When you travel in China and have some cash on hand, you may notice a mountain and river scene on the 20-yuan note. It’s really become an iconic scene repeatedly seen in both traditional and modern Chinese art alike.The mountains in the background are some of the most peculiar mountains you might ever see, all about the same height, very abrupt, beginning and ending suddenly almost like a reading on an EKG heart monitor.
Some travelers simply take the cash from their pocket or handbag, check the amount, pay for their products and move along. Others might take their cash out while having a meal or resting in the hotel and look at it more closely and wonder what is this majestic place shown on the 20-yuan note. The river shown is the great Li River and the city made popular for its proximity to this gorgeous landscape is Guilin, located in Guangxi province in Southern China. This type of landscape is known as Karst typography, which is characteristic of landscape underlain by limestone which has been eroded by dissolution, producing ridges, towers, fissures, sinkholes and other landforms.
According to GEO ExPro, a petroleum geosciences magazine, the Karst landscape surrounding Guilin was created over 40 million years ago when India and Asia collided. This same geological event formed the Himalayan Mountains. When such a geological event as this occurs, not only do you see incredible rock formations above land but also beneath the surface you can typically find outstanding caverns. The Li River itself has helped form the unusual shapes of the mountains as well as monsoons blowing through the region and eroding the rocks over millions of years.
Riding the Li River is an immensely popular tourist attraction for visitors to Guilin. The most common route is to start a little outside of Guilin and ride the river south until arriving in Yangshuo city. You may embark on your journey from different parts of the river depending on how long you would like to be on the water. A short ride would be 1 hour while the longer cruises could be 4+ hours in duration.
Some river trips will take you past caves that open up onto the water allowing you to peer into them from the edge of your boat. The shorter trips of 1 hour are done on bamboo rafts, which do have motors so do not think you will be responsible for any paddling. This is a more traditional way to travel the river and is in a way reminiscent of the fishermen who would go out onto the river to toss a net and pull it back in with the catch of the day. The longer cruises are typically done on motor boats of different sizes from medium sized vessels able to hold a dozen people up to the larger double decker boats which might hold up to 30-40 passengers. You might take a different route depending on the size of the boat, because each boat would be better suited for different currents and water depths.
As soon as you embark on the journey, you will sit back and begin to take it all in. Everywhere you look, you will be in awe. If you take out your phone – you will not know where to begin taking photos. You might just end up snapping endless photos in every direction. There of course is the idea of simply existing without the phone and experiencing the river cruise moment by moment and truly taking it all in. On the other hand, you might really hate yourself later for not having taken any photos, so have at it!
The bamboo raft ride are shorter but also more private since they only hold 4-6 people. If you want true privacy, then just purchase all the seats for the ride otherwise you may have to share the raft with other tourists. One benefit of riding the larger boats is that you typically will have a tour guide informing you of the history and pointing out details of the landscape that you would not notice otherwise.
Another important factor is the time of year because during certain seasons the water level will be lower than others. You can check this information on China travel websites and tour operator sites to find out what to expect when you visit.
The standard river cruise will take you from Guilin meandering southeast until you arrive at Yangshuo town. It would even be worthwhile to stay in Yangshuo one night (or more) to experience the vibrant markets, restaurants, and rent an electric scooter to go exploring at your own pace. The town is crawling in scooters and they are definitely the best way to get around as a tourist. Yangshuo is truly a town in comparison to Guilin which is a medium sized city (by China standards) so you might enjoy exploring a small town if you have primarily been in big cities while traveling in China. If you are returning to Guilin, there are many bus options available to get you there.
To ride the river from Guilin to Yangshuo is to truly experience something uniquely Chinese and utterly beautiful.Some say it is a “landscape made for poetry.” Let us end with a quote from Han Yu, a Tang Dynasty poet and historian (born 768 AD):
“The Li River forms a green gauze belt, the mountains are like jade hairpins.”