That Time I Took a Raft Cruise on the Li River

August 17, 2012

Guilin is all about the Li River.

Don’t get me wrong. The city has plenty going for it besides the river.

There are pleasant, osmanthus-lined sidewalks perfect for strolling.

There is a festive night market where you can pig out on spicy barbecue and cheap beer.

In the center of town, you have the lovely Sun and Moon Pagodas, which sit prettily beside Shan Lake.

And, there are a number of fine parks throughout the city, including the Solitary Beauty Peak, which wasn’t particularly solitary on the day I went to visit.

But it did offer some beautiful views of the city and its surroundings.

That is once you pushed a few people out of your way.

Despite all of Guilin’s charms, I can honestly say the only reason I went there was to see the Li River. Which is pretty much the only reason anyone goes to Guilin.

It’s possible I’m not the most creative of tourists.

Admittedly, I’m not usually the type to travel a billion miles to go check out nature. Not that I have anything against nature. But it had better be some pretty amazing nature.

And, let’s just say, the Li River is about as amazing as nature gets.

And I’m definitely not the only one to think so.

The river has been immortalized by poets and painters for centuries.

Its likeness can be found on the back of twenty yuan notes and on the front of cigarette packages.

It’s even been classified as an AAAAA scenic area. I don’t even know what that means. But that’s, like, a lot of A’s, so you know it’s going to be good.

What makes the Li truly impressive, though, is not the river itself but the creepy, cool limestone peaks that tower above it, making it look like something out of a science fiction movie.

Ooo, science fictiony.

I read somewhere that the peaks get a little bit taller every year due to some weird geological process I didn’t quite understand. Now, you have to admit, that’s pretty impressive. Even if you aren’t the type to be impressed by poems and cigarette packets and tourist attraction ratings, you have to be impressed by that.

Come on, guys.


That’s, like, some crazy magic mountain science.

And, I have to say, growing mountains are totally worth traveling a billion miles to see.

I know I certainly wouldn’t have suffered through a twenty-four hour train ride from Kunming to Guliin just so I could see a regular, run-of-the-mill river and some boring, non-growing mountains.

And if you’re going to trek all the way to Guilin to check out China’s most scenic river, you might as well check it out the Chinese way – with a group tour.

My group tour to the Li River was the second group tour I had signed up for while I was in Guilin. The first was to the Longsheng Rice Terraces the day before. So by the time I boarded the mini-bus on the morning of my Li River tour, I was an old hand at the whole Chinese group tour thing.

This seems… familiar.

I wasn’t even fazed when our tour guide launched into song halfway through her introductory spiel. Because that’s exactly what my tour guide had done the day before. Apparently, singing is just one thing that Chinese tour guides do a lot.

And, unlike my fellow passengers, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when she announced that for an extra fee we could take an optional tour of an ethnic minority village after our river cruise.

My tour guide the day before had done the exact same thing, too.

The only difference was the day before I had totally fallen for it.

Being a naive, first-time, Chinese-group-tour-goer, I had happily signed up for the village tour and handed over my money. I imagined myself rambling through a quaint little village full of mud huts and adorable village children. I pictured myself being welcomed by the villagers during a mysterious tribal ceremony, after which I’d find myself betrothed to the local shaman — preferably a very attractive local shaman.

Instead, the village turned out to be a theme park manned by bored-looking twenty-somethings decked out in tribal costumes.

There were a few displays detailing the life and dress of various ethnic minority groups. None of which I could really understand as the tour and most of the signs were in Chinese.

Don’t ask me. I have no idea.

There was also a zip-line, which seemed a bit odd to me. But, to be honest, I can’t say I know a lot about the ethnic minority people of China. For all I know, it was an ancient tribal zipline.

Just like the ancestors used to use…

And, of course, there was a gift shop, where you could buy any manner of dried mushrooms. Which, also, seemed kind of odd. But, again, I can’t say I’m an expert on village life. Maybe dried mushrooms are just one of those gifts that every villager loves to get.

But I kind of doubt it.

Dried mushrooms! Now available in gift packs!

Our visit culminated in a dance performance, performed by more bored twenty-somethings in tribal costumes doing what appeared to be the ethnic minority version of the “Macarena.”

Let’s just say, after my experience that day, I had learned my lesson about signing up for optional village tours.

So when the tour guide of the Li River group tour asked me if I wanted to go on the tour after our cruise, I refused and explained I had already been on a village tour the day before.

