Thursday, January 21, 2016

Seeing China's Mysterious Li River By Boat Is A Trip Back in Time

Article and photos by Tony Mangia

China can be a frustrating and exhausting place for even the most laid-back traveller. With all of the pushing and shoving, the smog, crowding and communication barriers, it’s easy to have your enthusiasm smothered as you tour this great country. So it’s no wonder if a short boat cruise away from it all might just be the antidote for your frayed nerves?

Well… yes and no.

I set off for a few days in Yangshuo from Guilin via a Lijiang River tour boat after three weeks of bouncing around overcrowded Beijing and Xi’an.  After touching down in Guilin — luggage lost by China Air — with no planned itinerary, I began my quest for sanctuary. And, like just about anywhere else in China, nothing seems to be easy as it sounds.

The Li River, as it is more commonly known, is a winding band of mostly clear water in southeast China that flows  about 430 kilometers down from Cat Mountain in Xing’an County north of Guilin into the West River. I would be traveling between Guilin and Yangshuo, an 83 kilometer liquid ribbon which traverses through thousands of mystical and scenic mountains rising like giant bumps in the land. The banks of the Li feature spectacular landscapes and dozens of small towns and villages which still have an old-style architecture.

The reflections of the magical mountains ripple in the greenish water as numerous waterfalls spill from the cliffs replenishing the river in the rainy season.

And in the month of May, when I started my little excursion, it is the beginning of the monsoon season — or as it more poetically known — ‘plum-rain weather.’

And it isn't as pleasant as it sounds.

While waiting in the airport terminal for my missing luggage, I found a tourist kiosk manned by the first English-speaking person I’ve encountered in what seemed like days. The young woman in the booth gladly helped me find an inexpensive hotel in Guilin and bus directly to its lobby.  The 200 yuan-a-night ($30US) room with queen -sized beds was clean, had a TV and, yay, a regular sitting toilet. Bad knees made every one of those in-floor toilets where you have to squat a disaster waiting to happen and, so far on the trip, no accidents.

She also helped me book my 400 yuan ($60 US) boat cruise to Yangshuo. Which was good because I found out that some of the outside travel agencies charged up to 200 yuan more and booked you for boat rides that only travelled on the Li River through Guilin. The price of the tour I booked included transportation from the hotel to the boarding dock and a meal during the 4-1/2  hour cruise. Getting back was left up to you but there are regular buses leaving Yangshuo to Guilin which cost a measly 20 yuan.

The missing luggage put my travels on delay, so I spent the extra day exploring Guilin in the same sweat-soaked clothes I had been wearing for two days. As a consideration, Air China gave me 200 yuan ($30US), after an epic ugly-American rant, to purchase toiletries and clothes until my luggage arrived.

And those reparations went straight to finding what little solitude I could muster.

The Guilin Nanxishan Scenic Area is a park featuring two giant camel humps of earth which rise up in the middle of the city. You’ll get a good workout climbing the stone stairs up the mountains for a view of the city and a large cave to explore.

The temples and cherry blossom gardens were quiet and blissful all morning until the Chinese tour groups started arriving at lunchtime. But until then, compared the mobs scenes at Tienanmen Square and The Forbidden City in Beijing, the park was relatively serene.

Then there was the Guilin Zoo. A nondescript park with surprisingly few visitors inside. None, in fact, from what I saw. Surprisingly, I was the only person watching the pandas munching on bamboo shoots and leaves at feeding time. And for about an hour I quietly watched as the carefree bears sat like Buddha, rolled on their backs and stuffed their black-and-white faces. Not another soul in sight.

One of the little things that make a trip memorable.

The next morning I started the day of the cruise with a hot bean curd drink and square of mango cake from what looked like a popular — and clean — food stand in the street. A light rain fell as I later waited for the tour bus in the lobby of the hotel.

After a couple of more hotel pick-ups, the bus ride to the boarding dock at MoPan Hill wharf was only a short jaunt from Guilin. The bus was a mix of small European and American groups and more than a couple large continents of Chinese families. Our tour guide named Valerie gave a us a quick history of the Li River and its featured landmarks along with a reminder about the small raft river rides in Yangshuo — first in English and then Chinese.  Before you knew it, the 45-minute ride was over.

At MoPan Hill wharf there were about a dozen of the 60-foot cruise boats hundreds of us would be boarding. And by China standards, it was a relatively orderly procession onto our chimney-puffing craft — only a little pushing and shoving at the front of the pack.

The boats had two floors with an observation deck on top. A open-air galley took up the rear of the craft and I hoped the two bathrooms would not be a problem for the hundreds aboard. (It wasn’t).

The boat was packed. There were plenty of windows along the sides but with the family-style seating, it was difficult to get next to one. I planned to stand up on the top deck all day, so I wasn’t concerned.

That was until the rain started coming down. And did it ever.

We shoved off amid a heavy rain and besides my dampened photo expectations, the humidity wreaked havoc on my camera. The lens immediately fogged up from the inside as we shoved off. Luckily for me, the diffusion effect made for some very atmospheric photos of the mountains.

As the fleet of cruise ships chugged away from the wharf and down the now muddy Li, our convoy was joined by a number of fisherman on traditional bamboo rafts.


River boat edited 1 from Tony mangia on Vimeo.

 And if there were any questions about how fresh the seafood at lunch would be, that query was quickly answered. You can watch as the rafts pull up alongside the cruising tour boats — their nets filled with the morning catch.

As the larger boats steamed down the river, the fishermen hitched their rafts to the tour boats and handed over the carp and catfish to the chefs right next to the ship’s hot engines which were already warming pots of food on top of the cylinder heads.

We slowly chugged by the numerous green mountains and passed landmarks with names like CaoPing Scenery and Beauty of Crown Cave. It was really funny when we passed The Painted Hill of Nine Horses and, despite the torrential rain,  almost everyone crammed the top deck in order to see it. Legend has it if you can spot the images of all nine horses in the cliffside, you’ll come into some grand luck. Rain be damned, good luck was at stake.

Lunchtime was a madhouse of babies crying, table hopping and a aromatic stew of strange food mixed with engine exhaust wafting through the air.

The Chinese families who basically commandeered most of the tables had what looked like a more exotic meal served to them while the rest of us had to line up for a regular buffet downstairs. It was pretty standard local fare which included steamed bread, snails, choi, rice, some tiny sweet potatoes and cookies. Not gourmet, but nourishing enough.

After the meal was served, the craft wound down the river through some hairpin curves — passing mountains with enchanting names like Green Lotus Peak and Page-Boy Hill. From the top deck perch I held fast, I was able to take photos through the raindrops.

Along the shores Chinese men and women in their coolie hats tended to their simple daily business like they probably have for centuries.

They washed clothes in the rain, planted rice and fished. Maybe the the bamboo rafts are now powered with small motors and they hear about the outside world from their children who have fled to the cities looking for work and an advanced education but, from where I stood, it seems little has changed — and they could care less.

We finally docked in Yangshuo, a busy tourist town filled with narrow streets overflowing with shops, hotels, restaurants and home of the famous cormorant lantern fisherman of the Li, in late afternoon.

After debarking, I was soaked by rain but awash in a visual imagery that will be with me forever.

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