Cruise on the Li River, China’s Artistic Masterpiece

A misty village along the Li River. Photo by Harvey Thomlinson
A misty village along the Li River. Photo from “Guilin: China’s Masterpiece”

Guilin in southern China’s Guangxi province has long been South China’s most popular travel destination, acclaimed for its scenery of winding jade waters flanked by lurching Karst Mountains. The iconic views are so revered by artists that Li River landscapes adorn China’s delegation at the United Nations and even her 20 yuan banknote.

Indeed, when Bill Clinton came here, he remarked: “There’s nowhere like Guilin. It reminds me of traditional Chinese paintings.”

But what is the best way to explore the Li River, and where do you start?

One wintery weekend in December, we reached Guilin by high-speed train from Hong Kong, then wrapped up and took to the Li River in search of an elusive ideal of Chinese landscape beauty.

Cruise on the Li River

The most popular way to enjoy the river scenery is to join the crowds on tourist boats from Guilin to the backpacker retreat of Yangshuo. Ours came with a talkative guide who introduced highlights along the route as we took four or five hours to drift toward the backpacker nirvana of Yangshuo.

Pagodas near the Li river. Photo by Harvey Thomlinson
Pagodas near the Li River. Photo from “Guilin: China’s Masterpiece”

The river waters at year’s end looked brown and swollen. Once the boats got underway, we watched the passing scene from tables in the lower deck cabin while a basic lunch of spicy tofu and potato threads was served. The best views, however, were from within the maelstrom of photographers on the upper deck.

Over the course of our journey a fantastic Karst landscape unfolded, reflected in the Li River’s limpid green waters. The outer-skin of the limestone peaks have been washed away through millennia of water erosion, leaving a fairytale landscape of allusion. So otherworldly is the scenery that this stretch of river was chosen as the location for the Wookie planet in the film Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

Many of the strange peaks along the way had names which our guide delighted in revealing. Low on a cliff near the first bend of the river past the town of Yangdi leapt a large stone fish – the Li Fish. The fish with its reddish hue was only fleetingly visible from our big tourist barge, but the smaller crafts cast their lines close to it. Further on, Divine Pen Peak, an outcrop suggestive of an ink pen jutted out from verdant green on the west bank of the river.

The Li River. Photo by Harvey Thomlinson
The Li River. Photo from “Guilin: China’s Masterpiece”

The biggest scenic hit with local tourists on this stretch of the river seemed to be Nine Horse Picture Hill. This 100 meter high cliff, thanks to a combination of weathering and rock strata, supposedly resembles a painting of nine horses. Our guide challenged us to identify the nine, although in the end we only managed about four. The snorting steed at the top was easily harnessed, but some others demanded giving free rein to our imagination.

For us though, the best scenery of our cruise came slightly before the Nine-Horse Picture Hill when a bend in the river opened broad vistas. A range of hills ran across the horizon, green and embroidered with saddle-like twin peaks. Besides these hills, the exposed white limestone of the Nine-Horse Picture Hill presented a satisfying contrast.

The most familiar section of the Li River, Yellow Cloth Shoal which features on the back of the 20 yuan note, lies just around the large turn that the river takes at the historic market town of Xingping. The banknote shows a cormorant fisherman on the river with Yellow Cloth Shoal behind it. The shoal’s name comes from a maize-yellow flagstone, long and wide, whose reflection spreads itself on the river, like a yellow cloth. The reflections vary with the weather, broken by drops of rain on wet days, limpid and clear under sun. The best angle to see the reflection is when the boat turns at the Mahuang Sandbar and the inverted peaks float in the water with shadows around.

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