The Li River (漓江, lí jiāng) meanders south for 85km from Guilin through the finest scenery that this part of the country can provide, the shallow green water flanked by a procession of jutting karst peaks that have been carved by the elements into a host of bizarre shapes, every one of them with a name and associated legend. In between are pretty rural scenes of grazing water buffalo, farmers working their fields in conical hats, locals poling themselves along on half-submerged bamboo rafts and fishing with cormorants, and a couple of small villages with a scattering of old architecture; the densest concentration of peaks is grouped around the middle reaches between the villages of Caoping and Xingping.
A cruise through all this is, for some, the highlight of their trip to China, and it would be hard not to be won over by the scenery, which is at its best during the wet, humid months between May and September, when the landscape is at its lushest and the river runs deepest – a serious consideration, as the water can be so shallow in winter that vessels can’t complete their journey. At the far end, the village of Yangshuo sits surrounded by more exquisite countryside, making it an attractive place to kick back for a couple of days and dig a little deeper into the region, though the village suffers from severe tourist overload during the peak season.
When you’ve had enough scenery for one day, do something unusual and spend an evening watching cormorant fishing. This involves heading out in a punt at dusk, closely following a tiny wooden fishing boat or bamboo raft from which a group of cormorants fish for their owner. Despite being turned into a tourist activity at Yangshuo, people still make their living from this age-old practice throughout central and southern China, raising young birds to dive into the water and swim back to the boat with full beaks. The birds are prevented from swallowing by rings or ties around their necks, but it’s usual practice for the fisherman to slacken these off and let them eat every seventh fish – apparently, the cormorants refuse to work otherwise.