Tips on cruisin’ the Li River, Guilin and Yangshuo

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My trip into the Dr. Seussian land of karst pinnacles, river cruises and bike trips

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Tip #1: Independently arrange your Li River Cruise voyage

Tip #2: Explore the area around Yangshuo by bike for a cheap and more authentic experience

Tip #3: Stay in Guilin rather than Yangshuo during peak travel periods

I had only been in China for a few days when I made the commitment to visit Guilin.  Prior to arriving in the Middle Kingdom, I had seen the third Star Wars prequel and assumed the Wookie home world was some of sort of Frankenstein landscape concocted from photoshop and CGI witchcraft.  The vertical, mist shrouded pillars rising straight out of the ground in forests of stone, with trees clinging to their sides for dear life, surely couldn’t exist in the real world.  I was having a welcome dinner with some folks from the school I had signed with as a teacher in Fuzhou when one of my colleagues pointed out the landscape on the back of the 20 RMB note.  My excitement was immediately aroused.  “Where can I see this?” I asked.  “Head to Guilin,” was the response.  I immediately put it on my list of destinations.   


The image that inspired me to travel to Guilin – this souvenir note was a gift from a local politician.


I’m ashamed to say, prior to this exchange the possibility of this sort of environment existing had only entered into my mind via four channels: The Revenge of the Sith, James Cameron’s Avatar (inspired by Zhangjiajie), Dragon Ball and Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go.  All fictional places.  It had never occurred to me that such a place might exist in the real world.  When I flew from Fuzhou to Guilin (桂林 Guìlín meaning Osmanthus Forest) during the Spring Festival holiday of 2014, I really felt like the hero of that Dr. Seuss book, I was really going places!    


Guilin’s city center is graced by a series of pleasant rivers and lakes. You can find the Sun Pagoda – 日塔; Rì Tǎ – and the Moon Pagoda – 月塔; Yuè Tǎ – towering out of the middle of Cedar Lake – 杉湖; Shān Hú.


The first thing that was immediately apparent upon arriving at the Guilin airport was that Guangxi is not as wealthy as Fujian.  While Fujian is a full-blown province of China, Guangxi is officially the Guangxi-Zhuang Autonomous Region (other AR’s include Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner-Mongolia and Ningxia).  These are regions with high-populations of ethnic minorities which technically are supposed to enjoy more local-legislative rights and less central control than provinces.  One need only refer to the case of Tibet to see that this is far from true.  More likely it merely means that these regions are expected to rely less upon centrally directed capitalism and more upon minority-culture tourism.   


Adjacent to Cedar Lake is 榕湖 Róng hú or Banyan Lake. Both of these man-made lakes were built during the Tang Dynasty and were the home of ancient poets who arrived in Guilin to revel in the region’s inspiring scenery. There are also remnants of the city’s Ming Dynasty walls near here.


On the taxi ride on the way to my hostel, I was unsettled by the black, hulking shapes of the hills, looming like slumbering beasts, and by the town’s empty streets and desolate quiet in the dead of night.  I was immediately reassured upon arriving and settling into my then-empty dorm room.  

Spring Festival can be a strange time to travel in China.  The country is simultaneously deserted and chaotic, lonely and overwhelmingly crowded, silent and deafeningly loud.  The dorm room I stayed in, for example, was empty for most of my 9 day stay in Guilin except for two nights.  A British fellow shared the room with me for one night.  On another night what seemed to be an entire family of Chinese arrived and kept me laughing and occupied during the day with their insatiable curiosity and generosity toward me and awake at night with their deafening snores.  


Apparently there’s a huge Tolkein fan in Guilin. I saw this cafe on riverside _____ road lined with the city’s namesake Osmanthus Trees. Sadly, like everywhere else, it was closed for Chinese New Year.


Guilin itself was fairly empty outside of a narrow market/bar street near the city’s central plaza which was where the foreign and domestic tourists passing through Guilin went to revel.  Most cafes and restaurants were closed and the park’s were peaceful and quiet.  This came to an end on the day of the Festival itself when it seemed the city might be reduced to rubble by fireworks.  



Tip #1: Independently arrange your Li River Cruise voyage

I decided to get “the most important” part of my trip over and done with early and set out on the Li River Cruise on my second day.  I would recommend other foreigners do what I did and try to arrange a spot on one of the Chinese-language boat trips.  I’ve since learned that Guilin is somewhat notorious for charging foreigners more than domestic tourists.  While I’m normally understanding of why locals do this to foreign tourists who are (usually) wealthier but tight-fisted – the situation in China makes this quite annoying since the domestic tourists are often wealthier than the foreigners but the foreigners are charged more.  The Chinese tourists are just more street-wise to the local scams and less easily parted with their money.  

Simply comb the streets and find a place advertising cruises.  Check that they have clear pricing and that they offer what you want (it should say something like “Li River Cruise” in English.  If not you might have to learn a few Chinese characters *gasp* – 漓江 is Chinese for Li River).  You’ll pay, get a ticket or receipt and be told to show up somewhere to wait for the bus or you can have the bus pick you up at your hotel/hostel.  Don’t worry, you’re probably not being scammed.  The real scam occurs when you’re overpriced by the agency at your hotel.  If you’re paying about 200-250 RMB, you’re paying the Chinese price.  There are “luxury” cruises with English guides for 400 RMB as well as trips up the river on bamboo rafts for about 200 RMB.    

