtually non-stop, for three days.

It's not so much the rain that bugs me - annoyingly damp and dreary though it is - it's the knowledge of what I'm missing, holed up, as I am, in a hotel in Guilin's city centre.

I make short, sporadic forays outside, when the torrential rain slows to a spit. Near my hotel, three poncho-clad market traders man stalls blanketed in tourist paraphernalia (mostly featuring the Avataresque landscapes). They implore me to: "Look! Look!" Next to them, an old lady clutches fake Nike rain macs and says: "Buy? Buy?"

"A cup of tea to warm you up sir," says a shifty-looking man creeping under an umbrella in one near-empty, puddle-studded pedestrian-only thoroughfare.

Having been warned about the "tea scam" by fellow travellers, and with rain now vociferously pounding my head, I move

swiftly on.

Some trusting souls had apparently taken this character up on his offer only to be ushered into a tea-house, plied with jasmine cha, then forced to pay absurd amounts of yuan for a crummy teapot and permission to leave.

With Guilin mired in a seemingly immovable depression, I decide to shake off my cabin fever and try my luck in Yangshuo, a town 70km away, which is supposedly edged by countryside even more spellbinding than Guilin's.

I don't see any of this on the bus journey there, though. It's too foggy. And wet.

Something wonderful happens the next morning. The rain stops. The doom and gloom dissipates and I can finally go outdoors without an umbrella and a plastic poncho.

Hiring a vintage bicycle, I pedal through a Yangshuo town centre stuffed with cafes, restaurants and souvenir markets, and past a lake which reflects some familiar yellow M logos (a McDonald's restaurant overlooks the water). I long for some old-style China. And I soon find it.

Veering down a tangle of shabby, edge-of-town side streets, I reach a dirt track that snakes off into pastoral countryside matted with vast rice fields and immense limestone hills, which soar into bluey-grey skies.

Slaloming down the track, skidding through a trail of puddles like I did as a BMX-riding child, I swerve past clucking hens and nibbling geese and emerge on to a narrow gravel road hugging the swollen Yulong River.

On the sodden banks, a young woman is fly fishing. Further along, families sit outside their humble wood and brick homes, knitting, playing cards or just staring into space.

A clapped-out motorcycle overtakes me, then I lurch past a trio of tricycles, ridden by rosy-cheeked women, whose wrapped-up children are dozing in the back-carriages.

Pausing next to some drenched paddies, I watch men and women in conical hats wading along, guiding their oxen. A group of Chinese teenagers in Western- style clothes buzz past on bicycles, waving, laughing, and taking photos of this mud-specked laowai (foreigner) in their midst.

After an hour of exhilarating cycling, I arrive at a bridge spanning the Yulong. I'm all alone - apart from the solitary young man below, who's gliding along on a bamboo raft, dwarfed by the backdrop, a ridge of craggy, mist-cloaked karst peaks which reflect into water now drizzled with gentle rainfall.

On one hand, I feel as if I have stumbled on to the Avatar film set.

On the other, it's like I'm seeing an antique Chinese landscape painting coming to life.

Either way, it's been worth the wait.

FACT FILE

For help in planning your trip to Guilin and Yangshou, see visitguilin.org.

China Southern Airlines flies direct between Perth and Guangzhou, csair.com/au/en.

Guilin is 100km (a 14-15 hour rail journey) from Guangzhou. Check up-to-date rail times and fares in China at cnvol.com.

To fly, elong.net has a run-down on flights.

The West Australian

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