From Guilin to Yangshuo: Li River Cruises & Tours

Written by Lana Law
Jun 8, 2020
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One of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, captured for centuries by Chinese artists, the Li River will awe even the most worldly traveler. Dramatic karst peaks rise majestically from the valley floor all the way from Guilin to Yangshuo.

Along the Li River that connects these two destinations, a small scattering of villages offer a glimpse of river life in this region of China.

Cruise ship on the Li River
Cruise ship on the Li River | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The city of Guilin is the gateway to the Li River and the starting point for Li River Cruises, but at the end of the 83-kilometer cruise is Yangshuo, the jewel of this fascinating area. The city of Guilin is where many people base themselves, largely due to the infrastructure, which includes an airport and high-speed trains.

Yangshuo, which includes the town of Yangshuo and the surrounding villages, is known for its outstanding beauty, with limestone mountains, the bamboo-lined Li and Yulong Rivers, and the various other attractions that make this a perfect place to spend a few days.

If you are visiting Hong Kong, a side trip to Guilin and Yangshuo can be done easily in a few days, either by high-speed train or plane.

Booking a Li River Cruise from Guilin

Cruise ship on the Li River
Cruise ship on the Li River | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The best way to see the beauty of this area is on a Li River cruise, and most people coming to this area are here for the sole purpose of taking this boat tour. The cruise takes between four and five hours depending on the water level and strength of the current.

Tourist boats, which are the only cruises available to foreigners, depart from a port about 30 to 40 minutes outside of Guilin.

You can book a cruise from your hotel in Guilin right up until the night before departure, and this is the easiest method for booking. The tour will depart right from your hotel, and your guide will make sure you board the right boat and find a seat.

At the port is a large tourist center, but since all the ships depart at the same time, approximately 9:30 am, the scene is chaotic at best.

Two options are typically available; regular seating and VIP. Either option is good, but regular seating is on the first level (water level) and VIP is on the second level, and has a few less people.

The third level is the open top deck, and everyone is able to access this viewing area, but there is no seating and no shelter from the sun. Views from here are spectacular, and you might find you spend all of your time up top, apart from lunch, which is included in your tour.

Returning to Guilin or Staying in Yangshuo

This is a one-way cruise, with passengers departing the boat in Yangshuo and then returning by bus, which takes about 1.5 hours.

You can choose to stay in Yangshuo, but the price for the tour is still the same. Most people do not stay, but it is well worth spending a few days or more in Yangshuo if you have the time. For many people, Yangshuo is one of the highlights of a trip to China.

Mountains along the Li River
Mountains along the Li River | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

TIP: If you are getting off the ship and staying in Yangshuo, be aware that the situation at the ferry dock is a little hectic. All the ferries arrive at the same time, with about 2,000 passengers disembarking at once.

It is a long walk up several flights of stairs and past souvenir stalls to the street, so if you are carrying luggage, you may want to accept help from the attendants for a fee.

There are no taxis here, just electric buses to take you around the city. The best option, especially if you are staying on the outskirts of town or in the surrounding villages, is to arrange to be picked up by your hotel.

Li River Cruise Highlights

Scene from the 20Y note on the Li River
Scene from the 20Y note on the Li River | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The first two-thirds of the cruise is the most scenic, and the middle section is the most spectacular.

Many of the mountains have names, and some of these will be pointed out by the staff and announcements made over the intercom.

The first major attraction to watch for is Nine Horse Hill. This famous mountain looks significantly different from the others along the river with a wide, white cliff face. Although the hill is said to have nine visible horses embedded in the cliff, if you look closely, you may be able to see one or two. Almost no one, including the tour guides, claims to have seen all nine.

Next up is Yellow Cloth Shoal. The shoreline looks different here, and the shoal is visible to varying degrees throughout the year depending on water levels.

The most famous point along the Li River Cruise is the scene pictured on the RMB 20 Yuan Note. If you have a 20Y note with you, compare the scenery with the image. At around 12:30 on a 4.5-hour cruise, you will come to this spot and an announcement will be made. Many people mistakenly look out the bow and start taking photos, but you must look out the back of the ship to see the view as it appears on the note.

Lastly is Xingping Town and Xingping Fishing Village. Make a note of these places because you may want to come back here on a trip, either by raft to the old fishing village or by car to explore the modern town.

Best Time to Take a Li River Cruise

The best time for a Li River Cruise is September or October. This is high season, so the boats will be busy, but you can expect good weather and good sightseeing conditions.

The main season for visiting this area is April to October, but April to June are generally rainy. July and August can be very hot. Fall is perfect. If you are planning on going in winter, be prepared for cold weather, and possibly even snow.

7 Best Things to Do in Yangshuo

1. Bamboo Raft Trips

Bamboo raft on the Yulong River
Bamboo raft on the Yulong River | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The most popular activity in Yangshuo, and the most relaxing way to see the landscape, is a scenic ride in a bamboo raft.

Two main options for bamboo raft trips are available; a four-passenger engine-powered raft trip on the Li River, or a two-passenger raft propelled by a boatman using a pole, along the peaceful Yulong River. Both of these offer outstanding scenery but are completely different experiences.

The Yulong River does not allow power boats, and drifting along this tranquil stretch of water is peaceful and almost surreal. These rafts have to navigate a series of small dams, sliding the raft over a few foot drop, which adds a bit of excitement to the trip.

By contrast, the Li River is a large and busy waterway, and while the scenery is fantastic, you may be floating along the river beside a flotilla of cruise ships or other power boats.

If you have already taken the Li River cruise to get to Yangshuo, you may prefer the Yulong River experience, but if you've come to Yangshuo by road, then it is definitely worth taking a raft trip along the Li River.

