I cannot recall ever poring over the landscapes surrounding the Li River, not having placed China high on my list of must-see countries before I keel over… In all honesty, when I ended up in China last February, I was most certainly heading for Vietnam, but as I said at the beginning of my blog: I have no agenda, no set itinerary. Let the wind blow me where its whims desire. And maybe China is just a minor detour on my way to Vietnam… Time will tell.
I first heard about the Li River and Guilin from Auntie B, my children’s great aunt. Born in China, just like her siblings, she reminisced about an idyllic childhood roaming the buildings and gardens of the Peking Legation Quarter and later the British Embassy in Nanking, where the British Diplomatic Corps (amongst others) was then housed. She often and fondly mused on her early years, shared with her elder brother (my children’s grandfather) and enjoyed under the watchful eyes of nannies and governesses or on their own, as then was customary. Time spent with parents was precious: stolen moments, daily bedtime stories or even silent exchanges at the dinner table in an epoch when children were meant to be seen and not heard. But the Chinese adventure was cut short by the cruelty of the Second World War. Whilst the children grew up back in the UK in the relative safety of British boarding schools, their parents remained in the Far East, held as Prisoners of War of the Japanese in the civilian internment camp at Stanley, at the Southern end of Hong Kong Island. After their release at the end of the war, they were repatriated to England never to return to China.
Cherished recollections can be powerful and Auntie B always hoped one day to return to China to revisit her childhood haunts and explore how time had reshaped those familiar vistas. So she went in the Spring of 1989, in the post-Mao era when China began to open its doors and welcomed visitors, when China was buzzing with the excitement of new possibilities. Together with her younger sister, she marvelled at some of the highlights China had to offer: Beijing and the Great Wall, Nanjing and the then recently discovered Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. It was a bittersweet experience as time, human intervention and progress had erased much of the old Peking she remembered.
Although the tour had satisfied much of Auntie B’s curiosity about the country where she was born, she regretted missing out on a cruise along the Li River, its most famed and picturesque stretch linking Guilin and Yangshuo… It was a trip she would have wanted to come back to China for and that in itself was a potent endorsement for me to undertake this journey on her behalf.
Guilin is not exactly in the vicinity of Hangzhou, but with a week’s holiday on the horizon in early July, it sounded like the perfect time for me to explore one of the most amazing landscapes in China. With images of the spectacular Karst mountain scenery abound on the internet and even depicted on a 20 Yuan banknote, I knew I would be in for a photographer’s feast! And if I could mix a little bit of sightseeing with some more active stuff such as cycling or hiking, this was definitely a winner… Unfortunately, I had not reckoned on the weather being a spoil sport and as several of my previous trips had drowned in heavy downpours, I was counting on an upturn in my luck. Surely, a sunny sightseeing trip was long overdue…
A glance through my hotel window on Monday morning told a different story. Thick and stubborn cloud cover obscured all but the closest mountain peaks and shrouded the familiar panoramic views of Guilin dwarfed by unending layers of pinnacles merging with the distance. Things did not improve and the boat trip to the famous pagoda was a bit of a wash-out. The chairlift to the mountain top was not operating and the evening walk to the beautifully lit pagoda pair did not materialise. The photograph, you wonder?? Courtesy of my guide, who felt that surely a picture he had taken on a previous occasion would suffice… Really???
With only more rain forecast for Tuesday, a mood of despondency had descended on the motley group of tourists who took the much anticipated journey along the Li River. For many of them, this was supposed to be one of the most memorable parts of a once in a lifetime holiday in China. But we needn’t have worried. Low hanging clouds cast their own spell on the hazy spires and every river bend concealed even more stunning and unexpected scenes. Just like the rain evoked an eerie atmosphere in the Yellow Mountains several weeks ago, the wispy drapes of mist along the river Li added mystery to the awe-inspiring views.
We reached Yangshuo shortly after lunch, when the clouds lifted and warming sunshine brightened the green rock faces towering over the small town. I spent the afternoon meandering the narrow, touristy streets enticed by exotic fruits displayed along the road side. Fresh, succulent and juicy passion fruit, dripping with sweetness and spooned delicately out of its purple skin straight into my mouth. Delectable!! But the supposedly spectacular evening water extravaganza along the river had to be substituted by a glorious body massage. Due to the heavy rains from the previous days, the river’s water levels were too high and the colourful fountain display was abandoned…
The sunny spell lasted into Wednesday, and the feathery mistiness veiling the dazzle of the morning sun unfolding over the peaks??? Nothing but stubborn, clinging condensation hitting my camera lens when I left my air-conditioned room and walked into the comforting warmth of the day’s promise.
Wednesday we cycled in and around Yangshuo, exploring picture-perfect views along the mesmerising Yulong River, passing small ponds overflowing with beautiful, pink-tinted lotus flowers reaching for the sun. With the threat of heavy rain clouds shadowing us at all time, we were lucky to only get drenched once!! And for my last photograph of the area, I took full advantage of the famous and fabulous scenery used as a backdrop in countless Chinese films ..
Thanks Auntie B for inspiring me to do this unforgettable trip. It was breathtaking, sublime, awesome, magical!!