by Jean and Peter Richards
The Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of the most touristic trips in China, but it is a journey worth taking.
We had the good fortune to fly in from Hong Kong on a clear day at an altitude low enough to see the verdant and varied landscape over Guanxi to Guilin. It was a revelatory view for us who have seen more forests of skyscrapers across China than trees.
Guilin, an ancient imperial seat and more recently home base for the Kuomintang, would be just an unexciting third-level city in south central China today if it weren’t for the wondrous landscape flanking the Li on its 83 kilometer cruising route.
The limestone cones of the karst, sculpted by millennia of rainfall, rise and fall, green with vegetation, stripped in places to their geologic colors, spotted with gaping caves and crowned with phantasmagorical features.
The sparkling river, shallow at winter’s approach, rippled with fish, some sold directly to the waterside kitchens in the sterns of the flat bottomed boats.
The Chinese seem to have a knack for moving masses of people with minimal disruption.
On an off-season day, our English-speaking guide said that 20,000 people may be on the Li. The figure was hard to believe, but on arrival at the Man Pan Hill Wharf, the smaller of two starting points, there were hundreds of people cascading down the stone steps boarding as many as 18 two-and-a-half storey boats. Once on the water, it seemed as if ours was the only vessel afloat.
It didn’t take long for patrons to abandon the comfort of the lower decks for the rails of the upper observation area. It was brisk. The views were compelling as our guide pointed out the fancifully named formations: panda, apple, woman with baby on her back, old man and nine horses.
The karst is richly veined, often white, sometimes striated and with smatterings of red or yellow. Sichuan bamboo, planted, she said, at the direction of Deng Zhou Ping as tourism replaced manufacturing, edges the embankments. The hills were filled with osmanthus trees and orchards of kumquats and citrus covered in plastic against the autumnal night. Oxen grazed. Ducks paddled in profusion. The tradition of fishing with cormorants has given way to large nets lowered onto the sandy bottom. Bamboo rafts have become plastic. Walking trails seem abundant. Modern life encroaches only occasionally in the form of a utility line.
It would be easy to miss a high note of the legendary cruise. Visitors have about 40 seconds to see and photograph it, if they know what it is. A clue can be found on the cluster of karst featured on current 20 yuan notes. Many people miss it, we were told, because guides point them to an earlier cluster which is vaguely similar and visible for longer, giving the boat’s commercial photographers more time to profit.
Lunch could have been missed and was supplemented by many with orders of sticky taro balls and river fish caught nearby and fried on the boat.
Four hours passed as if we had slipped into an ancient scroll painting both familiar and rare.
Debarkation at Yangshuo was like rush hour at Grand Central Station – thousands of people scrambled up steps and long ramps to walk along the seemingly endless galleria lined with merchants selling the same horrible trinkets. Yangshuo may have been nice once. It is said to be one of the most westernized towns in China. We took a brief look and declined to linger.
Younger, more energetic visitors are enticed by climbing, hiking, biking and rafting opportunities in Guilin and around Guanxi.
Tang Yun (Catherine), our guide for two days, was exceptional. Talking with her and learning about Guilin, its history and customs, was as much a part of our pleasure as seeing the actual sights. We spent a day with her in Guilin seeing Elephant Trunk Hill and Fubo Hill but mostly enjoying an afternoon cruise on the intown lakes and a stroll around the hutong being reconstructed as “Snack Street.”
Guilin has a reputation for some of the best rice noodles in China because the rice growing conditions and water are ideal.
At Ming Gui, we had very good rice noodles with pork and a variety of condiments from peanuts to hot chillies. The sauce is special to each kitchen and can include 20-30 ingredients to which broth may be added. A large and delicious bowlful cost only 5 yuan or about 75 cents.
At another stop, Hua Gui, we sampled sticky rice balls, fried and rolled in sesame after having a bowl of soy milk, red beans and red sugar and a plate of chicken feet. Enough for three cost only 28 yuan or about $3.92.
Piles of what appeared to be charcoal from a distance turned out to be a local favorite even if from Changsha in the adjoining province of Hunan. The fried fermented bean curd called Stinky Tofu developed a black crust that was crunchy on the outside and had a creamy tofu center. Condiments added personal taste to the 5 yuan bowl.
The Shangri-la Hotel Guilin with its expansive garden, homage to traditional architecture and commodious rooms also has a quite decent restaurant – The Shang Palace. Restaurant staff often approach us with skepticism when we ask for dishes not usually ordered by Westerners, then warm to the occasion when we clear our plates. That evening we had a cold appetizer of ox tongue, tripe, heart and beef in spicy sauce, fried tiny Li River baby shrimp with chives; braised sliced pork belly with taro, rice and Longji local tea which was light and soothing. The meal came to 342.60 yuan or about $50. Everything was well prepared, well served and enjoyed even if the tiny shrimp with their muddy flavor were not to our taste and the pork belly with taro, while interesting, was not something we would order again.
“Guilin’s scenery is best among all under heaven” is a popular saying. The “forest of sweet osmanthus” as Guilin is traditionally known will be a bright memory.
© 2016 by Jean & Peter Richards