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Originally published September 22, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Page modified September 24, 2012 at 10:19 AM

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Li River boat trip reveals picturesque rural China

A half-day trip down China's Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo offers scenic beauty unseen by many tourists.

The Associated Press

If You Go

Guilin, a well-known tourist destination located in Guangxi province, is easily reachable by air from Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other points. Tickets for the four-hour one-way cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo are sold at a terminal in Guilin and cost around $32 U.S. or 200 yuan.

See www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/guangxi/guilin/li_river.htm.

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YANGSHUO, China — A search for iconic China often takes tourists to the Great Wall in the north and the archaeological pits of the terra-cotta warriors in the nation's midsection.

But for a glimpse of China's natural beauty, take the trip south to the city of Guilin, and board a boat for a four-hour cruise down the Li River to the picturesque city of Yangshuo, nestled amid the limestone karst hills known as the gumdrop mountains.

It's a trip into rural China, past bamboo rafts, fishermen who use trained cormorant birds to make their catch, and farmers tending rice paddies with the help of water buffalo.

Tour Guilin first

The trip starts in Guilin, a popular and growing tourist destination, with new roads, hotels and other buildings under construction.

One of the city's best attractions is Elephant Trunk Park on the west bank of the Li, named for its rock formation that with some imagination resembles an elephant drinking from the river. On the top of the hill is a pagoda that dates back to the Ming dynasty.

The park is a popular spot for young couples who stroll along the river and add their padlocks or wish ribbons, signifying lasting love, to an ornamented tree. Vendors set up along the riverside sell some interesting food, including fried bugs on a stick.

The government is building a canal that will allow tourists to take a boat and avoid what is a bumpy bus ride to another popular spot, Reed Flute Cave, one of several limestone caves in the region. This one features colorful, if somewhat garish, light displays on the stalactite and stalagmite formations, as well as lasers that make designs on the cave's ceiling and a bubble machine.

But the real show is the undisturbed nature of the river and surrounding hills.

The tour boats travel one way from Guilin to Yangshuo in the morning. The casual cruise includes photo-worthy scenery around virtually every bend as the boat passes landmarks such as Nine Horse Hill, where those with a good eye can find nine horses in the rocks.

The guide will have passengers take out a 20 yuan note when they approach the view of Apple Hill, and compare the scenery to the depiction on the back of the bill. It's one of the most painted scenes in Chinese art.

The guides note that the river scenes change with the weather, offering beautiful reflections on sunny days, and mist-covered mountains after a rain.

The boat passes by a scenic fishing village, waterfalls, caves, groves of bamboo, and terraced farms. Water buffalo can be seen on the riverbanks, and the tour boats share the river with traditional bamboo rafts (though some are now made from PVC piping).

Lunch on the boat was the usual noodle and dumpling dishes (though you could spend a little extra and try the turtle).

Bartering in Yangshuo

Passengers disembark on Market Street in Yangshuo, where the fishermen will try to get you to pay to pose with their cormorants. The street is lined with vendors selling everything from "real fake" Rolex watches, to T-shirts, silk scarves and jade. Every price is negotiable, and bartering becomes a sport.

Bicycles or cabs can be rented in town for a drive into the countryside to the local caves, hiking trails and rice farms, some of which offer guided tours.

There is no boat back to Guilin, which is about an hour away by bus. But for those who choose to stay in Yangshuo, there is the opportunity to take in a spectacular opera-style light and music show put on by the famous Chinese director responsible for the opening ceremony in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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