2. Walk up Moon Hill for the Best Views in Yangshuo

View from Moon Hill
View from Moon Hill | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The absolute best mountaintop view in the Yangshuo area is from Moon Hill.

An 800-stair climb up Moon Hill leads to the famous arch the hill is named for, and the trek up is worth the effort. At the top of the stairs, directly below the crescent-shaped hole in the side of the mountain, is a lookout area where you can gaze out on an unending scene of tree-covered karst peaks.

Continue on through the arch for more views on the opposite side of the mountain, which also looks out onto these beautiful formations.

Moon Hill is located just south of Yangshuo Town, in a very scenic area with a couple of good hotel options. One of the best finds, complete with a pool and great food, is the quaint little riverside Moondance Boutique Resort. From this hotel, you can easily bike to Moon Hill, as well as the Yulong River bike path and the area known as Camel Crossing the River.

3. Bike in the Countryside

Biking near Camel Crossing the River
Biking near Camel Crossing the River | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Biking along the Yulong River is a highlight for many people who come to Yangshuo and a must-do if you are looking for a little activity or exercise. Most hotels provide single speed pedal bikes to their guests free of charge, and staff will point you in the right direction.

It's best to purchase the main tourist map of Yangshuo for an overall idea of the layout of the area. The best and most popular biking route is a paved pathway, which runs from near downtown Yangshuo to what's called the "scenic bridge" over the Yulong River, on the Shili Scenery Gallery View Road, south of town.

This scenic path meanders past farmers' fields on the river's edge, where bamboo rafts drift peacefully along, and karst peaks tower overhead. Motorboats are not permitted here, making it a much more tranquil experience than the Li River.

Some of Yangshuo's best luxury hotels are located along this trail, including the Yangshuo Tea Cozy, Yangshuo Mountain Nest, Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, and the Yangshuo Resort. These are all wonderful accommodation options, with incredible views and easy access to the riverfront trail. They can also serve as a good place to stop for a lunch break.

This route takes about one hour each way. In some areas, the trail has some short sets of stairs that require you to carry your bike over, but the upside of this is that there are no motorbikes on this trail. In a couple of spots, you also have to detour out to the road, but this is not a busy section of road.

Another nice area to explore on bike is Camel Crossing the River. You can find this on the main tourist map of Yangshuo. The road begins near the south end of the scenic bridge and runs along a paved road with little traffic. It heads back behind some abandoned construction sites to a view of a large mountain in the shape of a camel with two humps.

Unlike some of the other creatively named mountains, this one takes very little imagination to see the camel. The road is relatively flat and easy, and leads past a few houses before turning into a paddy trail.

4. Light Show

Liu San Jie Impression Light Show in Yangshuo
Liu San Jie Impression Light Show in Yangshuo | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Liu San Jie Impression Light Show is one of Yangshuo's biggest tourist attractions and a wonderful way to spend an evening. The show is choreographed by Zhang Yimou, who directed and choreographed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Set on the Li River against the natural backdrop of the karst mountains, the show features 600 performers, as well as a few water buffalo and a dozen or more cormorants.

Most of the show is set right on the water, with rafts and unique special effects that need to be seen to be fully appreciated.

The performers are all locals, and the show runs up to four times a night, with as many as 7,000 people attending nightly. Each show lasts about 70 minutes, and most tourists attend either the first or second show.

The best way to get tickets and find your way through the crowds to the venue is to book through your hotel. They will generally provide transportation, tickets, and someone who can direct you through the entrance gates.

5. Cormorant Fishing

Cormorant Fishing
Cormorant Fishing | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Cormorant fishing has long been a tradition in the region, although it is not widely practiced today. And while this is purely a show put on for tourists, this tour is an excellent way to see the whole process.

Even if you are not interested in fishing, this excursion is worth taking just for an opportunity to be out on the Li River at night, when the waterway is quiet and the faint silhouette of the mountains reflects in the dark, still waters.

A bamboo raft takes small groups of two to eight people out to follow along beside a fisherman on an even smaller raft, as he commands his small flock of fishing cormorants.

A light at the front of the fishing raft illuminates everything off the front of the boat; the birds moving through the water, the fish darting around, and the river bottom. You can see the whole scene play out in the calm water as the cormorants catch fish and surface to swallow them.

Once a bird has caught and swallowed several fish, the fisherman retrieves the cormorant and pulls him onto the raft. He then forces the fish back up the cormorant's neck and the bird spits the fish out into a bucket.

The tame cormorants will hop up on your boat to take a rest or dry off throughout the trip. Tour time on the water is about 30 minutes.

6. Explore Downtown Yangshuo and West Street

Downtown Yangshuo
Downtown Yangshuo | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

If you are only in Yangshuo for a day, you will likely spend some time wandering around the lovely town center. If you are staying outside of town in the more rural areas, it's worth making a trip into town.

The main tourist strip is West Street, with small side streets branching off it. This is a pedestrian-only area with restaurants and shops. It's active during the late day, after the cruise ships arrive, and throughout the evening.

Some of the streets have small bridges that look out over scenic canals, reminiscent of Venice.

If you are looking for a little activity, head over to Yangshuo Park and climb the stairs up Xilang Hill for a beautiful 360-degree view over the town and surroundings.

7. Walk the Scholar-Champion Trail

Bridge on Scholar-Champion Trail
Bridge on Scholar-Champion Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

This scenic trail is not on the usual tourist itinerary, and you will likely have the place to yourself most of the time. The 2.5-meter wide and decoratively paved trail meanders through the valley, close to the edge of the sheer mountain faces and through wooded areas.

Views from the trail and the huge pedestrian bridge are excellent and give a good perspective of this rural area. The path parallels the main highway but is far enough back that it's peaceful and quiet.

The trailhead is located behind and across the road from the Yangshuo Resort, not far from the scenic bridge over the Yulong River.