YANGSHUO, China – A search for iconic China often takes tourists to the Great Wall in the north and the archaeological pits of the terra-cotta warriors in the nation’s midsection.
But for a glimpse of China’s natural beauty, take the trip south to the city of Guilin, and board a boat for a four-hour cruise down the Li River to the picturesque city of Yangshuo, nestled amid the limestone karst hills known as the gumdrop mountains.
It’s a trip into rural China, past bamboo rafts, fishermen who use trained cormorant birds to make their catch, and farmers tending rice paddies with the help of water buffalo.
The trip starts in Guilin, a popular and growing tourist destination, with new roads, hotels and other buildings under construction.
One of the city’s best attractions is Elephant Trunk Park on the west bank of the Li, named for its rock formation that with some imagination resembles an elephant drinking from the river. On the top of the hill is a pagoda that dates back to the Ming dynasty.
The park is a popular spot for young couples who stroll along the river and add their padlocks or wish ribbons, signifying lasting love, to an ornamented tree. Vendors set up along the riverside sell some interesting food, including fried bugs on a stick.
The government is building a canal that will allow tourists to take a boat and avoid what is a bumpy bus ride to another popular spot, Reed Flute Cave, one of several limestone caves in the region. This one features colorful, if somewhat garish, light displays on the stalactite and stalagmite formations, as well as lasers that make designs on the cave’s ceiling and a bubble machine.
But the real show is the undisturbed nature of the river and surrounding hills.
The tour boats travel one way from Guilin to Yangshuo in the morning. A ticket will cost somewhere around 200 yuan, or about $32, and usually includes lunch.
Most boats are air conditioned and one of the three restrooms on board ours included a “western toilet,” for those averse to squatting.
The casual cruise includes photo-worthy scenery around virtually every bend as the boat passes landmarks such as Nine Horse Hill, where those with a good eye can find nine horses in the rock formations. We were told former President Bill Clinton could only spot three of them. I found six.
The guide will have passengers take out a 20 yuan note when they approach the view of Apple Hill, and compare the scenery to the depiction on the back of the bill. It’s one of the most painted scenes in Chinese art.
The boat passes by a scenic fishing village, waterfalls, caves, groves of bamboo, and terraced farms. Water buffalo can be seen on the riverbanks, and the tour boats share the river with traditional bamboo rafts (though some are now made from PVC piping).
Lunch is nothing to write home about, though some of the boats buy catches from the fishermen who pull up to them on the river. Ours offered the usual noodle and dumpling dishes, for a little extra you could try the turtle.
Passengers disembark on Market Street in Yangshuo, where the fishermen will try to get you to pay to pose with their cormorants. The street is lined with vendors selling everything from “real fake” Rolex watches, to T-shirts, silk scarves and jade. Every price is negotiable, and bartering becomes a sport.
Bicycles or cabs can be rented in town for a drive into the countryside to caves, hiking trails and rice farms, some of which offer guided tours.
The farm we visited was run by two elderly brothers who opened their home and offered shots of what they called “medicine wine.” It was basically moonshine fermented in a jar filled with snakes, scorpions and other creepy crawlers.
There is no boat back to Guilin, which is about an hour away by bus. But for those who choose to stay in Yangshuo for the evening, there is the opportunity to take in a spectacular opera-style light and music show put on by famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou, the man responsible for the opening ceremony in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The 90-minute show, “Impressions Liu Sanjie,” is based on a famous movie about a local singer. It includes more than 600 performers and incorporates stories and music from four minority ethnic groups in the region. It takes place outdoors on a lake in a 3,000-seat amphitheater surrounded by the hills, which become the backdrop for the performance.
The show, much like the region, leaves a lasting impression.