The Li River 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 shaped by the elements into a host of bizarre forms, 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 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, with the scenery at its best 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, though subject to severe tourist overload during the peak summer season.
The most popular Li River cruises take about four hours, cover the best stretches of scenery between Yangdi and Xingping and can be organized through the CITS or accommodation in Guilin. The cheapest fares – around ¥350 – are on Chinese cruise boats from Daxu wharf (大圩码头, dàxū mătóu) and get you transport to the wharf, a filling meal, return bus from Yangshuo, and a shouty Chinese guide. Foreign cruise boats (¥400–780 depending on where you book) depart further downstream at Zhujiang wharf (竹江码头, zhújiāng mătóu) and are pretty much the same except they shout at you in English. The cruise boats are air-conditioned and have comfortable seating inside, but the upper observation-decks are usually open.
However, the best way to experience the river and feel part of the landscape is on a covered bamboo raft (¥150–180) through the pick of the scenery between Yangdi wharf (杨堤码头, yángdī mătóu) and Xingping. You get a bus to the wharf and the cruise, but have to feed yourself – bring a packed lunch or they usually stop at a riverside restaurant where a meal costs around ¥30. The same bus then meets you at Xingping, after a short detour to see the ¥20 Scenery (20元背景图, èrshí yuán bēijĭngtú), and will then take you on a 2hr tour of a few sights around Yangshou, before returning to Guilin. There’s no room on the raft for luggage, but you can leave it on the bus. Operators in Yangshuo also offer a similar version of this trip, but it’s more expensive.
Pickups for both kinds of trip are from hotels in town at around 8am, and they get you back to Guilin at about 6pm with around three to four hours on the river. During peak season (July–October) the river gets crowded, but be aware that in winter the river often runs too low for the cruise vessels to make it down as far as Xingping, let alone Yangshuo, though you get charged the same amount and won’t be told this beforehand.
For a fairly stiff hike from Xingping, ask for directions to the ninety-minute trail over the hills to the tiny, photogenic riverside village of Yucun (鱼村, yúcūn), though a far easier path leads upstream from the docks for the twenty-minute walk to the ¥20 Scenery (20元背景图, èrshí yuán bēijĭngtú) – the landscape on the back of a twenty yuan note. For panoramic views, you can take a thirty-minute hike along the well-marked path up to the pavilion on top of Laowozai Hill (老挝哉山, lǎowōzāi shān).