Cruise up the Li River from Guilin – floating past the lush countryside, gazing at layer after layer of misty pinnacles – and you feel as if you’re travelling back through time. “The river winds like a green silk ribbon, while the hills are like jade hairpins,” Han Yu, a Tang dynasty poet, wrote (loosely translated, of course) in the 700s.
Guilin means “forest of sweet osmanthus,” and it is named after the large number of those fragrant trees that line the streets of this city, the political, economic and cultural centre of Guangxi in Southern China. But that’s not why you come. You are here to see a wonder more spectacular than the Great Wall, more extraordinary than Xian’s Terracotta Army or even Beijing’s Forbidden City: a four-hour guided ferryboat cruise from Guilin up the Li River.
You will not see scenery like this anywhere else in the world – a landscape so serene it is hard to believe it is real. As the cruise winds down the river, through forests of bamboo and willow, you pass peasants working in rice paddies, water buffalo standing guard and fishermen in small boats. But the main attraction is the karst topography – limestone peaks rising everywhere in the distance. They are heart-stopping under a cloudless blue sky, but even better when shrouded in fog, a fairyland of peaks.
I stood mesmerized at the boat’s railing, drinking in scenery right out of a Chinese brush painting.
A group of Chinese tourists stood next to me. “Neehow,” (hello) I said, one of only two words I know in Chinese. They began to talk to me at once, apparently certain I was fluent in their language.
No matter: I didn’t need to know Mandarin to appreciate the surrounding hills and mountains boasting fantastical names such as Moon over the Water, Painting Brush Peak, and Five Tigers Catch a Goat. When we cruised by the Longevity Buddha Pagoda on Pagoda Hill, the guide said it dated to the Ming Dynasty, which began in the 1300s.
Lunch onboard was a lavish Chinese buffet with endless vegetables and meat dishes plus fresh catch from the Li River followed by an array of sweet desserts. After two more hours, we disembarked at Yangshuo, a quaint town of old streets and bustling stalls selling everything from T-shirts to Chinese pyjamas and silk robes. I bought a pair of traditional pyjamas for just $10.
I wish I had purchased more. After repeated washings, they still look new. But more importantly, every time I wear them, I am transported once again to that fairyland of peaks.
IF YOU GO
What it is: The Li River from Guilin to Yangzhou is China’s most picturesque region, with almost mystical layers of limestone mountains known as karsts everywhere in the distance.
Where it is: Guangxi Province in Southern China.
How to get there: Fly into Beijing or Shanghai. Air China flies direct to Guilin from both those cities.
How to see it: Ker & Downey can arrange a bespoke trip to the major attractions of China, including Guilin. The travel agent will arrange for a driver, and for an English-speaking guide on the passenger ferry. Three-day/two-night tours start at $600 a person a day.
Where to stay: The Shangri-La Guilin overlooks fragrant gardens and unobstructed views of the crystal-clear Li River. Rooms from $146 a night.