Li River, Guilin, China

Guilin (桂林), which literally translates to “forest of osmanthus flowers,” is famous for its karst terrain where jagged limestone cliffs rise dramatically above shimmering emerald rivers.

Guilin is featured on China’s 20 yuan note — and was used as the planet Kashyyyk in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I didn’t see any Wookiees.

The Li River (漓江), which runs through Guilin, has inspired countless painters and poets.

“The river forms a green gauze belt, the mountains are like jade hairpins,” wrote Tang Dynasty poet Han Yu. The verse is infinitely more lyrical in Chinese.

Li River, Guilin, ChinaUnfortunately, we did not get to witness the river in its full majesty. After two months of no precipitation, it began raining the night we arrived and didn’t stop until we left.

On the day of our four-hour boat tour down the Li River, it was 80% foggy and 20% misty.

I still enjoyed it though. Apparently at the height of the tourist season, the river can be crammed with dozens and dozens of the identical, flat-bottomed, double-decker boats. As it was winter, there was just four or five chugging along the serene 80-kilometre trip to Yangshuo.

The boats have seat arrangements around tables on upper and lower decks, and then open-air top decks you can walk outside on to take photos and such. Because it was drizzling on and off, I would duck in and out with my camera.

At certain points, the mist would lift enough to catch glimpses of the poetically named rock formations. “Yearning for Husband Rock” is supposed to look like a woman carrying a baby on her back, waiting for her husband’s return. I always wonder about these names. What if she’s just hungry and yearning for a bowl of noodles?

Li River, Guilin

Then there was the “Painted Hill of Nine Horses,” which is supposed to look like a painting of the nine animals on the side of a cliff. I kind of made some of them out after my dad pointed out where they were supposed to be. But all Jason saw was rock.

(Can you make out a horse head in the photo above? Look to the centre-left side of the image.)

Li River, Guilin, China

During the trip, there were countless vendors who would pole up to the boat on their tiny bamboo rafts and sell things from oranges to jade Buddha carvings. It was entrepreneurship at its finest.

They would get up to the boat, attach their raft with a hook, and then yell out their wares and prices in English. If anyone wanted to buy, the hawkers would climb up the side and do the exchange.

Lunch time

The cruises all offer a buffet lunch in the middle of the trip. Ours was pretty standard: fried rice, fried noodles, beef stir-fry, curry chicken, eggplant fritters, and French fries. I didn’t bother taking pictures.

Li River, Guilin, ChinaBut you can also choose the upsell, and pay for extra dishes served to your table.

I saw big plates of shrimp, baby crabs, and squid at other tables.

We got a local special of osmanthus fish (桂花魚), which comes right from the Li River, and is supposed to have fewer bones than other kinds of fish.

Served whole, the fish was steamed and topped with green onions and ginger. It really didn’t need much else.

The meat was meltingly tender, no doubt fresh from the boats I saw delivering their morning’s catch to the open-air kitchens about half an hour after our cruise had set out.

But captive on a tourist boat, we paid true tourist prices. The osmanthus fish was a whopping 250 yuan ($45 CAD) — more than the average we were spending on dinners for four people.

Li River, Guilin, China

Li River, Guilin, China

Jason also got nailed when he bought a Sprite — for 20 yuan ($3.50). But we did get (watery Chinese) beer for free with lunch.

For dessert, we special-ordered candied water chestnuts. It sounded weird to me, but they turned out to be pretty addictive. The crunchy, candied coating went really well with the mild, crispy chestnut.

Other than the boat cruise, you can also take in the Li River on a bamboo raft, which usually holds two people and a guide, or by kayak.

With the weather what it was, I was more than happy to sit back in the dry, warm boat.