“Oh, but it is a very different village,” she explained.

I’m not quite sure what she meant by that.

Possibly this village had both an ancient tribal zipline and some ethnic minority bungee jumping.

Either way, I wasn’t really willing to find out.

When we reached the pier where we were to take our river cruise, our large tour group full of people was broken up into small groups of four. I was grouped up with another American woman and two college-aged Chinese guys, who both seemed kind of mortified to be stuck with two old, white ladies.

And then we were pointed towards our raft.

Now, when I had signed up for the tour, I had been told we’d be taking a bamboo raft down the river. I, of course, was picturing a makeshift, little vessel tied together with twine and tears.

I imagined the raft being slowly and laboriously punted down the Li by a muscle-bound man (preferably shirtless… you know, for authenticity’s sake).

Meanwhile, I, of course, would be lounging under a red parasol mentally penning epic poems about the Li in my head while contemplating life.

And death.

And pectoral muscles.

How I imagined the raft would be… but with a more strapping man and less shirt.

Instead, our “bamboo raft” was a sturdy affair constructed out of PVC pipe and manned by a small, wiry, chain-smoker.

Instead of using a long stick or oar to slowly and quietly guide us down the river, he revved up an outboard motor. A really, really loud outboard motor. So loud it kind of made it hard to think, let alone construct epic poems in your head.

The raft in reality

Luckily, the scenery was so stunning, I didn’t really feel the necessity to think.

Instead I just sat their gap-mouthed, staring at all the pretty limestone peaks, willing them to grow.

The third one on the left is totally growing. Can’t you see it?

With the motor being so loud, I could barely hear the tour guide who was sitting behind me. Which was kind of a blessing as she was still trying to sell me on the optional village tour.

“You can ride a bamboo raft in the village,” she informed me.

“But I’m on a bamboo raft now,” I said.

“Oh, but it is a very different bamboo raft,” she explained.

I’m not quite sure what she meant by that.

Possibly the bamboo raft in the village was made out of actual bamboo and not PVC pipe. And maybe there was a shirtless man there willing to punt me down the river.

Either way, I wasn’t really willing to find out.

Have you ever traveled a billion miles to go see some nature? What was it? Was it worth it?

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On August 17, 2012 at 10:26 pm Priya said:

    Oh, Sally. i don’t think “tours” are really your thing. I went hiking at Starved Rock recently. But that’s only like an hour away.
    Priya recently posted..A Public Breakup Letter to My Potential Future Indian Husband

  2. On August 17, 2012 at 11:03 pm Mika said:

    Wooow.. these limestone peaks look indeed mystical! Great pictures, Sally 🙂

  3. On August 17, 2012 at 11:32 pm Waegook Tom said:

    I’m with you on the whole nature thing, Sally. Nothing against nature either, but let’s just say that hiking and praying that my feet don’t get devoured by leeches aren’t ways that I’d usually choose to spend a weekend.

    Also, those limestone peaks look so, so pretty! Double also – I too am disappointed at the lack of hunky shirtless Chinese guys with pectoral muscles. The limestone peaks are enough to arouse my curiosity about Guilin, but hunky, shirtless Chinese guys would seal the deal.

    • On August 18, 2012 at 9:25 am Sally said:

      Okay, if you do go to Guilin, I’d suggest going on the 4 Lakes, 2 Rivers night cruise. The boat stops halfway through & there’s a tribally kind of show… complete with shirtless men! They were a bit scrawny for my taste, but they were cute & shirtless! Sadly none of my photos from the show turned out as it was too dark… so you’re just going to have to use your imagination. I trust you can do that… 🙂

  4. On August 17, 2012 at 11:41 pm Uncle Ed said:

    I once pursued snorkling for horseshoe crabs in the inland coastal waterways of Sarasota while spending the week at an ARVO conference. Was bitten very badly by whelk larvae (like water mosquitos), got an eye infection, some sort of acetabularia (pretty little tear canal blocking umbrellas). No crabs. Found out later I could have been gator food. The natives told me not to do it but they were very glib on explanations. And all the really good nerve physiologists took home one or two horseshoe crabs (they have really big nerves and I owed Dr. Nakajima a couple of crabs from my inept TA adventures) so being a budding nerve physiologist, and after delivering my spectacular talk on light modulated changes in vertebrate photoreceptor ATP, energy consumption and respiration, and being swollen with confidence and speaker adrenaline, it seemed like such a great idea. Three weeks on furosemide will kill a really bad case of eye umbrellas, who knew? If this crashes, it is because I am writing it on my Linux machine, Fedora 17, the “Beefy Miracle” 🙂

