Before us the jade river winds like a blue silk ribbon and in the far distance, greenish grey karst mountains loom high and mighty, like green jade hairpins. As we sail along the river, we see herons fly overhead, while lonesome fishermen float past us on bamboo rafts, the air thick with the fragrant smell of osmanthus flowers.
This is Guilin’s pride and joy: Li River (or Li Jiang), a long winding waterway that cuts through the Guangxi province of Southern China, flanked by unusual karst hills and clusters of ancient villages. Originating from the Cat Mountain in Xing’an county, the river flows 437 km down to Guilin city and on to other counties like Yangshuo and Wenzhou. Gushing waterfalls, craggy cliffs and ancient villages all add to the poetic setting which has given Li River its on-screen fame, from movies like the “Hidden Dragon Leaping Tiger”.
To experience the river at its best, we take to the waters on a river cruise with China Odyssey Tours to find out. Boarding a modern three-storey boat, we cruise through the most scenic section of the river, from Guilin to Yangshuo: a 83km journey that takes just over three hours to complete. Our local guide, Evelyn tells us, “ We locals have a joke: Even though the Yangtze is bigger than the Li River, Li is more valuable.” She takes out two notes, a 20 RMB note with the Li River painting behind it and a 10 RMB note, depicting the Yangtze – and laughs at the comparison.
Many poems and literary works in modern and ancient times have sung praises of its beauty, including one that reads, “One hundred miles on Li River, one hundred miles of art gallery.”
Green Hills of Mystery
As we sail deeper into the horizon, what was previously a misty mountain range is now in full view. Peaks upon peaks of green karst hills flank the river,forming an imposing backdrop – the setting so paradisiacal I can imagine it to be an inspiration for myths and legends. The reflections of the hills in the clear and greenish water are so pristine they almost look like paintings. Many poems and literary works in modern and ancient times have sung praises of its beauty, including one that reads, “One hundred miles on Li River, one hundred miles of art gallery.”
Evelyn explains how these landscapes were formed, “These karst hills were created 300 million years ago underwater. Overtime, erosion produced a series of fissures and caverns in the limestone. Now they rise up to over 500m above sea level,” explains Evelyn. The landscapes here have often been compared to those at Halong Bay, Vietnam, but this is clearly much better preserved and protected.
Life on the River
The voyage takes us past trickling waterfalls, gushing springs, and herds of water buffaloes taking a dip in the water to cool off from the heat. At this time of the year, the temperature soars up to 38 degrees Celsius; during the wet season, it rains heavily and many villages in the area get flooded. Fishermen and farmers have to take extra precaution against such extreme weathers, which make living in the remote riverbanks quite a challenge. Over 10 villages are scattered along the banks, each of them with population of around 2,000 to 8,000.
As we meander further, we stumble upon several fishermen on small bamboo rafts, with cormorants (a type of bird) balancing on two ends of their poles. Using trained cormorants to fish has been a traditional fishing method in China since around 960 AD. With their throats tied, these cormorants cannot swallow large fish after catching them, so the fishermen brings the bird back to the boat and have it spit the fish up. These days, its primary use today is a form of entertainment for tourists.
Passing through Xinping town, we see a few small bamboo rafts with tourists onboard – seemingly a better option for independent travelers like us who prefer to steer clear from huge tourist-filled boats. Evelyn explains, “Just last year, there was an accident on one of these rafts as the river can get choppy waves sometimes. Fortunately the victims survived. Now these rafts are not allowed to travel all the way from Guilin to Yangshuo.” Although the tourist boat that we’re on almost seems too kitsch and commercialized, it definitely feels like the safer choice.
Our journey comes to an end at the charismatic town of Yangshuo, a backpacker’s hub that still retains a tinge of ancient Chinese charm. We leave Li River behind and continue to explore the city but no matter where we go, we always end up on the riverfront, by the osmanthus trees watching bamboo rafts float by. Perhaps that is the charm of the Li River – it just keeps you coming back for more.
Disclaimer: Our trip in China was made possible by China Odyssey Tours, but all opinions expressed above are our own.