Though China’s Li River flows for 437 kilometers, its most popular part is an 83km-long stretch that lies between the towns of Guilin and Yangshuo. The best way to see the area is by boat, and there are plenty of options for travelers who wish to sail past the beautiful rounded green hills and towering limestone cliffs on a Li River Cruise.
In 2007, I stumbled upon a movie called The Painted Veil. I immediately fell in love with its sweeping panoramas of the incredible karst hills in China’s Guangxi province and spent countless hours watching Naomi Watts and Edward Norton floating along the Li River on bamboo rafts. The film spoke to every part of me – the inspired film student, the hopeless romantic, and the traveler. I vowed two things: that I would someday make a film that was equally as beautiful, and I would someday take a Li River cruise to explore the scenery firsthand.
Fast forward 11 years, and though I have yet to make a feature film, I did finally take the opportunity to hop on a plane and explore China’s lush karst landscapes myself.
The cruise starts from one of 2 piers, which are both around 40-minutes’ bus ride from Guilin’s city center (the pier you leave from depends on which ship you take). Though Guilin is the province’s third-largest city, there is no urban sprawl, and it’s a beautiful feeling to roll past the mountains on the ride to the boat dock. The air quality is among the best in the country, making Guilin a perfect place for city-lovers (like me) to spend a few days before venturing towards the smaller and more authentic town of Yangshuo.
There are 2 options for a Li River Cruise:
4-star cruises are the most comfortable. These boats offer modern facilities with larger seats and a buffet-style lunch. The seating capacity is around 70-80 passengers, spread over upper and lower decks. English-speaking guides are provided.
3-star cruises are the cheapest option, and have guided commentaries in both English and Mandarin. This is the one I opted for, and though some areas got a bit crowded at the most popular scenic spots, it was quite a comfortable and enjoyable trip. Lunch is included in the cost of a ticket, however it can only be compared to aircraft food, and I highly recommend bringing some snacks as an alternative.
NOTE: There are also cheaper Chinese-only cruises that I don’t have much information about. If you speak fluent Mandarin, these might be worth looking into, but it’s also my understanding that due to poor service and a lack of cleanliness, many booking companies won’t offer this as an option at all.
It takes between 4-5 hours to get from Guilin to Yangshuo on a Li River cruise. The best months to visit are between April and October, keeping in mind that although summer is the hottest time of the year, it’s also the wettest.
If your visit falls between the months of December to February, the duration of the cruise may shorten to around 2 hours due to the low water level. Between November and March, trips depart on only 3 days of the week.
The average prices for a Li River cruise are around 350 CNY for a 3-star boat and 580 CNY for a 4-star. Tickets should be bought in advance — though I bought mine from my hotel the night before, I was warned that at a busier time of year I may have been out of luck. The cruise is one-way only, and includes transportation from Yangshuo back to Guilin by shuttle bus. If you don’t wish to go back to Guilin, you can try bargaining for a cheaper rate, but you probably won’t get much of a discount, if any at all.
Highlights of the cruise include Mural Hill (otherwise known as Nine Horses Fresco Hill), which is a 100 meter-high cliff face that looks like a huge mural featuring nine horses. You will also have the ability to see the spot featured on the back of the 20 yuan banknote, and if you’re feeling especially touristy (and have a 20 yuan note), you can join the crowds in taking a selfie posing with one.