Cruising China's Li River

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"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.

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