The Mysterious Li River Cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo

with 35 Comments

It was pouring as if the world was about to end. We had to cover half a mile to reach the Guilin pier to board a boat to Yangshuo. The whole place was flooded. With dripping pants and soaked shoes we jumped on deck of a modest cruiser, where a woman greeted us with a plastic bag. Her unsmiling face further wrinkled as it took us half a second to understand that we had to put our umbrellas in the exhibited plastic bag.

 

Outside, a heavy curtain of rain was obstructing all possible sighting of the famous karst mountains. For now, the only spectacle was the river Li starting to overflow its banks.

 

The unsmiling lady came by to pour some lukewarm Chrysanthemum tea. After a first sip, our guide Ling offered us her Buddha tea that she carried around every day in her vacuum flask. What Ling called Buddha Tea, as we had learned a few days before, is literally a mix of Monk fruit or Buddha fruit (Luo Han Guo in mandarin) and ginger. Since Luo Han Guo is a natural sweetener, the whole secret of its brewing lies in the right combination. Ling is an expert in this: she uses Buddha tea as a Yin tonic, and takes a sip every half an hour. According to traditional Chinese medical literature, Buddha tea helps to relieve cough and acute bronchitis.

 

Just as we were conversing about the virtue of this tea, the same unsmiling lady showed up again and condescendingly ushered Ling to another seat, a row away from us. We protested, but the rude woman had already turned her back. Now a group of British seniors was boarding the tour boat. The cruiser was soon filled with chat and spattering coats. It turned out that their guide was willing to exchange seats with Ling, who then returned to us with a smile.

 

The motor growled, and soon we drifted away from the docks. The brownish water was rising high-speed, and the curtain of rain was as impenetrable as before. What was supposed to be the highlight of our trip promised to be a total disaster.

 

But just as we had given up on the idea of admiring poetry-inspiring landscape, the rain suddenly stopped. Mist was slowly rising above the water. A small island appeared, with a single water buffalo grazing. Not far away, a troop of white ducks was following the riverbanks. And soon we could see the first karst mountain emerging out of the fog. Its head was made of rock, but the body was steeped in green. We were gaping at this mysteriously changing scenery, disclosed bits by bits, like a poem’s strophe releasing its stanzas. Gradually, one meaning at a time.

 

 

We climbed up onto the observation dock, to get a better look. The air was fresh and clear. We soaked it all in. Next to us, flat-bottomed fishing vessels were lazily floating by. The fishermen did not look at us. They seemed to be dreaming too.

 

Behind them, strange pinnacles of rock were playing hide and seek. We tried to capture them on camera, but they were too clever for that. It was simply not possible to catch the reserved mountains. They had been here forever. What did we – insignificant drifters – mean to them, anyway? We could consider ourselves lucky that they even showed up.

 

Karst mountains from the Li River, Guanxi, China © Travelwithmk.com
Karst mountains from the Li River, Guanxi, China © Travelwithmk.com

 

We continued to admire the limestone peaks dressed in their emerald gowns, before going back to the dining room, where the unsmiling lady had set up a Chinese buffet. A queue had already formed, and the Brits were chatting about Cameron, the Queen and Harrods. Clearly their mind was somewhere else. But maybe this was the alleged power of the dragon mountains: to show you in your mind what your heart truly desires.

 

A fit sixty-something lady was unhappy about the two flies sitting on the dessert. She looked at the food suspiciously, and glanced at me, looking for support in her disgust. I reached out and took a double serving of the incriminated food. Her friend in front of her chuckled, and I cracked a smile.

 

Ling waited until everyone was eating, before helping herself to some food. We hoped that she would not sit somewhere else to eat, as most guides in Asia do. But before we could ask her to stay, she vanished with her plate, and we did not see her again until we arrived in Yangshuo.

 

Karst mountains from the Li River, Guanxi, China © Travelwithmk.com
Li River, Guanxi, China © Travelwithmk.com

 

From our seats, we could still admire waterfalls, stone bridges, and tiny rice fields. More karst mountains were now looming, coming out of their shadows, like timorous actors. But their heads were still in the clouds. What could they be dreaming of, we wondered.

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The Mysterious Li River Cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo , China © Travelwithmk.com

 

Follow Kerstin:

Traveler - Storyteller

Kerstin is a 30-something French teacher, born and raised in a tiny Luxembourgish village, but who used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens and San Francisco with her wife Mei. Fluent in 5 languages, she's above all a huge book enthusiast, a fervent writer and storyteller, and could never refuse a good old single malt whiskey. Oh, and she also loves coffee and chocolate (not sure in which order though).

35 Responses

  1. Arabela
    | Reply

    Beautiful! Having just moved to China last year, Guilin is on top of my bucket list. I’m currently abroad but I really hope to return soon when the travel restrictions are lifted.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh, where in China are you living now? You should definitely visit Guilin and especially Yangshuo someday. 🙂

  2. ansh997x
    | Reply

    Oh boy, this is so gorgeous. I really want to do this. Your description and photos have made me want to explore this destination more than ever.

  3. Wow! It’s absolutely stunning, with a great story to go with it

  4. josypheen
    | Reply

    I love your writing Kerstin! I also love the views of the karst mountains with their misty, cloudy hats! It must have been amazing to slowly see them emerge from the rain!

