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Go down the mighty Li River

Journeying along the loveliest stretch of China's Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo, travellers encounter poetic peaks and ancient towns

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Harvey Thomlinson on 02 Jul 2017

The Straits Times

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Eulogised by poets and rendered by artists, southern China's Li River binds a picture book of karst peaks, ancient villages and brushstroke bamboo.

 

Millions each year take to its jade waters, weaving between poetic peaks and submerged islands in search of an ideal of Chinese landscape beauty.

 

The phantasmagoric Li River karst scenery is a major subject of Chinese landscape painting with the most idyllic stretch reputed to be between Guilin and Yangshuo.

 

On our first visit a few months earlier, we had paid homage to the countryside's almost surreal beauty but, on this journey in mid-winter, with the Li River waters brown and swollen, we become attuned to a landscape of historical gems which only enhances the natural majesty.

 

This time, we are here not mainly as sightseers, but with our team of writers to work on a new guidebook about Guilin.

 

We plan to explore intriguing historical sites in Guilin city itself before taking a barge along the Li River between Guilin and the laid-back traveller's retreat of Yangshuo, a route which would pass several ancient river towns.

 

Guilin's first history books were its karst mountains, which loomed moodily mist-shrouded over the terrace of our riverside boutique hotel in Binjiang Road.

 

History and legend are inscribed in their limestone, starting with fishing and hunting scenes created in the rock by the Baoji cave people about 30,000 years ago.

 

For much of history, this was a wild outpost of civilisation, dominated by minority tribes such as the Zhuang, but during the Song dynasty (960 to 1279), newly pacified Guilin's scenery won empire-wide fame.

 

Visiting became fashionable with Song literati and there are contemporary descriptions of sightseers in chariots causing traffic jams on local roads.

 

Dashing under umbrellas through some of the many parks fashioned from the green gold of Guilin's karst hills, we become captivated by the thousands of inscriptions, poems, travelogues and epigraphs left by long-ago visitors expressing their wonder at the scenery.

 

About 22 of 43 stone inscriptions on Elephant Trunk Hill are of Song provenance, along with 111 of the 213 from Guihua Tablets Forest and 79 of 261 in Putao Mountain.

 

On the jutting outcrop of Solitary Beauty Peak inside the grounds of the Jingjiang Princes' Palace, we discover the famous inscription from a poem by Song governor Wang Zhenggang: "Guilin's landscape is first under heaven."

 

This translation is still used by Guilin as its unofficial slogan, but later, when we connect by e-mail with Dr Justin Winslett, a lecturer in Classical Chinese at Oxford University, he suggests a more prosaic rendering of "best in the realm".

 

The Song dynasty also provides the theme for one of Guilin's most celebrated tourist attractions, the Two Rivers-Four Lakes boat tour, which we experience at night.

 

Our flotilla of tourist barges thread the Li and Peach Blossom rivers and cross four lakes - Mulong Hu, Gui Hu, Rong Hu and Sha Hu - which were formed in the Song dynasty.

 

The formerly separate lakes were combined in 1999. In ancient times, the depth of the lakes was 6m, but they were drained to flood Guilin during a Song era war and the old level never restored.

 

Our Two Rivers-Four Lakes tour is embellished with vignettes of traditional Chinese culture: around Mulong Hu is clustered nouveau Song dynasty architecture, including a copy of a pagoda seen in the Song era painting, Along The River On Qing Ming Festival.

 

Our 65-minute tour clearly aims to create something of the atmosphere of ancient China leisure craft and, as we pass, floating platforms eerily light up and troupes of performers in traditional costumes spring to life to perform folk songs.

 

While the Song dynasty helped to shape Guilin, it was the Ming era which bequeathed perhaps the city's most intriguing historical site, the Jingjiang Princes' Palace.

 

The palace was originally built between 1372 and 1392 as the official residence of a great nephew of the first Ming dynasty emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang.

 

However, 14 Ming kings from 12 generations came to live here and the palace offers us a uniquely intimate insight into court life in imperial China.

 

The palace is constructed to an instantly familiar Ming oblong template with a perimeter wall reminiscent of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

 

After entering through the imposing yellow Chengyun Gate, we proceed to the main edifice, the Chengyun Palace, which now houses a museum.

 

Most interesting is the nearby Guangxi Examination Cultural Exhibition Hall, where aspiring officials once came from all over south-west China to subject themselves to the notoriously demanding civil service examinations.

 

We are asked to sit in one of the dank, tiny cells where scholars would meet their fate and our Chinese skills are interrogated by a spurious "exam paper", before we emerge to be awarded with a scarcely deserved certificate.

 

The following day, we finally cast off on the Li waters to navigate the storied sliver of river between Guilin and Yangshuo, a journey that takes about five hours.

 

The Li River is part of a historic system of waterways connecting the Yangtze River in central China with the Pearl River Delta in southern Guangdong.

 

Despite the wintry weather and floods which have submerged many of the islands along the river, the scenery is stunning as we continue our time travels by tourist barge.

