Navigating the Li River, China

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I was backpacking with a friend through China in 2008 (my first big trip out of Europe!) and was keen to see as much of the country as possible.

So, when we arrived in Guilin after a long flight, we decided against the bus journey to Yangshuo and opted instead to take a boat (really just a motorised raft) along the 83-kilometer section of the Lijiang or Li River as it’s also known.

It proved to be one of the best decisions of the trip. Despite taking four times as long as the 80-minute bus journey and costing more (as in three or four pounds more), gliding along the Li was a fine way to travel. Our pilot, so to speak, was an elderly man who spoke no English and, likewise, we spoke no Mandarin other than the basics.

The scenery was breathtaking and could easily be mistaken for the CGI landscapes of James Cameron’s Avatar. The region of Guangxi, where the Li River flows, competes with that of the Yangtze River or Yellow Mountains and arguably possesses China’s most picturesque scenery – so much so that its beauty is recognised and displayed on the current series of the Chinese 20 yuan banknote.

You drift past tiny fishing villages, house boats lashed to barrels, tributaries, river traffic, jungles, caves – there’s plenty to keep you occupied. We arrived at Yangshuo late in the evening refreshed and relaxed.

We ventured out onto the river many more times during our trip. There are kayaks available for day adventures along the river, allowing you to stop off at floating restaurants and bars along the way.

River tours and taxis are available to whisk you off to local villages, sights and scenery. We spent an afternoon rock climbing above a tributary from the river and another cycling alongside its banks, pausing only to dive in and cool off in the many pools and bathing spots along the way.

Yangshuo is a bit of a backpacker’s haven and whilst there I met many people who, like me, were on an extended trip through China and likewise on a budget. It’s not the most culturally sophisticated town in the world and it’s not what you’d call “real China” as it’s very much geared towards tourism.

Nevertheless, it’s surrounded by stunning scenery set amid green hills and lush jungle vegetation. There are plenty of outdoor activities available including rock climbing, caving and water sports. And, the small but vibrant riverside town possesses a laid back charm and lively social scene to boot. Many travellers often end up staying longer than they planned.

The Li River and its surrounding terrain is the best thing about Guangxi Province and possibly even China – particularly if you’re like us and enjoy getting off the beaten track and involved in activities.

Despite Yangshuo’s draw as a backpacker in China’s rite of passage, you can spend hours in or along the river without seeing anyone but the odd fisherman on the river, or farmer in the fields. It’s a good place to pause and observe too; relax, escape and take it all in. I thoroughly recommend it.

Atlas & BOots

When to go: We were there in August and it was hot and humid and thus not ideal for the more active days. At this time of year the countryside’s also prone to torrential downpours making the roads impassable in the region and the river less inviting. Most guidebooks advise to visit China in September or October for warm, dry, sunny days and clear blue skies with none of the stifling humidity that descends at other times of the year.

How: There are trains and buses to Guilin from many towns and cities in relative proximity (China’s a big place) as well as sleeper trains from Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. There are also many domestic air services to Guilin Airport (KWL) from further afield (check for the latest prices).

Take a taxi from either the train station or the airport to Mo Pan Shan pier and arrange your mode of transport from there. There are many different boats available as well as larger cruises and faster speedboats. Personally, I was happy with our little motorised raft. The better deals are found further away from the pier on the smaller boats. However, the boats and their owners may not necessarily adhere to the same standards as the more commercial ones on the pier itself.

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