the banks of the li river

We left Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport for Guangzhou where we spent three days before flying on a small CAAC Ilyushin 14 aircraft to Guilin in the Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The airplane was noisy, basic transportation and typical of Russian-built commercial aircraft. We nicknamed it the Friendshipski because of its similarity to the Dutch-built Fokker Friendship commonly used by airlines for service to small airports. The view as we approached the Guilin area was spectacular. Perfectly shaped limestone mountains rose straight out of the countryside, providing an eerie landscape and seeming to almost touch the wheels of the airplane. While I tried to take photographs out of the window, Toddy studied the inside of a sick bag.

Li River: Guilin, 1978
Li River: Guilin, 1978
Li River: Guilin, 1978
Li River: Guilin, 1978
Li River: Guilin, 1978
Li River: Guilin, 1978
Li River: Guilin, 1978
Li River: Guilin, 1978

Guangxi, in the southwest of China, is the home of the Zhuang people and the largest ethnic minority in China. It is one of five autonomous regions and even though it borders on Vietnam, the language of its forty-five million people is more closely related to Thai. Guilin (literally translated as the Forest of Sweet Osmanthus), on the bank of the Lijiang (Li) River in the northeastern part of Guangxi Zhuang, was one of the major cities in the Region. It was famous for its Osmanthus (Sweet Olive or Fragrant Olive) trees whose flowers were blended with green or black tea to make a scented tea called gui hua cha. The magnificent scenery along the Li River captured the imagination of many classical Chinese artists, poets and, more recently, photographers. The peculiar landscape was formed about three hundred million years ago when the region was a seabed with a thick overlay of limestone. When the seabed thrust up, the limestone formed majestic hills and caverns into weird but beautiful shapes.

The hills are riddled with caves, some large enough for 10,000 people to shelter inside and others several kilometers long. Some of the hills, Tu Hsiu (Solitary Beauty Peak), Fu Po Shan (Underground Water Hill) and Ta Shan (Pagoda Hill) appear like single towers. Others have names that more closely describe their shape, Hsiang Pi Shan (Elephant Trunk Hill), Tieh Tsai Shan (Folded Brocade Hill) and Lo To Shan (Camel Hill).

Early in the Chin Dynasty (214 B.C.), a thirty-three kilometers canal was dug north of Guilin to link the Hsiang Kiang, a tributary of the Yangtze, and the Likiang, a Pearl River branch. This connection of China’s two main waterways made transport easier between the north and the south of the country. The Likiang River was the main waterway winding its way past Guilin and its spectacular hills. The sixty-five kilometre boat ride from Guilin down the river to Yangshuo, especially between Xingping and Yangshuo, took in the main scenic spots such as Kuan Yen (Crown Cavern), Hua Shan (Mural Hill), Lo Sze Shan (Snail Hill), Pi Lien Feng (Green Lotus Peak) and Shu Tung Shan (Scholar’s Page-Boy Hill). Even though it had a population of over four million people, Guilin was a small “low-rise” city with a few signs of new development. It had more of a village feel, with no large hotels or guesthouses, and had not yet benefitted from western tourists. The weather was mild but humid when we arrived and checked into a small hotel near Jung Hu Banian Lake. It was an easy city to explore so I walked early in the morning when people were cycling to work and our group was having breakfast.

We held a banquet at the hotel but the food reflected the under developed nature of the region and was not up to the standard of Shanghai or Beijing. During the banquet, Toddy queried the waiter about the food, as he didn’t like the taste of the meat. We had difficulty communicating with the harassed waiter, who did not understand English, Mandarin or Cantonese, so we resorted to making animal sounds in an attempt to discover the name of the food we were eating. As we later discovered, this was a mistake. After we pointed to the meat and waved our arms in the air trying to indicate a question he scurried away to the kitchen and returned with the chef who understood a little English. We asked what the meat was and were told that it was “like chicken”. It did not taste like chicken so rather than accepting the explanation we pursued it and asked what kind of chicken. The chef replied it was “paddy chicken.” We did not know what “paddy chicken” was so resorted to the well-practiced bird sounds to try to identify it. We tried chicken sounds, duck sounds and other strange noises but none of them seemed to work. The chef then caught on to what we were doing and helpfully made a noise that sounded like “croak croak.” We had eaten frog.

