What Guilin lacks in size, it balances out with beauty. The city’s life-blood is centered around the Lijiang River, a body of water that stretches north from Xing’an County and south through Guilin and Yangshuo.
It’s evening, though work calls, I amuse myself on the public walkways by the river. My hands rest upon the concrete railing built to protect me from drowning or falling. I test that theory by leaning my frame against it, applying a gentle pressure to my soft belly. Food’s been consumed, yet I feel hungry as my gaze fixes to the lapping river below. My craving doesn’t entail dumplings or rice, but a desire for stimulation.
Amidst the shadows of darkness, I see light. Beneath me, there are walkways, diffused with lamplight. The river itself stretches before me gently gurgling, telling its story…
A bamboo boat is moored; a tanned, lean man is stretched out against its length. His eyes are at rest, maybe he’s dreaming, I’m not sure. I ponder his purpose. Fishing? There’s a lack of knotted, grimy nets at his feet, so I’m left to stew in my curiosity. A small, concrete dam juts above water level, redirecting the flow of the river. It’s shaped like an awkward triangle with a flat top, ugly and practical. It’s an aesthetic intrusion, that destroys the uniformity of the jade green waters. I question why it exists.
On the other side of the river are apartment complexes with curved roofs made of ceramic tiles. The tiles lay upon each other intimately, reminding me of overhanging caves. Buddhists believe straight lines hold evil spirits; so Chinese builders designed curved roofs to keep happiness and luck intact. I am in love with this idea. A row of trees flank the complexes and walkway, their beryl leaves abundant, drooping over to offer shade at day or cover at night. I do a double take, as my mind dilutes with déjà vu, for I spot an identical bamboo boat, a similar reed thin man as the captain, except this one is sitting up, smoking a cigarette. I sense that he’s waiting. I notice a box built into the center of his boat, and it finally dawns on me the ‘fisherman’s’ boat is designed the same way.
A young, Chinese couple makes their way down the path. She’s wearing saggy Capri’s with wedge heels, a t-shirt with some kind of silk-screened animal on it, and her jet-black hair is pulled into a severe side ponytail. Her boyfriend fares no better in the fashion department, for his jeans are too tight on his small frame, which coats him in a comical air with the contrast of his spiky, gelled hair. He’s a finger puppet built out of proportion – big head, dwarf body.
They approach the smoking man on the boat and get on. He jolts to life and pushes off with a lengthy bamboo pole. The boat slowly makes its way across. A boat taxi. Just as I arrive at this conclusion, the reclining boatman is navigating towards the other side; a mother and her daughter are his passengers.
Not fishermen after all. Until, not 100 yards from me, a shirtless man in shorts is walking across the dam, splashing, barely able to bend over his protruding belly as his hands sweep under water with a small net, searching.
Two men are walking directly below me. Though the language is lost on me, I watch their hand gestures and playful banter, deciding that they are swapping witticisms. My ripe imagination sketches a story: they are old, school friends enjoying a rare night out, reminiscing and teasing each other. On a whim, they decide to take a stroll by the river. And, why not? Get a little exercise and air after a hearty meal.
My mouth gapes open with surprise when my new observation subjects removes their shoes and begin traversing across the dam barefoot. I feel motherly, wanting to shout out “don’t slip!”, but I hold my tongue. They make it across with no trouble and soon enough, a middle-aged couple cross from the other side, shopping bags dangling from their hands, letting water slosh over their sandals.
The river and the night hum along, people leaving or arriving, in various ways and means.
Come morning, the river will welcome the early risers, the surrounding mountains offering serenity, a dreamy inspiration to those who long to find any. The young elite will run by the river in their high-octane running shoes, alongside the elderly flowing to a group tai chi class.
At each point in the day, the river thrives, gives, and is shaped by the residents of Guilin, just as much as it shapes the region.
I see images now… Of villages and tribal people, generations that rely on the bounty of soil and river. Tasting the famous Guilin rice noodles for the first time, how my palate gleefully recognized peanuts and salty radish. This dish grew to be our morning breakfast, the steaming broth and sharp smell of pickled eggs pulling us out of slumber at dawn. Cruising down the Lijiang River, seeing the myth of the mountains come alive, spotting water buffalo and clusters of wild bamboo growing.
That’s the charm of Guilin. Many a traveler has extolled its ability to propel them back into time, to conjure a tapestry of simplicity.
I could write endless pages on Guilin, so I thought it might be worth showing its charms with a video highlighting moments from my cruise down the Lijiang River with China Odyssey Tours, eating noodles, and what Chinese trains look like on the inside, among other visual jewels.
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Big thanks goes to China Odyssey Tours for arranging all our tours, transfers and assisting us with train tickets for the China portion of the Train Challenge and to HostelBookers for arranging our Guilin accommodation at How Hostel.