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.

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