After several more toasts with mao-tai the sixty-five percent alcohol content started to kick in so we decided to try to identify everything on the menu. The dragon and tiger dish was identified by “sssssss” and “meow” (snake and cat); but we stopped the game when one dish was identified by the waiter, who now had happily joined in, as “woof woof.” It brought back vivid memories of the small fluffy black dogs being transported away from the markets hanging by their neck from the back of a bicycle. We decided that too much knowledge was not good for us so quietly returned to toasting the mao-tai and not questioning the food placed on the table. The room party was noisier than usual that night.

Next morning I left for my walk before daylight. I needed fresh air before the day became too humid and we left for our trip down the Li River. Bicycles rushed past me in the dark as I walked along the unlit road towards the main centre of Guilin. Just before reaching the centre I noticed a light and heard a lot of noise coming from a building on the corner of a major intersection. As I came closer I saw many bicycles lined up outside and could hear the voices of their owners as they enjoyed an early morning cup of tea. Badly in need of something to eat and drink, other than Loashan (mineral water), mao-tai or beer, I entered the Guilin-style roadside café. As I walked in the open door the conversation stopped and everyone turned towards me staring with no expression on their faces. I responded with “Ni hao” followed by “cha” and “chi,” hoping that someone would understand that I simply wanted to buy tea and food. My attempt at speaking Mandarin was a foreign language to the Zhuang. Having quickly exhausted my vocabulary I pointed to the tea and hard cakes and headed for a large table to join the men sitting there. Before I reached the table the men jumped up and hurriedly left the cafe. The sight of a western “giant” appearing out of the dark, muttering unintelligible words was too much for them. The others sat silently watching me. During the uncomfortable time it took me to drink my tea and eat the cakes, no one approached the table. They spoke in whispers while staring at the strange foreigner sitting alone in the poor light.

As I left, I turned and in a loud voice said: “xiexie” and “zaijian” (thank you and goodbye), there was no response. Once I was outside I could hear the conversations start up again as the cafe returned to its normal routine. I wandered out into the dark street amongst the startled bicycle riders and headed back towards the hotel.

During our two days in Guilin we crossed over the Li River to see the Chi Hsing Yen (Seven-Star) Cave with its magnificent stalactites and stalagmites resembling bamboo shoots, pillars, flowers and curtains. Inside one of the caves I bought a large painting made from a stone rubbing. It looked eerie under the coloured lights. We watched the cormorant fishing on the scenic Tao Hua Kiang (Peach Blossom River) as the fishermen attached rubber rings to the necks of the cormorants to prevent them from swallowing the fish they had caught. After returning to Guilin we walked the streets, looking in the little stores, and I bought some small bamboo tea boxes. The tea boxes were a specialty of the Guilin area.

The main reason for our visit to Guilin was to take a trip down the beautiful Li River on a small flat bottom barge. We started early in the morning, when it was cool on the river, and floated slowly downstream. In places the water was so shallow that the barge was pushed over the rocky bottom of the river by the boatmen with long bamboo poles. Twice the barge ran aground and the boatmen jumped into the shallows to push it free. The scenery was unbelievably beautiful so I spent the day standing at the front of the barge taking pictures of the eerie landscape, ignoring the food and tea provided from little stoves behind the wheelhouse. The trip ended near Yangshuo where we scrambled ashore for a much needed toilet stop before catching the bus back to Guilin along a bumpy dirt road beside the river. We were fascinated to see empty barges being hauled back upstream by boatmen walking along opposite banks of the river straining against ropes tied around their waists. It was a stark reminder of the lack of modernization in this part of China.

We left Guilin on another Friendshipski for the short flight back to Guangzhou to catch the train to Hong Kong. The Peninsula Hotel was very welcome after more than two weeks in China. I enjoyed the luxury of air conditioning, hot showers and a “room boy” to make my tea, unpack and iron my clothes, refold the towels and the end of the toilet paper every time I left the room. The beer was cold, and the food in Gadde’s Restaurant was magnificent. The group split up in Hong Kong after a final dinner and headed home. Toddy and I stayed on for a few more days.

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Photograph by the author, Ken Peacock
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.