Boarding the ferry boat at the beginning of the cruise, a local political figure showed up and welcomed us, gifting everyone with keepsake 20-RMB notes.  You can grab the opportunity to snapshot the scene on this note on the Li River cruise.  She made me feel like a foreign dignitary, handing me the first free 20 RMB bill and saying “welcome” in English.  She asked where I was from and, her microphone in my face, I responded with one of the few Chinese words I knew at the time – Meiguo (America) – which elicited a round of applause from my fellow cruisers, all Chinese. 

I wish I were a better photographer and could really capture how amazing the views along the Li River were but hopefully these will somewhat suffice.  I went in the winter when the water levels were low and the skies were clear.     


This spectacular mountain scenery is one variation of a similar geologic phenomenon spread across Guangxi, Guizhou and parts of Hunan and Yunnan.


The karst limestone hills were formed by receding oceans, weathering and erosion over millennia.


The karst pinnacles are formed in stages. First groundwater bores sinkholes in the porous limestone, gradually shaping fengcong or peak-cluster karst, the cone shaped hills seen along the Li River and around Yangshuo. Further erosion narrows the hills, producing fenglin or peak forest karst, the towering vertical pinnacles seen within Guilin city and at Zhangjiajie in Hunan and in the Stone Forest near Kunming. The process also bores underground, creating magnificent cave systems – such as Reed Flute Cave near Guilin.


I was the lone foreigner on this boat full of Chinese tourists so I was asked to pose for many pictures. One young fellow struck up a conversation with me, telling me how much he prefers the scenery of places like this over smoggy Xi’an, his hometown. I had to agree. He also told me about his kung fu studies and a tall-tale about how his teacher fought off a tiger in the mountains near here.


Chinese tour guides like to name rock formations after what they are claimed to resemble – sometimes these designations have origins in ancient poetry and sometimes they’re modern contrivances. Along the Li River you can see “Woman Yearning for Her Husband’s Return,” “the Eight Immortals,” “Calligraphy Brush” (seen above) and the “Dragon’s Mouth.”



Yellow Cloth Reflection – 黄布倒影 Huáng bù dàoyǐng – the stretch of the Li River Cruise where you can snap a photo mimicking the scene on the back of the 20-RMB note.



Upon disembarking in Yangshuo, you can hire cormorant fisherman to take you out on their boats. A traditional practice now a cultural commodity. The cormorants necks are tied to ropes attached to bamboo poles. When the bird glides under the water and snatches a fish, the fisherman yanks it back in the boat and takes its catch. A fascinating and ingenious if fairly inhumane method – it’s up to you to decide if seeing a tradition that likely won’t survive the policing of modern-sentiment is worth your own moral qualms. I opted out.


After that long day cruising in the sun to Yangshuo, I took it easy for a day and just went on a short trip on another boat in Guilin to check out the city’s most famous landmark, Elephant Trunk Hill.  The rock vaguely resembles an elephant dipping its trunk in the water to drink.  Legend has it that the rock was once a living elephant in an imperial convoy.  The elephant became sick and was abandoned by the heartless emperor.  After being nursed back to health by an elderly local couple, the elephant refused to return to the emperor.  Enraged, the emperor killed the elephant and turned it into the hill we see today.   


Elephant Trunk Hill in the winter/dry season. A boat tour past the hill will cost 75 RMB. The local government has used carefully placed trees on the shore to make it quite difficult to get a good look at the hill without buying a boat ticket


I returned to Yangshuo and immediately rented a bike and set off for a day of aimless meandering down nameless paths through the mountains.  I got hopelessly lost on the way, finding myself in the middle of an orchard and later carrying my bike over a raging river to get back on the road to Yangshuo from the countryside.    

Tip #2: Explore the area around Yangshuo by bike for a cheap and more authentic experience


The bike I rented for my meanderings around Yangshuo – I named it “The Red Baron.”


I didn’t know it at the time, but I was riding along the Jade Dragon River – 玉龙河 Yùlóng hé – also a popular rafting route for other tourists.



The 600 year old Jade Dragon Bridge – 玉龙桥 Yùlóng qiáo.









To round things out, as you can see from the picture below, during peak travel periods Yangshuo can get incredibly congested.  I considered staying in Yangshuo overnight but decided I preferred the peace and tranquility of Guilin.  I definitely need to go back and check out places like Reed Flute Cave, Daxu and Xingping town.    

Tip #3: Stay in Guilin rather than Yangshuo during peak travel periods


Yangshuo’s popular West Street – 西街 Xi jiē. Yangshuo – 阳朔 Yángshuò meaning literally sun and moon – was once a little-known but popular haven for foreign backpackers. It was discovered by domestic tourists in the 21st century and has since become one of China’s most popular destinations. Beware during peak travel times.

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