  5. On August 18, 2012 at 12:37 am Ross said:

    I travel a billion miles to see nature all the time, like the Great Barrier Reef. It’s always worth it to me. Although if the trip had involved a 24 hour ride on a Chinese train it may not be so easy to answer that question. I had wanted to visit Guilin for many years. When I finally got there I hated it at first. I did not enjoy the Li River area in Guilin at all. So I started to walk around away from the tourists and fell in love with the city. There are some beautiful and charming areas in Guilin.
    Ross recently posted..Costa Rica Colors

    • On August 18, 2012 at 9:22 am Sally said:

      That’s interesting. See, I really loved Guilin & wasn’t expecting to because I knew it was going to be so touristy. Meanwhile, I absolutely hated Yangshou, but had been totally expecting to love it. (Post forthcoming!)

  6. On August 18, 2012 at 8:39 am Matthew Karsten said:

    Totally sign me up for the ancient tribal zip-line!

    I MUST experience what traditional life is like for these poor Chinese villagers who obviously never live to make it past 20-something. 😀
    Matthew Karsten recently posted..Kids of Antigua [PHOTO]

  7. On August 18, 2012 at 9:13 am Tracey - Life Changing Year said:

    We drove to Uluru in Australia. It was nice but not as awesome as I expected. We also visited Yosemite, Yellowstone and Rushmore in a couple of weeks. They were worth travelling a billion miles for!! Agree with Ross though – The Barrier Reef is the place worth travelling so far for!! And you have the chance to get eaten by a shark too!!
    Tracey – Life Changing Year recently posted..If You Could Change Your Life Next Year What Would You Do?

  8. On August 18, 2012 at 10:42 am Michael LaRocca said:

    My wife and I were living in Hong Kong when we got married, so we honeymooned in Guilin. Did we see the Li River? I think you know the answer. I didn’t do any shirtless rafting, though, because I didn’t want my lovely new bride to run away screaming.
    Michael LaRocca recently posted..Ten Lessons That Star Trek Can Teach You About Writing

  9. On August 18, 2012 at 11:51 am James said:

    Hmmmm. I went from Cambodia to Africa two years in a row. Does that count? Totally worth all the aggravation to get there, though. Nature + animals = happiness. Not sure if I’d go just for the scenery. Or if it involved strenuous physical activity of any kind. Maybe that’s why no one wants to see me shirtless. (sad face)
    James recently posted..Photo of the Week – Vietnamese Family Meals

    • On August 18, 2012 at 9:57 pm Sally said:

      Ha, ha, well, most guys in China who go shirtless are not exactly the type who should go shirtless. I don’t think they cared if anyone wanted to see them shirtless. You could always take that attitude!

  10. On August 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm Laura said:

    Would it be creepy if I told you I have a little blogger/girl crush on you because you are so frackin’ funny that by the time I reached the part about the dried mushrooms I had big tears in my eyes and I was laughing so hard I thought I was gonna get a cramp. And then I suffered mightily from run-on sentence disease.

    Probably creepy, huh.

    Thanks for taking this tour for the rest of us. But I must say I would like to see those sci fi mountains.
    Laura recently posted..Snapshot Friday: Venice

    • On August 18, 2012 at 9:55 pm Sally said:

      Blogger/girl crushes are totally allowed. As are blogger/boy crushes. And really any crushes. I don’t discriminate with these kind of things. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. On August 19, 2012 at 2:08 am Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) said:

    For a second there, you had me worried: two group tours in such quick succession made me think maybe you were becoming a fan of groups and/or tours!

    I don’t recall traveling a bajillion miles to see nature per se (I feel like the secret, secluded beaches on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico don’t count!), but on this trip to Japan, I have been suggesting an awful lot of hiking expeditions… which I don’t understand at all, because I hate hiking! But for some reason I guess I feel it will be different in Japan? (So far this has not been the case… it is still hiking, but more humid…)
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..A Stroll through Ueno Park

    • On August 19, 2012 at 8:46 pm Sally said:

      Well, I signed up for both of the tours with the same agent — the one that kept calling me beautiful. So it wasn’t really on purpose… more like by accident.
      And, actually, now that you remind me I did travel like a bajillion miles in Japan to go hiking on the Nakasendo Trail. And it was totally worth it. But I went in the fall and the weather was PERFECT. Plus, the hike was pretty easy.

