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.
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.
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.
THEY ARE MOUNTAINS THAT GROW.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 pectoral muscles.
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.
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.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?