On our way to Yangshou, we have a stopover night in Guilin. We do not want to linger because Yangshou (so we have been told by fellow travelers) has everything that Guilin has to offer and more. So we take a morning boat trip down the Li River for the 4 hour journey though some of the most jaw dropping scenery we have encountered on the whole of our trip.
The dreamy landscape is crammed with tall figure-like structures that stand like soldiers on either side of the river in every direction. Known as karsts, these limestone blocks have been sculpted by the weather over millions of years and are now cloaked with dark green trees to provide a landscape of pure, unadulterated beauty. The only drawback is that the air, dripping with moisture, foreshortens the magnificent views turning distant karsts into dark shadowy figures.
But the wonderful scenery has inspired many Chinese poets and artists and the landscape even appears on the Chinese 20 Yuan note. ‘One hundred miles Lijiang River, One hundred miles art gallery’ is no overstatement and together with the Chinese couplet:
‘The river winds like a blue silk ribbon,
While the hills erect like green jade hairpins.’
Provides a neat summing up of the journey. The description of the water being blue is, perhaps, a bit of artistic license: green and somewhat dirty would be nearer the truth but it doesn’t detract from nature’s beauty at its spectacular best. Many of the limestone peaks have been given interesting names: Charming Hill, Yearning for Husband Rock, Apple Hill and the Painted Hill of Nine Horses being but a few examples. They require varying degrees of imagination to understand especially Nine Horses but such is the nature of limestone in that it can be weathered to form shapes that fire the imagination.
The town of Yangshou is an oddly pleasant mixture of old China, new China and western influence. Market stalls vie with modern buildings in an unashamedly touristy atmosphere. There are more westerners here than we have encountered in China making it impossible to avoid being constantly hassled by touts every minute of the day. We can see them coming at us from all directions like a cold can’t be avoided. We have taken to trying to head them off by saying, ‘No, we don’t want a guide, we don’t want a bamboo (meaning a bamboo raft trip), we don’t want a boat, we don’t want a tour and we don’t want to hire a bike.’ But they are undeterred, throwing tours to ‘beautiful’ places at us along with prices that rapidly descend on the basis that, if it’s cheap enough, we will not be able to refuse. It’s the same with those hawking tourist tat and it can be very irritating especially when we are trying to have a quiet meal or to enjoy a wonderful view. It’s the price that has to be paid for spending time in a beautiful place. To give you some idea, we were accosted 16 times while having breakfast, and it was raining! We tried to escape on bikes, going into the local countryside and cycling along the Yulong River, for a day but could not shake them off entirely.
At the 1,500-year-old Banyan Tree we encountered a different surprise. Nine brides and grooms placing wishes on the tree in the form of red ribbons. They were in a tour group and, it seems, even in marriage, the Chinese cannot resist doing things in groups. The tree itself is a massive, complicated, wiry structure that covers an enormous area with branches rooting several metres away from the main trunk. While the wedding parties did their thing, others dressed in traditional garb for photographs and youngsters splashed one another from bamboo rafts on the lake. It was a strange mixture of solemnity and raucousness.
Further on, we bypassed the chance to hike Half Moon Hill and turned along a little road that led to a village called Long Tang where we were stopped by some village elders who demanded an entrance fee. The price was 20 Yuan each (£2) and, after some bargaining, we agreed a fee of 12 Yuan for both of us. Reputedly, the village is 500 years old with little narrow streets and a glimpse of how life used to be in rural China. It was certainly a dilapidated place in dire need of some love and attention and, while the structural foundations were antiquated, most buildings had been rebuilt and renewed over the years. Red painted slogans from the Cultural Revolution still adorned the walls and doors complete with stencilled images of Chairman Mao, signs above doorways still proclaimed that the inhabitants had once passed the state examination to be able to hold positions in the state bureaucracy and, what we could see of the interiors, revealed that the villagers still lived a simple life without modern day comforts. It was a fascinating insight to rural life not far from the city, clearly demonstrating the lure of the richer life of the big towns and cities.
Continuing our journey we turned along the towpath of the Yulong River. Here, at last, was the China we had always imagined: fields upon fields of rice, classic rural scenes of wallowing water buffalo and farmers tending their crops, all dominated by an awesome backdrop of soaring limestone peaks. The narrow river ran quickly between the landscape as if it could not wait to reach the city and no one was in the slightest bit interested in our passing. We cycled through villages with no names: muddy, narrow streets corkscrewing between homes with open doors and runaway chickens. Some parts of the path were so rutted, narrow and muddy that we had to get off our bikes and walk for fear of going head first into a water-filled field covered with green rice plants. Debbie came closest to an unwanted bath and I asked, should she take the fall, if she could wait for me to get the camera out? Apparently not.
Eventually we came to Dragon Bridge at the end of the trail. Supposedly 600 years old, it is a stone arched bridge with steps laid by a drunkard and sides that ‘lean in with age.’ The locals say that the water under the bridge is 7 metres deep which would make it about 6 metres deeper than anywhere else along the river. My assistant refused to test out the veracity of the claim while I took photographic evidence but there were plenty of kids enjoying an evening swim.
The other great highlight of our visit was a night time light and drama show called ‘Impression Liu Sanjie’ that we were reluctant to attend as we did not want to experience one of China’s many cheesy tourist extravaganzas. But we were delighted we decided to give it a try because it was fantastic. Directed by movie maker Zhang Yimou, the man who also directed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, it involved 600 performers, including local fishermen, on the waters of the Li River. The surrounding karst peaks are illuminated and the performers use torches, lights, cloth and darkness in a dramatic and totally absorbing 90 minute show. Even the Chinese singing was excellent. The £18 we paid for two VIP seats was great value for money.
But, overall, it will be the wonderful limestone peaks that we will remember from here. They surround the town and the river, dominating everything, framing every view and always drawing the eye. It is scenery straight from prehistoric movies, the place where we expect dinosaurs and ancient painted people to roam. It is, without doubt, a wonderful area to finish our time in mainland China.