Bamboo rafting on the Li River, north of Guilin, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared
I’m watching the karst mountain peaks recede as the China South 737 lifts us away from what must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet… and one of the most familiar to any student of Chinese art.
It’s also a place of stark contradiction, like everywhere you step in China.
The unusual peaks have an extraordinary beauty in their structure. Like the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the peaks are layered, one behind the other as they fade into the horizon. Look carefully, and you’ll see a ruined former temple or pagoda perched impossibly on a narrow crag, still proclaiming its purpose. Mist hangs between them.
Unlike other peaks, these formations sit amid large expansions of flat, arable land. Through them flows the Li River and her many tributaries. This is the fisherman’s home, and many still catch and cook right on a bamboo raft on the water’s edge.
If you have seen a Chinese brush paintings of the mountains, you have seen karst of Guilin.
Contrast this beauty with power lines crossing the rivers and hills, cell towers perched atop them… the magic is gone. There is construction everywhere to accommodate the people relocating here to work in the area’s main industry, tourism. The construction replaces the crumbling buildings, hastily built just a generation ago.
Guilin is certainly a tourist destination. Get out of the van and four women try to sell us trinkets. We’re taking a river trip on a bamboo raft.
This is a watercraft like no other. Think Hunk Finn the on the Mississippi. Eight bamboo poles, each about six inches in diameter and maybe 12 feet long. There is enough room for two secured chairs, an umbrella, and a riverman who guides the raft by pushing the river bottom with a 15-foot pole. It often disappears below the surface of the water.
There are hundreds of tourists on these bamboo rafts, and yes, you can get wet.
Touristy? Yes. Stunning in beauty and a glimpse into the rural Chinese world? Without question.
This is the land of Chinese brush painting. Not even the cell towers can mar it for long.