Guilin, Guangxi, China
Guangxi Province, with its beautiful mountains and rivers, has been eulogized for 13 centuries by painters and writers who have tried to capture its unearthly landscape on paper. A cruise down the Li River is like floating through a classic Chinese scroll painting of mist, mountains, and rivers. From Guilin, the jade green Li winds through spectacular, almost surreal scenery of humpbacked and eroded karst formations with whimsical names like Bat Hill, Five Tigers Catch a Goat, and Paintings Brush Peak. Tour boats ply past picturesque villages where young boys bathe the family water buffalo, women wash clothes, and farmers plow rice fields. A dwindling number of fishermen on bamboo rafts still train cormorants (mostly for the benefit of camera-wielding tourists) to dive and trap fish in their beaks.
Some 50 miles downriver, the small town of Yangshuo is the southern terminus of these river cruises, and though it may not be the “real China” – cybercafés, B&Bs, and cafes offering “American Brunch” cater to foreign tourist – prices are low, the locals are friendly, and many people speak English. From here, day trips by bike over the surrounding green plains and the forest-covered limestone peaks allow you to see some of China’s most remarkable scenery. Some of the peaks can even be climbed: From the summit at Moon Rock, a dramatic army of jagged peaks goes marching off into the distance.
During the evenings, the spectacular Impression: Third Sister (Sanjie) Liu is performed on the River Li with the dark mountain profile as the backdrop. Directed by the acclaimed Zhang Yimou (art director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games), this famous Chinese love story is enacted on a grand scale by a cast of more than 600 locals on hundreds of bamboo rafts.
Peaceful removed some 20 miles from both Guilin and Yangshuo, the HOMA (Hotel of Modern Art) sits surrounded by lakes, rice paddies, and misty karst formations. The hotel’s innovative contemporary design extends to its 46 rooms and highlighted its collection of more than 200 sculptures by international artists. In town, the fully renovated Sheraton Guilin Hotel is set right on the Li River.
WHERE : Cruises begin in Guilin, 323 miles/520 km northwest of Hong Kong.
BEST TIME : Apr and Sep – Oct for nicest weather.