  12. On August 19, 2012 at 10:05 am Karen McCann said:

    Hi Sally,
    The thing I love about your blogs is that I get to enjoy all the jokes and the pictures without actually having to travel 24 hours or 7,000 miles to get there. Thanks for taking the tour for all of us. My last tourist activity was visiting a part of the giant redwood forest designed for the blind, the Three Senses Trail in Big Trees State Park, CA. You’re supposed to pretend you’re blind, close your eyes and hold on to the ropes and attempt to read the signs in brail. Or at least, that’s what I did. Actually, my husband read the signs. One said, “Go to the bench at your right and enjoy the fragrance of the cedar tree beside it.” And THE BENCH WAS ON THE LEFT. Isn’t that a horrible trick to play on blind people? Those park rangers can be such pranksters.

    • On August 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm Sally said:

      That sounds like a really cool forest. Except I’m surprised by the 3 Senses Thing… what you weren’t allowed to lick the trees? No fair! And, yeah, those rangers are NOT NICE.

  13. On August 19, 2012 at 10:27 am Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said:

    Very interesting indeed! But wow those mountains…amazing!!!!!! I have traveled to the ends of the earth for nature!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..Thailand: Day 3 (Part 1)

  14. On August 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm Sarah said:

    I Loved this post! So funny and quirky. But this sounds like the exact kind of ‘vacation’ I love. Where you end up on a raft made of PVC pipe, and honestly I would’ve caved and bought some scary dried mushrooms, because thats just the kind of person I am. But to answer the question, I have traveled a billion miles to see nature far more times than I should’ve.
    Sarah recently posted..Buying Local…ish

    • On August 19, 2012 at 8:43 pm Sally said:

      I did cave and buy a greasy sausage on a stick. But that was only because I was dying of hunger & that was the only non-dried-mushroom food item they seem to sell at the ethnic minority village. It was NOT good. I sincerely hope it was not an ancient tribal recipe or anything.

  15. On August 19, 2012 at 9:16 pm Furio said:

    Oh the Li River…

    last year I took an August-31-hours-without-air-con-train from Chengdu to see the river.

    I didn’t enjoy the cruise too much (the river is too crowded).

    However I loved the two days I spent in Yangshuo, allowing myself to get totally lost on the countryside with my recently-rented-bike.
    Furio recently posted..Mama I wanna be a playboy in Saigon

  16. On August 20, 2012 at 2:54 am Sid said:

    A few months ago, I boarded a plane to Kruger National Park. Saw hippos, leopards, cheetahs, elephants and hyenas. We would braai (barbeque) at night, and watched as the hyena passed by the fence in search of scraps.
    Sid recently posted..Battle scars, upcoming weddings and constipation

  17. On August 20, 2012 at 10:41 pm cosmoHallitan said:

    We skipped Guilin altogether and headed straight for Yangshuo from the airport. It has been one of my favorite places so far in China. It’s a quaint little backpacker town with cute cafes and cheap English breakfasts perfect for fueling up before a trek. We took a “bamboo” raft down the river to a little village called Fuli and it was incredible. We disembarked in this field full of water buffalo and strolled through the ancient village that felt almost deserted. But then these little old ladies come to the door selling fans and little things they had made (but not in an obnoxious or pushy way.) We saw a rural barber shop and dentist and a market where they were selling dog stew. it felt like we were seeing the REAL China for the first time. Incredible! And to top it off, we were surrounded by those amazing limestone mountains!
    cosmoHallitan recently posted..China’s First Western Hotel

  18. On August 21, 2012 at 9:36 am AL said:

    Sally, Yangshuo is totally overrated and overcrowded! But Xingping, now that’s the place to be if anyone wants to get up close with the wonderful karst mountains of Guangxi province. Very science-fictiony, indeed. I’d say skip the bamboo/pvc rafts and walk along the river instead! And if time/weather permits, hike up Lao Zhai hill to get a bird’s eye view of the karst landscape. Satisfaction guaranteed!

