Relish the pastoral charms of the People’s Republic as you cruise down the famed Li River
The river winds like a green silk ribbon, while the hills are jade hairpins. The 8th-century poet Han Yu may have added a dollop of melodrama to his lyrical praises of the Li River, but amid the limestone peaks and meandering waters, it’s hard not to be won over by one of the most popular tourist attractions in China. And the flotilla of bamboo rafts and double-decker cruise boats will do little to dull the majestic views as you cruise the sinuous 40km stretch from ZhuJiang wharf to the town of Yangshuo. Here, in the heart of the Guangxi region, visitors from across the world arrive to float downstream in the shadow of these dramatic karst mountains… and with good reason.
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While the crowds in Beijing and Shanghai epitomise the frenetic bustle of modern China, it’s in the provinces where the People’s Republic shows off a different face. Rice paddies are still ploughed by water buffalo, flocks of ducks wander inexorably towards their fate in the wok and surprisingly empty highways link village to town, town to city.
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‘Don’t drive tiredly’ warn the road signs, but given the cavalier approach to traffic rules, that seems to be the least of the problems drivers in Guilin have to deal with.
It’s a long way from South Africa to the city of Guilin – pronounced gway-leen – but the flight from Jo’burg via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific breezes by in a blur of in-flight movies and Cantonese cuisine. Another short flight, a lazy bus ride and you are there. Sleep off the jetlag and you’re ready to go.
The river flows for over 400km before ending up in the Pearl River Delta, but most boats cruise just a fraction of that, the most scenic stretch being from Yangdi to Yangshuo. It’s a mesmerising scene straight out of classical etchings: cloud-clad peaks leaping up from the river’s edge with thick jungle cladding their flanks. At the river’s edge, water buffalo chew the cud and water birds scout the shallows. As you cruise, a guide points out the highlights of the passing scenery. At the risk of making broad generalisations, the Chinese love a good dose of mythology and no opportunity is missed on this ever-popular river.
Yangshuo is a town geared up for tourists, and the main thoroughfare – West Street – comes right down to the pier. After the peaceful river, the jangle of touts and heckling shopkeepers comes as something of a surprise. To ease into the neon-coloured craziness, one can duck into a small teashop to take a breather.
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Guilin translates as Forest of Sweet Osmanthus and the fragrant yellow flowers of the eponymous tree are a signature tea of the region. It’s pricey, but worth it for a taste of China back in Cape Town.
Despite being filled with souvenir shops selling plenty of knock-offs, West Street is good fun. Stock up on Chairman Mao caps and postcards, woven scarves and mysterious sweets. Restaurants and bars jostle for space and as the sun sets, food stalls fill the lanes, sprouting on either side. Dinner is a delicious spread of traditional Chinese dishes.
Yangshuo is famous for hosting the open-air theatre performance of Impression Sanjie Liu: a sound, light and dramatic performance of the history of the region. Utilising 2km of water and a dramatic mountain backdrop, it’s billed as the largest natural theatre in the world. Hundreds of performers and singers act out scenes from the region’s history to an audience of nearly 4 000 people with water buffalo, cormorants and the mountains themselves playing bit parts. With three shows a night almost every night of the year, it’s a major draw card in Guangxi.
While the Li River is undoubtedly the highlight of the region, there are plenty of other sights to tick off in the area. Head to Reed Flute Cave, a remarkable underground cavern weathered out of the region’s soft limestone hills. It’s an interesting diversion despite the underground crowds clamouring to peek at the Buddha’s, lions, frogs and mountains.
There’s more at Wave Subduing Hill, where two rivers collide and flow past the city of Guilin, although 1 000-year-old stone carvings are a welcome reminder that this is an ancient landscape. A short walk downstream, the natural archway of Elephant Trunk Hill is one of Guilin’s more famous sights… with the crowds to boot.
Incredibly, these manicured gardens and pleasantly untamed woodlands date back to the 7th-century Tang dynasty, although there are plenty of modern additions to the formal corners.
If you have the time, visit the rice terraces of LongJi. Changing with the seasons, these high-altitude rice paddies cling to the hillsides in a blaze of water, flowers and green rice stalks. Like the parks and the caves, the rivers and the cormorants, it’s a glimpse of ancient ways in a country that wholeheartedly embraces progress. While Beijing and Shanghai barrel headlong through the 21st century, you will always want to come back and float peacefully along the Li River in the Forest of Sweet
Get yuan: The Renminbi, commonly called yuan, is the official currency. Draw some on arrival as dollars and euros aren’t widely accepted
Don’t DIY: The driving in China leaves much to be desired. Rather book transfers and tours with a local guide.
Check the weather: Guilin’s weather varies hugely through the year: very hot and humid in summer, single digits and dry in the winter.
Talk tough: Chinese vendors take bartering to a new level. In West Street, Yangshuo a price could drop from ¥300 to ¥30. Haggle, haggle, haggle!
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
GETTING THERE: Cathay Pacific flies daily from Jo’burg to Hong Kong with easy connections to Guilin on sister airline Dragonair. Visit cathaypacific.com or call 011 700 8900.
VISAS: South African passport holders require a visa to visit the People’s Republic of China. You’ll need invitation letters and hotel/air reservations to apply. Visit chinese-embassy.org.za
WHERE TO STAY: Club Med Guilin is a good option for first-time visitors to. Local excursions can also be booked through the resort. Visit clubmed.co.za or call 0860 258 293.