Pretty as a Picture

Cruise China’s scenic Li River

By: Christopher Batin

The cormorant darted about on the stream’s surface before stretching its neck and diving with a penetrating plop to the river bottom. Twenty seconds later, the bird buoyed to the surface like a cork, struggling to keep the wiggling carp it had caught in its vice-like jaws. At the sight of the fish, the attending cormorants on the bamboo raft bobbed their necks in a feeding frenzy, and the fish hunt was on.

The bird handler extended a long pole to the bird and it dutifully climbed onto it. The handler easily removed the fish from the bird’s gullet, as a small string tied around the bird’s neck kept it from swallowing the fish. He quickly fed it a piece of cut fish that was easier to swallow. Satisfied, the bird ruffled its feathers to dry, while the handler sent another bird in search of a fish.

The birds caught a total of five fish, and I was mesmerized by this performance of possibly one of the best “fishers” in the avian world. A cormorant is the size of a small goose, and I was able to hold one, which had been a lifelong goal of mine. A close-up look revealed its green eyes and a hooked beak used for holding onto fish.

Any photo essay of China is incomplete without the depiction of a bamboo raft, a thatch-hatted Chinese fisherman and his cormorants. This system of fishing hasn’t changed throughout much of China’s history, and the scene with a backdrop of limestone karst formations of Li River country is widely depicted in both fine art and cheap tourist paintings. It’s easy to understand why this country has inspired China’s top writers and poets throughout the ages. The scene likewise inspired me years ago, and I purchased a similar piece of artwork long before my first trip to China.

Guilin’s Natural Beauty

Cormorant fishing is one of the many tour highlights on a three-day Guilin Landscape and Li River cruise out of China’s Guilin Province with tour operator China Century Tours.
At the start of the cruise, I observed over a dozen two-decker tour boats at the Guilin dock. While unsightly at first, once the scenery pops into view and the boats spread out along the river, the line of boats didn’t faze me.

The six -hour, 50-mile Li River cruise is simple, yet filled with natural-history entertainment and Chinese folklore inspired by the country’s geologic formations. The limestone hills are lined with bamboo groves, caves and patchworked with cultivated fields.

I delighted in learning the history and stories behind awe-inspiring sights such as The Forest of Odd Shaped Peaks, Rooster Fighting Hill and Nine Dragons Playing in the Water. I was into my second memory card and 300 photos by mid-trip. Fog, clouds, mist and sunshine created delightful variations of the karst formations that ranged from brooding to vibrant. Each experience lasted perhaps minutes, but seemed to last hours. Such is the magic of the Guilin countryside.

At noon, the attending staff served a multi-course lunch of various Chinese foods and beer. Your clients might want to pass, as I did, on the sake with an entire pickled snake coiled at the bottom inside of the jug.

Christina Chin was my tour guide for the entire three days, and spoke better English than some Americans. She pointed out the many highlights along the river, the historical references and fascinating cultural information about the minorities, the flowers and even the crops. Rare is it that I find a tour guide so well informed about all aspects of the country, from geology to botany, as well as the required historical and cultural references.

This particular Guilin Landscape tour offered an unusual bonus. A private tour guide for one or two people allows the guide to provide greater personalized service, or none at all. For a while, I needed to just soak in the scenery, and contemplate the marvels I was observing. Christina was respectful, and didn’t bother me until I summoned her over. Other tour guides were busy with 12 to 20 people, and their clients weren’t receiving the quality guiding that I enjoyed with Christina. She convinced me that personalized service can be had at a less expensive price than a large group tour. One woman complained that her first tour was canceled because three of the required 20 people didn’t show up to make a minimum group size.

I stood at a corner of the railing, and didn’t move for four hours. The sights flowed by as lazily as the river. Locals washed their clothes in the placid back currents. Others dipped buckets of water for their livestock and waved as we cruised by.

Don’t Skip Yangshuo

The dock at Yangshuo was crowded with disembarking passengers. Most retreated quickly to buses for the return drive to Guilin.

Don’t allow your clients to make the same mistake.

Spending time in Yangshuo is the second part of this grand adventure, taking in a variety of hiking or biking tours, or lazily boating on the Li River tributaries.

Yangshuo also offers unparalleled street shopping, not only for the bargains, but also because the mountain scenery springs up from the city center itself. It truly must be seen to be fully appreciated.

Returning to Guilin, agent Linda Yu was right on with her recommendation to drive back to the Guilin countryside during the day and not at night. I was able to enjoy watching farmers working the fields and their water buffalo at play. We also made brief stops at villages along the way.

China’s popular attractions, like the Forbidden City and Beijing, seem to historically receive the most press for popularity, but in my book, the Guilin Landscape tour far exceeds the big-city tours. Friends keep requesting to see Guilin and Li River photos again and again, and I am happy to oblige. So advise your clients to take extra film or memory cards, and enjoy one of China’s most delightful and scenic destinations.


China Century Tours

Commission: 10 percent and up

The Guilin Landscape and Li River Cruise package for two people includes roundtrip flight from Shanghai, private driver, English-speaking guide, five-star hotels, cruise and caving and sightseeing tours that run $710 per person, with larger discounts for groups of two or more.