Cruising China's Li River

From Guilin to Yangshuo the Li River winds through a wonderland of karst mountains where the lives of the Zhuang people have not changed for centuries.

In the dim glow of a flickering kerosene lantern six men assemble their birds for a night of fishing. Their boats, slender rafts not much bigger than surfboards, are made of bamboo poles lashed together and turned up at the bow. A reed basket in the stern stands ready to receive the night's catch and near the bow the cormorants preen themselves and stare out into the darkness. Except for the rippling reflections of Guilin's distant lights the surface of the Li River is utterly black.

After preparing their birds the fishermen hang powerful gas lanterns from the bows of their rafts and push off the beach onto the languid surface of the river. We follow them in a small motor-launch and pull up beside Zhang as he calls to his birds. "Alo! Alo! Alo!" he shouts as he poles his slender craft through the clear, shallow water. Motoring slowly beside him we can see his three cormorants darting back and forth across the bottom. Illuminated by the lantern hanging from the bow of the raft they resemble tiny streamlined submarines propelled by some invisible force. Darting and swerving within the circle of light the birds move with remarkable speed. Every so often one surfaces for a breath of air, shakes its head and dives back in to renew the hunt. Suddenly Zhang changes his call. "Hoi! Hoi!" he shouts. One of the birds has surfaced with the tail of an eight-inch fish thrashing from its open beak. The lucky bird swims obediently to the raft, hops up, and offers no resistance as Zhang picks it up by its long neck, dumps the fish into the waiting basket and sets the bird gently down. For a moment it opens its mouth, flutters its wings, and begs to be fed. But the night's fishing has just begun and cormorants fish better when they are hungry. With a shout of "Alo! Alo!" Zhang tosses the disappointed bird back into the water where it renews its instinctive quest for food undaunted by the cord around its neck that prevents it from swallowing its catch.

We watched another of the birds surface with a fish almost as big as itself. As it struggled to get back to the raft Zhang reached out with his pole. Grasping the pole with its feet, and without letting go of its catch, the cormorant hung on upside down as Zhang lifted it back to the raft. In half an hour the birds landed at least a dozen fish.

"The fishing is good tonight," said Jeremy, "but now it's time to go back to the hotel."

As our skiff pulled away Zhang waved good-bye. Having done his thing for the tourists he and his birds settled down to the serious business of adding more fish to his basket.

I asked Jeremy, our local tour guide, when the cormorants got fed. "Some fishermen let the birds swallow every seventh fish," he told me, "others take off their neck-cords before heading home and let the birds eat all they can catch on the way back to shore. The birds are both pets and working partners," he added. "They live for many years and a single good cormorant can catch enough fish to feed a whole family."

The Guilin Sheraton is only a short distance from where Zhang and his fellow fishermen ply their nightly trade. Outside our south-facing window we can see the river, its clear green water sparkling in the early morning light. At breakfast on the mezzanine, overlooking the glittering foyer of polished marble and glass, a tuxedo-clad musician at the grand piano provides a tasteful background of Chopin. The five-star opulence of the Sheraton is a world removed from that of the fishermen balanced on their primitive bamboo rafts. But in this part of China, despite the influx of tourists, the lives of many local people have not changed for generations. The city of Guilin is a harmonious mix of the very old and the very new — a meeting place of ancient customs and modern technology.

Like thousands of travellers before us we have come to Guilin to see the karst, that surreal landscape of limestone pillars that has inspired generations of poets and painters, and continues to fascinate modern-day photographers. A Song Dynasty traveller (A.D. 960-1280) writes: "For their astonishing strangeness surely the hills of Guilin rank first in the world." Before coming here I assumed the improbable landscape depicted on classical Chinese scrolls was an artist’s impression, too impossibly steep and compact to be real. But in reality the sugarloaf mountains of the karst are even more awe-inspiring and more improbable than anything depicted by the artists. The clusters of steep-sided, round-topped limestone hills are unlike anything else on earth. In the words of one Chinese poet the peaks of the karst, "rise as suddenly from the Earth as trees in a forest."

The Li River, described by a Tang Dynasty poet as "a blue ribbon of silk," runs through the heart of China's karst and the 84 km boat trip from Guilin downstream to Yangshuo is one of the country's top tourist attractions. Our boat, a flat-bottomed scow, has a cabin with tables and benches on the lower deck and an open observation deck on top. We are part of a flotilla of similar tourist craft that pull away from the Guilin waterfront en-masse. But the boats soon spread out and, except for local farmers and fishermen, we are alone on the river. Part way through our trip a bell signals that lunch is being served on the lower deck and we slide into the benches for a full course meal of chicken and noodles. Later the captain noses his boat into a beach where a group of women are selling fruit. I buy a sweet, thick-skinned pomelo for desert and return to the observation deck, not wanting to miss the fascinating new sights that unfold with every turn of the river.

Bamboo rafts, some carrying fishermen and their cormorants, others piled high with fruits and vegetables or fitted with seats for passengers, are the prime movers of Li River commerce. Their design was perfected centuries ago and has not changed for generations. Most of the people who live along the river and farm the tiny tracts of fertile land scattered among the limestone hills ignore the tourist boats and go about their tasks just as their ancestors did before them. Water buffalo are still used to till the land, kids with dip-nets strain shrimp from the river, a cormorant fisherman calls to his birds, and men and women standing waist deep in water harvest reeds from the shoals. Against the surreal backdrop of karst mountains the Li River and its people seem to be caught in a time-warp where nothing has changed for hundreds of years.

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