The Lijiang River (often called the River Li) starts in the Cat Mountain in Xing’an County and flows 437 km to the West River. The 83 km between the city of Guilin and the town of Yangshuo is the most scenic section and attracts many domestic and international tourists. Here the river winds “like a blue ribbon” and as you cruise along its curves you pass soaring limestone peaks.
These peaks have been eroded into the most unusual shapes; some are rounded, some pointed, others vertical. It’s almost surreal. A great Chinese poet said the hills are like jade hairpins. I’ve never seen a jade hairpin, but this hair apparel of the Tang Dynasty is often used to describe the attraction. These formations are also referred to as karst topography.
Other destinations with Karst topography
A cruise down this section of the river takes 3 to 5 hours, depending on the depth of the water. A faster option is to go by bamboo boat. Most visitors stay in Guilin and cruise to Yangshuo and back in a day.
Certain peaks along the route have been given very descriptive names, which seems to be a Chinese pattern. The first one is Elephant Trunk Hill, so-called because it is suppose to resemble an elephant sucking water from the river with its long trunk. Then it’s Pagoda Hill where the Longevity Buddha Pagoda dating from the Ming Dynasty sits. The enormous Crown Cave is a popular attraction with its stalactite and rock formations. I love the name of the next attraction: Half-Side Ferry. It was so-named because a huge rock blocks off the footpath near the river and villagers are forced to take a ferry to get around it. At Mural Hill there is a 100m high cliff where you are suppose to look for the shapes and colours of nine horses. At Yellow Cloth Shoal the peaks are very steep and there’s a huge yellow rock lying in the water; the seven green peaks that are nearby were once fairies that were so enthralled by the scene that they decided to stay permanently. Finally there is Xingping and it is here that the river makes a big turn, showcasing a spectacular scene that has been captured in many Chinese landscape paintings.
I went on a cruise boat down the river although a bamboo one would have been more suitable to my way of travelling. The cruise was a bit like a tour in the sense that you were assigned seats, given lunch, and restricted from raising the curtains and looking at the river until given permission (I think it had something to do with the garbage along the banks close to Guilin). Assigned to the same room as me were two doctoral students from Norway who had been doing research in China for several months and who spoke excellent English; an elegant and seemingly well-to-do Chinese couple; and what seemed to be a bit of an ‘odd’ couple and their young daughter, he being from Japan and she from Taiwan; they had met while studying at the University of Hawaii.
It very soon became obvious that whenever the Taiwanese/Japanese couple was in the room, the Chinese couple left and went up on the deck. You don’t need to be in this part of the world for long to see that tensions still simmer over the Japanese invasion of China during WWII when millions of Chinese were killed, many of them civilians. The Japanese army razed most of the city of Guilin in 1944. Even today Chinese hotel owners tell me they would never have Japanese stay at their property.
There has also been ongoing tension between China and the island of Taiwan, with Taiwan wanting to remain independent and China determined to reunify Taiwan with the mainland under the formula “one country, two systems”. The couple from Norway said that if they had one word to sum up the Chinese it would be “pragmatic” but I was not sure how it was going to play out on this ship where the atmosphere inside this room was almost as interesting as the peaks outside.
I think I was the only person on the cruise who was staying at Yangshuo, a small town 60 km from Guilin that has long been known to foreign backpackers. The place is a little chintzy when the cruise passengers roll in for their time-on-shore but quickly settles down when the boat leaves. It’s a small place, easy to cover by foot, with a good selection of accommodation and restaurants and breathtaking scenery.
The night before the cruise, I had arrived in Guilin as the sun was setting and what I saw was most enchanting, particularly the green space alongside the Li Jiang River that cuts through the town. If I had planned this differently I would have stayed two full days in Guilin for I left feeling I had missed something special.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012