It’s a fine warm morning when the minibus picks us up at our Guilin hotel and 40 minutes later, deposits us at this place in the middle of nowhere called Zhujiang. We read no Chinese, speak no Mandarin and hardly anybody else speaks English, so we are left on our own. 20 minutes later the lady from the minibus reappears with boat tickets, written in Chinese, except for the number ‘14-05?, which we figure is our boat number.
As I like to say, if lost just follow the crowd, and soon we find us at the docks to identify our boat. The popular Guilin-Yangshuo cruise sees 30+ boats doing the downstream trip along the Li River every day (80km in 4 hours). Upon arrival at Yangshuo, day-trippers would find their way to the Yangshuo bus terminal for the 90min return trip to Guilin via land.
That’s our boat there somewhere in the middle. There are 2 packages: premium, aimed for foreigners (sumptuous lunch thrown in + other goodies, maybe), and economy (about half the price of the premium one, aimed for local Chinese visitors). We only discover the ‘economy’ one after much enquiry, and opt for it.
The day gets hotter and stickier as more people fill up the waiting boats.
Looking southwards – downstream the Li River – I see the spectacular jagged hills we are gonna immerse ourselves in, in the next couple of days.
Our boat moves slowly, gently picking up speed, and I’m already impressed. We are in the first pack of boats leaving the Zhujiang dockyard.
To the right, pyramid-shaped limestone hills jut out of the landscape.
Inside, the seats are comfy, and huge, clean glass windows make viewing a pleasure. And yes, the air-conditioner at full blast helps too. But for best photography I still have to go out in the sweltering heat.
The occasional smallish waterfalls can be spotted as the limestone drops right into the river.
I notice a funny sort of bamboo raft, an identity of Li River. This guy is actually selling fruits (stowed in the box) to people doing the cruise.
Soon more spectacular sceneries come online. On this score I’d rate this cruise on par with the one we had in Milford Sound (NZ – click HERE), and probably better than the Halong Bay one (Vietnam – click HERE). Note the pristine river and very clean water.
Every interesting formation normally has a name with an interesting legend attached to it, but since we are taking this ‘economy’ package, we are stuck with Chinese tourists and their Mandarin commentaries.
Looking to the rear, I see more boats meandearing the river in single file behind us.
The PRC flag flutters next to a satellite dish. The boat crew spend so much time onboard that the boat’s like their home, and satellite TV is a major amenity.
Yes, this reminds me of the bunch on the boats at Milford Sound. I see many foreigners there, so I figure that’s a premium cruise ship right there.
As we move further down the river, motorised raft boats become more common. These can be hired by the hour and it’s a great way to explore this wonderful river. It’s like having a private water-car.
Ahead, to the left of our bow, I notice another mobile shop posturing and positioning itself.
This is their target, a fellow boat, which interestingly enough, is trying to overtake us.
With enviable skill and technique, garnered through years of unauthorised boardings of cruise boats, the men nimbly attach their raft. All this while, the big boat just holds its course and speed, without any trace of care for the struggling men. But it’s quite a spectacle for us – I feel like cheering them on!
Raft securely tied to the bigger machine, the transactions begin.
And all the trouble, just for these quaint fruits – which taste sweet and sour – but loved to bits by the Chinese around us. I suspect most of these people are from other provinces of China.
On the upper deck of our boat, it’s business as usual, but this is the best spot to absorb the sights and sounds and fresh air.
The motorised bamboo raft boat is quite interesting to watch. As I said, it’s like your private boat to explore the river.
With it, you can stop anywhere for a dip or for a tan.
And along the river, there are countless ‘beaches’ and islands and sand bars to become your playgrounds.
As we round an awesome hill, I see more boats trailing us. It’s really a friggin’ convoy of ships.
Another interesting thing is, there is uninterrupted cellphone coverage along this lonesome 80-km waterway, thanks to base stations such as this one, set discreetly atop hills. I wonder how they installed them up there.
Whenever we see a swarm of raft boats, we know there’s a village nearby used as their base.
I think this is the most famous part of Li River, immortalised at the back of the 20 yuan Chinese banknote. Just imagine, these giants are over 200 million years old, and jut out into the air more than 200m.
We pass more spectacular landscape, and on an island, resourceful people set up shop selling snacks and refreshments for raft boaters. Such is entrepreneurship in this communist nation.
Navigating the Li River, with its variable depths, currents and sandbars, plus pesky floating vendors and motorised raft boats, requires full-time attention. Not to mention boats returning to Guilin after discharging their passengers downstream. Note the captain’s favourite things: cellphone, ciggies, those ubiquitous sweet-and-sour fruits and tea(?).
Lunch is served, and this is the basic set. We politely give it a pass, since it’s obviously non-halal meat (looks like pork to me), so we chomp on fruits and chocolate bars we bring with us.
Our fellow non-English-speaking Chinese travellers sitting next to us, offer us their river fish, which tastes sweetish yet odd. They also order eggs for us, for which we are very appreciative. Unfortunately the lingo barrier makes progress difficult. Ah well, that’s independent travel in China for you.
Our lower deck cabin is comfy, spacious and airy, and a 4-hour ride can be tedious for some.
We traverse another patch of impressive karst formations.
Then I notice a swarm of raft boats, which means …
… there’s a major attraction nearby. Yes, Li River presents to you … the “Nine Painted Horses Hill” or something to that effect. Legend says that if you can identify all the 9 horses ‘painted’ at the side of this hill, then you are destined for great things.
Well, I do my best, but all I can muster is prolly just one tuskless woolly-mammoth.
In any case in front of the Hill, there’s a lively bazaar in the hot sun.
Some cool macho men cruising the river. It looks like fun, but the heat and humidity would sap anybody’s energy out there.
Further downstream there’s another shopping centre, but not well-patronised. It’s located right in between two tourist bases: Xingping village and Yangshuo, so probably few people venture out here.
Some three weeks ago, heavy rains swelled the river, and the whole area was inundated. Debris from that big flood can still be seen stuck to the bushes and trees at the riverbanks.
We pass by the last bit of awesome scenery before our destination, Yangshuo.
Almost 4 hours after leaving Zhujiang, we dock at Dragonhead Hill, just north of downtown Yangshuo. We climb up the stairs and walk along a path with the Li River to the left and hundreds of metres of stalls to the right, hawking basically the same touristy stuff. Our hotel is still some 500m away.
I glance back to say bye-bye to our transport, and in the background more cruise boats are arriving. We are one of the first to arrive.
Next to us, the Li River is constantly busy even on a hot day.
After a long journey, we are finally at our Yangshuo home, which faces the Li River, and surprisingly, quite a pleasant little place. Looking forward to the 2 days here!