The first time I saw Karsts was in Southeast Asia, during our 2014 five month trip without luggage. It was love at first sight. First I saw the ones in Vang Vieng, Laos. We hired a cabin with breath taking views. A very special place for us, that’s where we met our beloved friends Oistein and Silje. In Vietnam, Ha Long Bay, as crowded as it is, blew my mind away. Of course the ones in Krabi (Thailand) are gorgeous. The last ones I had seen where in El Nido, Philippines set in the middle of the ocean, outstanding (there should be a shade of blue named El Nido). So, when planning our trip to the Li River, I had an idea of what to expect. But I was wrong. To my surprise, karsts here are in a league of their own: much, much bigger. That’s China: it’s all about the size!
The landscape around the Li River is so beautiful, that it ended up on the 20 RMB bill. The funny thing is that when we got to the bill’s location it was so foggy we almost couldn’t see a thing! Nevertheless most Chinese tourists were franticly fighting their way to take that one shot. After all, how could you possibly go back home to friends and family without the iconic photo?
The Li River is over 400km long, with the fantastic karst mountains following it for around 50km. The first ones are around Guilin, the biggest city in the area. The city is packed with all kinds of tourist facilities, but lacks in character. There is not much to see, and it was the only place in China where we felt completely cheated. To see the famous Elephant Trunk Hill you must take an organized tour. The Prince City is one of its main scams. You pay 20e to get in, and there is nothing much to see. The Moon and Sun Pagoda is nice, and so is the lake around it. Everything is kind of run by a governmental-regional company and according to what we could gather not everybody is happy.
Roughly 35km down the river we found Xingping Town. Recently a small fishing village it’s becoming the next tourist base. The town itself is now home to several hotels and restaurants. Additionally, during the day hordes of tourists pass through to reach the famous landscape portrayed on the 20RMB bill. There is a small yet charming ancient town in the very center. The rest of the town is not that nice, plus there are plenty of group tourists wondering around.
The best base to admire the Li River is the city of Yangshuo, 50 km. southeast of Guilin (15km south of Xingping). The place is magical, in the middle of tall hills. The road even crosses a couple of karsts through tunnels. There is a very cool pedestrian area in the middle, with live music, shops, bars and loads of restaurants. We ate mostly Vietnamese food here, delicious!
We decided to stay some 5km south in a village directly next to the river. It proved a brilliant idea. We were pretty much isolated from Yangshuo’s noise and crowds but close enough to enjoy great restaurants, shows and people watch. Our hotel has fantastic views directly to massive karsts, plus one of the nicest terraces in all of China.
We strongly recommend biking next to the river. You will find yourself in the middle of nature and get to experience local life here, friendly people carrying on with their lives and ducks happily floating on the river. It rained particularly bad one day, so all we had to do was draw the curtains, grab a book and enjoy this natural masterpiece from our peaceful terrace. Don’t forget to take both a small raft trip near the hotel and the longer one to that famous 20RMB spot. It involves a bus, but it was worth it. Plus we were the only non Chinese on the bus, and as usual in China, people were fantastic, taking care of us and laughing!
How to organize the perfect visit to the Li River
Happy Frog recommends spending at least 4-5 days in the area. Some places simply can’t be rushed. Stay in Yangshuo, ask our Spring Highet Hotel for a top floor room. I still can’t forget those spectacular views.
You can skip Guilin, but if you decide to go there anyway (it’s a great base for visiting the Longsheng Rice Terraces) get out of the city center and stay at our Secret Courtyard Resort Hotel. Located inside a lovely pedestrian neighborhood it’s surrounded by mountains and lakes, there are no cars and has a couple of great restaurants and coffee houses.
The best way to enjoy the area is to explore it by yourself. Get lost, bike and walk around. You can easily avoid the masses if you have time and focus on nature. I am assuming you don’t own a boat, so taking a boat tour or two is a must.
If you still didn’t have enough of this surreal scenery take the train to Guangzhou. Quite a neo futuristic experience to enjoy the mighty karst mountains from the comfort of a Chinese super fast train. And Guangzhou itself is such a pleasant surprise!