Guilin, situated in China’s southern province of Guangxi, is known for its scenic karst peaks that dot the banks of the Li River. Boating down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of the most popular tourist activities in China and you cannot possibly visit the town without being offered “Bamboo boat?” by an old woman several times per day.
We were excited to cruise the river, but were surely not willing to pay the ridiculous prices charged by many tour companies. With a goal in mind, we set off one morning to haggle our way to a solid discount. Turns out the cheapest way to get down the Li is to forgo the English tour guide, and go on a Chinese boat instead. Why not? The river’s scenery should do all the talking anyway; who wants an annoying narration to cloud the natural beauty? Skipping the English practically cut the price in half; so, we forked out our money and signed up for the Chinese boat.
The next morning, a bus picked us up at our hostel as planned. So far, so good. After all of the passengers were on board, we headed off on a short drive to the pier. Eventually the tour guide got on her mike and started doing her thing. We had no clue what she was saying, hell, she could have been telling the entire bus that we were ugly and smelled, but it didn’t matter to us.
Next thing we know, the pitch of the tour guide’s voice was raising and a few other passengers were beginning to speak up loudly. The tour guide was pointing her finger and speaking quite quickly while sighing and rolling her eyes. At one point or another, pretty much everyone on the bus had chimed in. Clearly, there was an intense argument going down. It’s amazing the things you can figure out without understanding a single word. To this day, we still have no idea what it was all about, but at the time we thought it was hilarious and were relieved that it didn’t involve us.
After the fight was over, the bus pulled over on the side of the road. “Are we here?” we both asked each other. Everyone emptied off the bus, so we decided to follow suite. Down the hill a bit, a dodgy looking boat was pulled up next to a rickety dock. There were not enough seats for everyone and we were beginning to think that we had been duped. Maybe this was what the argument on the bus was about? Nonetheless, we just went with it.
After a few minutes of cruising the river, our camera was snapping away. Just when we had come to terms with the sub-par condition of our boat, we pulled up to another pier, this time with several other boats docked next to it. Hmmm…what was going on this time? Turns out we were now supposed to switch to another boat. Still, having no clue what was happening, we just followed the other passengers. This boat was much cleaner and safer looking, had enough seats to go around, and was even equipped with a toilet!
The cruise was now officially underway! We marveled at the spectacular scenery during the entire four hour ride. Visiting in May is an ideal time because the limestone peaks are coated in a lush green cover.
Even though we did not know what the tour guide was saying, we could always pick up when a peak of particular interest was coming up. The Chinese would rush the top deck, cameras in hand.
Close to the beginning of the boat ride, someone came up to us and motioned towards their camera. Oh, they want us to take their picture. “No problem” we say. “No, no, no. Photo” she says as she points to us. Next thing we know, we are in the middle of an all out photo with her and her entire family. And this was only the beginning. We found ourselves cracking up during the majority of the boat trip as more and more people asked to take pictures with us. We felt like celebrities. We even caught this guy taking our photo on the sly…
Scenery, bus fight, photo shoots, and all, it was a great boat cruise down the Li River.
The moral of the story is, when you visit Guilin, definitely opt for the Chinese boat cruise down the Li River. It will be far more eventful than sitting with a bunch of old farts on the western boat. You will pay less, see the same beautiful scenery, take tons of photos with new friends, and maybe even learn a little Chinese while you’re at it.