  19. On August 21, 2012 at 10:13 am choi kum fook said:

    In Chinese literature, Mountain + Water= Scenery. In China, the scenery of Guilin have been announced the most beautiful in the world! The scenery of Yangshut is more beautiful than that of Guilin, as Chinese saying!Miss Sally, what do you say, is it true?! only you can give me answer!
    The most famous nature scene in Malaysia are caves.The Perak Cave in Ipoh and Batu Cave in Kuala Lumpur are quite renowned among the caves.Have you visited them when in Malaysia? Miss Sally!

  20. On August 22, 2012 at 5:31 pm Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista said:

    This was a great retelling of your adventure on the Li! From your pictures I can see why you were so willing to travel that distance for a river. It is beautiful.
    Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista recently posted..Go Go Travel Gadgets!

  21. On August 23, 2012 at 5:07 am Taryn said:

    Thanks for insider tips on the group tours- we will definitely put the Li River on our (ever-expanding) list of places to visit in China, and will definitely stay away from the village tours… unless we feel like a zip-line rid 🙂
    Taryn recently posted..Wordless Wednesday: Charlotte explores Beijing’s 798 Art District

  22. On August 23, 2012 at 9:03 am Montecristo Travels said:

    Another great post! Laughs, insight and a good question. Well, to answer said question yes, we have traveled crazy distances to see nature. We scuba dive and sail and some things … you have to experience and sea (heheheee) to believe.

    Witness a coral reef that has not been damaged (unlike the great barrier that is in serious danger and horribly damaged and bleached) and the gazillion fish and marine animals and coral variety … totally worth it. If you have not gone diving in Little Cayman or Bonaire – you have not lived. We dive at dawn when the night fish are still out and going to bed and the day fish are waking up and coming out. You’ve never seen so much variety and life and colour. Oh … the colour!!!

    Oh and about sharks … really don’t like humans to eat. You are more likely to get killed falling off a ladder, choking on a hot dog or getting hit by a car. Just … so you know.

  23. On August 27, 2012 at 3:16 pm Joburg Expat said:

    As always, a great post! Group tours are definitely not my thing either, but if I know one thing for certain, it is that group tours in China with someone trying to sell me a fake village tour would be absolute torture. Though I’ve never been to China. Anyway, you asked: We just did a family canoe trip on the Orange River in South Africa with just one guide and real canoes and lots of rapids and paddling in between, and it was awesome. I think travel in Africa is pretty much the opposite of the Asian way, at least from the way you describe it. Maybe you can check it out one day…
    Joburg Expat recently posted..People Who Have Time and People Who Don’t

  24. On August 27, 2012 at 5:03 pm crazy sexy fun traveler said:

    The ”theme park” looks like fun 🙂 All those costumes … 🙂
    crazy sexy fun traveler recently posted..BENEFITS OF TRAVELING TO USA

  25. On August 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm Ceri said:

    Good for you, not falling for another tour. I don’t think I’ve ever travelled to look at nature. I guess I’ve travelled far to go and see ancient ruins, and I also travelled up a really high mountain to look at butterflies but I don’t think those count.
    Ceri recently posted..Happy Birthday, Fy Brawd

  26. On October 31, 2014 at 9:19 pm Pleddie said:

    I was in Guilin and Yangshuo a year ago, September. It is true, the “bamboo” rafts they use on the Li River downstream of Yngshuo, are white PVC. They are not even painted. They are propelled by motors that looked like weed eaters with propellers on the end. However, the scenery is fantastic, and I have been told much better that between Guilin and Yangshuo. Be sure to go in the early morning, before the big boat and PVC raft traffic get heavy. I am also told that the hike along the banks is even better and I look forward to doing that on my next trip.

    HOWEVER, if you want a fantastic, relaxing, beautiful “real” bamboo raft trip, take a leisurely cruise down the Yulong River. It flows into the Li River at Yangshuo. I have never seen a more beautiful, relaxing place in all my whole life. If I ever want to slow down (actually I am afraid to) and just watch the world go by (actually you are going by, but it is all relative), that would be the place I would choose. There are a few, small weirs your raft will go over that add a little excitement now and then, but to get splashed a little is refreshing. Again, go in the morning.

    Now, relative traveling a billion miles for nature. While I think human beings build/make some fantastic things, I personally don’t believe that they can compete with mother nature. The Great Wall is fantastic, but I believe it pales in comparison to the Karst formations along the Li River. Besides, sitting back in a bamboo raft, sipping on a Margareta on the Yulong River, beats climbing a 1,000 steps and a bottle of hot water every time.


  1. unbrave girl | That Time I Went to Yangshou

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