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China Tour Guide: A Popular Boat Trip to Guilin Li River

One of the most-visited Chinese cities, Guilin, located in the northeastern part of the Guangxi Province, 500km (310 miles) NW of Hong Kong, 1,675km (1,039 miles) SW of Beijing, has long been famous for its limestone karst hills. Formed more than 200 million years ago when the oceans receded from this area, the towers sprout from a patchwork of paddy fields and flowing streams, creating a dreamy, seductive landscape that leaves few souls unstirred. Time and space meet here to produce a masterpiece of nature’s handiwork. Though there are a few hills in the city that can be explored, and the Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo remains one of top river journeys in the world, Guilin is also being used as a base to visit the Yao, Miao, and Dong minority villages to the northwest. Unfortunately, the cost of Guilin’s overwhelming popularity is a degree of unrelenting exploitation and extortion audacious even by Chinese standards; foreigners especially are overcharged for everything.

With summer’s heat and humidity and winter’s low rainfall affecting water levels in the Li River, April, May, September, and October are the best months for cruising. April to August also marks the rainy season, however, so be prepared with rain gear. Avoid the first weeks of May and October, when China celebrates national holidays, the Li River becomes even more congested with tourist boats than usual, and the price of everything doubles at the very least. July can become unbearably hot, and this is the last place on earth that you want to be holed up in your hotel room, clinging to the air conditioner.

A boat cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo along the 432km (270-mile) Li River is usually sold as the highlight of a Guilin visit, and indeed, the 83km (52-mile) stretch between the two towns affords some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery as the river snakes gracefully through tall karst mountains, gigantic bamboo sprays, and picturesque villages — sights that have inspired countless poets and painters for generations. Unfortunately, such inspiration these days costs a lot more than it used to and, inevitably, monopoly and price-gouging have become the trademarks of this cruise. Foreigners, segregated onto “foreigner boats,” pay ¥460 to ¥480 ($60-$62/£30-£31), which is especially insulting considering that Chinese tourists pay less than half that amount. Unfortunately, there is no other way to travel this stretch of the Li River except on these official tourist authority-sanctioned boats. If time and convenience are your priorities, then take the cruise by all means. Otherwise, if you plan to spend some time in Yangshuo, consider bypassing the cruise; more beautiful karst scenery can be better toured on foot, by bike, or by boat from Yangshuo.

Currently, river trips for foreigners depart from Zhu Jiang Matou (Zhu Jiang Pier) 24km (15 miles) and a half-hour bus ride south of Guilin at around 8:30am. The first 1 1/2 hours of the cruise to the town of Yangdi is serene and comparatively unexciting but for names of hills along the way, such as a woman yearning for her husband’s return, the Eight Immortals, even a calligraphy brush. Visual highlights are clustered between Yangdi and the picturesque town of Xingping. Jiuma Hua Shan (Nine Horses Fresco Hill) is a steep cliff face with shadings and markings said to resemble a fresco of nine horses. A little farther on, Huangbu Daoying, a series of karst peaks and their reflections, is the tableau burnished on the back of a Chinese ¥20 note.

Boats arrive in Yangshuo in the early afternoon after 4 or 5 hours of sailing. There’s a stop for shopping, after which tour buses transport passengers back to Guilin (1 hr.). Tickets for the cruise can be bought at hotel tour desks or at CITS, and include round-trip transportation to Zhu Jiang Pier, an English-speaking guide, and a Chinese lunch.

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