“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 here 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.
Not that I have any figures to back up that claim. Rather, it's the dozens of tourist boats great and small on these pea-green waters that give it away. In a land where crowds are part of life, the Li River appears little different.
But the flotilla of bamboo rafts and double-decker cruise boats do little to dull the majestic views offered up as we cruise from ZhuJiang Wharf to the town of Yangshuo; a sinuous 40-kilomere stretch. Here in the heart of Guangxi province, visitors from across the world arrive to float downstream in the shadow of these dramatic karst mountains… and with good reason.
While Beijing and Shanghai epitomise the frenetic bustle of modern China, out here in the provinces 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.
‘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 Johannesburg via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific breezes by in a blur of in-flight movies and Cantonese cuisine.
Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport is a gleaming example of what all airports should be like: free Wi-Fi, great food and plenty of quiet corners. A short flight, a lazy bus ride and we arrive at Club Med Guilin: it’s a brand familiar to South Africans in search of Indian Ocean sun, yet given an altogether different slant in Mainland China.
But there’s little time to explore. Bags are dropped, dinner devoured, and jetlag slept away. The next morning, I’m woken by rain tapping on the window. It’ll be there to bid us farewell in a few days too, but the persistent drizzle and occasional downpour do little to dampen the mood as we push out into the lazy flow of the Li that morning.
The river flows for over 400 kilometres before ending up in the Pearl River Delta, but most boats cruise just a fraction of that: the most scenic stretch from Yangdi to Yangshuo. It’s a mesmerising scene straight out of classical etchings: cloud-clad peaks leaping up from the river’s edge, thick jungle cladding their flanks. At the river’s edge, water buffalo chew the cud and water birds scout the shallows.
As we pass small villages en route, bamboo rafts of tethered cormorants dry their wings in the warm damp air. This region is famous for its trained fishing cormorants, and most towns in the region lay on shows for tourists to show off the ancient tradition. What the cormorants have to say about it I’m not so sure.
As we cruise, our guide is quick to point 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.
The Painted Hill of Nine Horses is dramatic enough in its weathered limestone, and if you squint you may just make out a handful of equine players. Bat Hill is a little easier to spot, although Writing Brush Peak, A Child Worships Guanyin, and Pen Holder Hill require a fertile imagination. No matter. The scenery is outstanding either way, and the four hours to Yangshuo drift by from our vantage point on the rooftop deck.
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, cormorant peddlers – ¥5 for a photo, reads the crumpled cardboard sign – and heckling shopkeepers comes as something of a surprise.
To ease into the neon-coloured craziness, I duck into a small teashop. Guilin translates as Forest of Sweet Osmanthus, and the fragrant yellow flowers of the eponymous tree are a signature tea of the region.
Tang Long Pin, owner of Yipin Tea Shop is only too happy to offer a tea tasting, and after sampling half-fermented oolong and fragrant spring shoots of green tea I leave with a tin of each. 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. We stock up on Chairman Mao caps and postcards, woven scarves and mysterious sweets. Restaurants and bars jostle for space here, and as the sun sets food stalls fill the lanes sprouting on either side. Dinner is a delicious spread of traditional Chinese dishes – catfish from the river an acquired taste for sure – but there’s little time to linger.
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 two kilometres 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 4000 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.
And that’s largely thanks to the star-appeal of director Zhang Yimo. Before creating ‘Impression’, Yimo found fame as the director of ‘House of Flying Daggers’, and for crafting the astounding opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. With that pedigree, the show is impressive despite being performed entirely in Mandarin.
Yet while the Li River is undoubtedly the highlight of the region, there are plenty of other sights to tick off in the area.
The next morning we ignore the rain and 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 Buddhas, lions, frogs and mountains. Mythology and queues, I’m quickly discovering, are things you rarely escape in China.
There are more of both at Wave Subduing Hill, where two rivers collide and flow past the city of Guilin, although 1000-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. We resist the attempt to hire traditional dress from the riverside vendors for the obligatory photo, and head instead for Seven Star Park.
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. Want to – no, I’m not kidding, bottle-feed some carp, or wear traditional dress in front of Camel Rock? This is your spot.
The weather was against us though, so we beat a retreat to the resort where ping pong courts and karaoke rooms add a distinctly Chinese flair to the traditional Club Med experience of wildly enthusiastic staff and activities laid on every hour of the day.
I spend my final morning in full Club Med swing: volleyball in the pool, a drink in the swim-up bar and a turn past the archery and golf lessons. It’s packed with local tourists enjoying the long-awaited sunshine. Mandarin floats on the heavy humid air, and I visit the dim sum bar for one last time.
If I’d had another day I’d have headed to the iconic rice terraces of LongJi. Changing with the seasons, these remarkable 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 into the 21st-century, I think I’d rather come back here, to the Forest of Sweet Osmanthus.
If you go…
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily from Johannesburg to Hong Kong with easy connections to Guilin on sister-airline Dragonair. Cathay also recently launched a good-value Premium Economy cabin; worth considering for the long flight. Visit www.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 www.chinese-embassy.org.za for full details.
Where to stay: Club Med Guilin is a good option for first-time visitors to China, offering an easy taste of the People’s Republic. Local excursions can also be booked through the resort. Visit www.clubmed.co.za or call 0860 258 293