 

The Guilin area's position as a historic highway between the central plains and the south has left a tangible cultural legacy in the string of ancient river towns along the Li River, including Daxu, Xingping and Fuli.

 

The tour boats only enable passengers to view the passing river town scenes passively. So on our arrival in Yangshuo, we catch a bus back to Xingping, which is one hour away.

 

Hugging the Li River 27km upstream from Yangshuo, Xingping offers many of the same virtues as China's backpacker haven.

 

As Yangshuo fills up with Chinese tour groups, Xingping's laid-back vibe, and even better scenery, has increasing appeal and small hostels have sprung up everywhere, making Xingping, perhaps, reminiscent of the Yangshuo of 20 years ago.

 

Some, such as Master Cafe in Old Street, occupy interesting old buildings with wood roofs and latticed windows.

 

The town's Old Street is, unsurprisingly, where most of the town's historic buildings are found.

 

Slap in its middle is Wushu Temple, which claims a history of 1,800 years. The temple is now a local history museum whose exhibits include a display about the Bai Yue people of southern China.

 

On the ride, we also stop at Fuli Ancient Town, a scruffily endearing Li River village famous as the home of the Chinese painted paper fan. It lies about 10km along the Yangshuo-to-Xingping road.

 

Visitors may also arrive in the old town by bamboo raft from Xingping or Yangshuo.

 

Fuli was a frequently used port of the Pearl River system.

 

Despite the coaches weaving precariously through narrow lanes, Fuli's reinvention as a tourist destination is a work-in-progress. The main street is unpretentious and the back alleys full of unrenovated but interesting old buildings.

 

Fuli's waterfront, though, is the centrepiece and it is undeniably attractive, thanks to stone balustrades and a scene of trees and mountains opposite.

 

In Guilin, everything comes back to the river, which sweeps south from the Mao'er Mountains and into the world's imagination.

 

Just round the big turn that the river takes at Xingping is the most iconic stretch of the river known as The Yellow Cloth Shoal scenery, which features on the back of the Chinese 20 yuan note.

 

The banknote shows a cormorant fisherman on the river with Yellow Cloth Shoal behind it.

 

The shoal's name comes from a maize-yellow flagstone, long and wide, whose reflection spreads itself on the river like a yellow cloth.

 

The seven hills on the bank of Yellow Cloth have been likened to seven fairy maidens who came from heaven to play at the bank and were so amazed by the scenery that they would not leave.

 

The best angle to see the reflection is when the boat turns at the Mahuang Sandbar and the inverted peaks float in the water with shadows around.

 

Like the preliminary stroke of an artist's ink brush, our river journey has revealed the contours of the cultural landscape that our book would explore.

 

Our hope is that other visitors journeying here in search of a Chinese pastoral ideal will also find plenty of historical interest to intrigue them.

 

Whatever brings the wanderer to Guilin, though, it is the incomparable scenery of the Li River that provides the setting for the travel experience.

 

• Harvey Thomlinson is a Hong Kong-based writer, translator and publisher who has authored China guidebooks, including Guilin: China's Masterpiece.

 

• Guilin: China's Masterpiece, published under the Meet China imprint, is available on Amazon at US$20.55 (S$28.34).

 

HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS

 

LI RIVER, BETWEEN GUILIN AND YANGSHUO

 

Tourist barges with English-speaking guides embark daily at 10am from Zhujiang Pier, a 40-minute drive from downtown Guilin.

 

Tickets can be purchased from Guilin travel agents and hotels for 420 yuan (S$85). The price includes a shuttle-bus ride to the pier, with various pick-up locations around town. Or you can make your way to the pier by taxi for about 100 yuan and buy tickets there. The boat takes about five hours to reach Yangshuo.

 

XINGPING ANCIENT TOWN

 

Regular buses run between Xingping from Yangshuo (until about 6pm). The 45-minute journey costs 7.50 yuan. All Yangshuo-to-Guilin buses pass through Xingping.

 

You can also get to Xingping by bamboo boat from Yangdi or Yangshuo. It is possible to cycle from Yangshuo to Xingping as well.

 

TWO RIVERS-FOUR LAKES GUILIN NIGHT TOUR

 

Boats make a round-trip from Riyuewan Dock (North Road, Xiangshan District, Guilin). The 65-minute tour costs 190 yuan for adults and 95 yuan for children. The Sun and Moon Pagodas are landmarks of the tour.

 

FULI ANCIENT TOWN

 

Fuli Ancient Town lies about 1.5km from the sprawl of New Fuli Town along the main road to Xingping. At the new town crossroads by the bank, turn south and head towards the river where the old town is clustered. Or take a bamboo raft from Yangshuo Ferry.

 

PRINCES' CITY, GUILIN

 

The Princes' City is at 1 Wangcheng, Xiufeng District, Guilin. The ticket price of 130 yuan includes Solitary Beauty Peak and Jingjiang Princes' Palace. It is open from 7.30am to 6.30pm in peak season and from 8am to 6pm in low season. Call 86-77328-03149 or go to www.glwangcheng.com

 

The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.