    Still, even in the rain, it is such a shame that the unsmiling lady was so grumpy! I wonder if she is in a better mood on sunny days!? I always wonder why people like that decide to work in customer facing positions!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you very much, Josypheen! I hope that wherever she is, the grumpy woman has become more satisfied by now! 🙂

      • josypheen
        | Reply

        Maybe it was just a bad day!? (Although maybe not…some people are just super grumpy when they’re at work!)

  5. Kevin | Caffeinated Excursions
    | Reply

    Wow, I hope at some point you were able to sufficiently dry off and not have to spend the entire cruise in wet clothing! That’s so lucky that the rain stopped just in time, and having been to Halong Bay in Vietnam on a very cloudy day, I totally understand the challenge of capturing these kinds of landscapes when the weather isn’t ideal! Nonetheless, the shots featured here are amazing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Kevin. Yes, we were fortunate that the rain stopped a bit for us to enjoy the breathtaking views.

  6. Courtney Byrneheim
    | Reply

    Kerstin – both the mountains and your writing are poetic! I have been to some of China’s major cities, but I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the country. These views are just stunning! Your post also reminds me of the balance that travelers always have to find between looking forward to a few very special moments on the trip, but then also knowing that things like weather or cancelled flights or sick tour guides are out of your control. I’m so happy that the rain cleared. This sounds like a special experience!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you so much Courtney! China is filled with natural beauties. Last summer, we went off the beaten path to explore the western and southern regions of this huge country. And now we are looking forward to visiting eastern China.

  7. Smita
    | Reply

    Loved this piece Kerstin, your writing is beautiful, really brings the reader along with you on the journey! The landscape does look poetry-inspiring – the weather I think adds to the magic of the place!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you very much, Smita! I’m glad that you like my writing. 🙂

  8. Sandy N Vyjay
    | Reply

    It is such an enchanting experience that you have recounted. I love the intriguingly shaped rocks that are playing hide and seek with the coluds.

  9. spetracco
    | Reply

    That’s a great story!!! I’m glad the rude woman and the flies didn’t ruin anything 😉 And your photos are stunning.

  10. Zarina Rimbaud-Kadirbaks
    | Reply

    Such a beautiful landscape! And I think the fog only added to the atmosphere actually.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, the fog definitely gave a mysterious atmosphere to the landscape!

  11. We did this boat tour on the Li river a few years ago too. When we took the trip, we did not have great weather either, but luckily a little fewer clouds. Even though, the mountains with the clouds look real nice. At Yangshuo, we hired a small wooden float for 2 people plus the driver who uses a long wooden stick to push it forward off the river floor. This was on a small river that brought us in the middle of the beautiful Yangshuo karst mountains. My wife got real adventurous and asked if she could navigate and she did a wonderful job at it.

    • Sarah
      | Reply

      Ah this is such a beautiful part of the world and one of our favourite places in China. I’m glad the rain stopped for you on the cruise so you could see the beautiful karst scenery along the way. Luckily in this kind of landscape the clouds hanging in the air only add to the beauty and mystery : -)

      • Mei and Kerstin
        | Reply

        Yes, you are right. Rainy weather doesn’t take away the beauty of such unique sceneries! 😉

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh yes we saw those bamboo floats when we had a walk along the small river in Yangshuo! 😄 It was so funny to watch the other people trying to move forward with the stick when they got stuck. 😅 And your wife was brave! We didn’t go on that bamboo float. 😂

  12. Two’s company
    | Reply

    Kerstin I love your writing style! It makes the post so effortless to read. I’m so glad that despite a soggy start you were able to admire some of the mountains and scenery!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you! ☺️ I’m also very glad that we got to see bits of the breathtaking scenery when the sky cleared up.

  13. gokulr27
    | Reply

    The cloudy weather and those massive limestone cliffs does give the place a mystic look. Love the photos.

  14. Meg Jerrard
    | Reply

    So glad that the rain lifted for you – I actually think dramatic weather makes for more interesting and dramatic photography 🙂 I would love to take a cruise

  15. Arnav Mathur
    | Reply

    What an amazing trip you must have had, I can only imagine seeing the beautiful photos. Am sure the scenery must have been even better in person. Tripping on a river, with views of mountains and clouds engulfing them, sounds so appealing.

  16. Shruti Prabhu
    | Reply

    Your photos really are magical and mysterious! We love hidden gems like these! Would love to visit! On a side note, Chrysanthemum tea sounds interesting.

  17. Christina
    | Reply

    I went on a river cruise in China several years ago, before the Three Gorges Dam was flooded. It was an amazing experience to see the rising water level and hear about how the lives of the people who lived along the river had changed. Sounds like you had a similarly wonderful experience

  18. Susan R
    | Reply

    It’s interesting to read about a lesser known area of China and the cruise sounds like a perfect way to visit. The mist adds an extra charm to your photos. Think I could do with some Buddha tea to stop me coughing!

  19. Bilyana | OwlOverTheWorld
    | Reply

    Wow!! This cruise sounds like an amazing idea. I would love to do it myself one day, thanks for sharing!!

  20. Indrani
    | Reply

    This sounded so magical and poetic. Good you got your guide Ling back and rains too stopped.
    The pictures are so greeting card perfect!

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