We spent a month travelling around China in July and August, starting in Guilin and working our way around the country clockwise.
We tried to take the sleeper train from Shenzhen but it was booked up, even though we tried to book it as far in advance as possible (tickets only go on sale a week before departure, to reduce scalping, so we paid an agency to try and do this). So, we had to fly. Chinese airlines are not known for great food… but at least they accurately label it.
Guilin was nice just to wander around. You don't need to pay to visit the tree-surrounded lakes nor see their bridges (which are all miniature versions of famous world bridges), but you can hire a panda-branded put-put boat and go for a nice gentle ride up and down that section of the lakes – a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Seven Star Park is also worth visiting – big karst hills you can climb up, pagodas, monkeys wandering free, limestone caves with inscribed Buddhist Steles, people doing calligraphy on fans etc.. We avoided the zoo bit as we don't support that kind of thing, but the rest of it is nice.
It's a very nice morning spent cruising down the Li River to Yangshuo, starting from the pier which is about 40 minutes out of Guilin by bus. There are many similar boats going down and any hotel or tour company can arrange tickets and English-speaking guides to get you to the right place.
The river winds down between spectacular karst hills and although as everywhere in China we weren't sure how much of the haze was the high humidity and how much was smog, it was quite beautiful.
Some people say that going on one of the smaller bamboo rafts down the most interesting half of it is a better thing to do. Maybe but they are motor-powered, so it's not as relaxing as the Yulong River punting we did (see below). The bigger boats do include a buffet lunch which we found edible if a bit cold sitting in the Bain Marie for an hour before we ate!
It was definitely worth going on the optional extension tour to the Yulong river, about 30 minutes out of Yangshuo. It's tranquil and beautiful there, and punting down the river a short way on the bamboo boats is very relaxing.
This is probably the most chilled-out part of China we went to in our month there!
They also do a Cormorant fishing demo which I wouldn't really have chosen myself – it seems unfair to the birds that they can't swallow the fish they're sent to catch (a band is tied around their necks to prevent this), and although this was an interesting traditional fishing method, now they're just demonstrating for the tourists and throwing the same fish repeatedly for them to catch!
Yangshuo is definitely a great place to spend a couple of days of your China trip. The main shopping street has a bit of the usual pushiness from vendors but not too bad, and the rest of the town is quite chilled out. There are good cafés for brunch and more of that cool karst scenery surrounding the town.
We also went to the epic Impression Liu Sanjie performance – which has some 600 actors and is performed on water, with big lighting rigs and the karst as a backdrop. Of course, it's completely unintelligible to those of us who don't speak Mandarin, but it's still cool to watch.
After Yangshuo we flew on to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan.