The praises of the Li River have long been sung by Chinese poets and painters, and one of the more famous stanzas says, “The river is a green silk ribbon, and the hills are jade hairpins..”  While mass tourism has certainly marred some the quaint villages and quiet river life, the area remains a physical wonder, with thousands and thousands of limestone karst pinnacles and peaks rising straight up from the water on all sides. River cruises between Guilin and Yangshuo are a big draw, but those looking for a more less travelled experience can head to Xingping, an old village with cobblestone streets, from where one can bicycle and trek to some phenomenal mountain viewpoints with a fraction of the crowds.

Blue light on the famous 20 yuan view of the Li River at Xingping, Guangxi Autonomous Region, China
Blue light on the famous 20 yuan view of the Li River at Xingping, Guangxi Autonomous Region, China

Xingping used to be incredibly charming. I visited it years ago walking down the river from Yangdi, another tiny hamlet with stone houses and slate roofs hopelessly lost in time. These days, one can’t even walk the entire route between the two, as a boat mafia have stopped travellers from crossing from one side to the other near Yangdi to ensure that everyone must pay exorbitant fees to take one of their boats all the way down the river. Another distressing change has also been the change from traditional bamboo rafts that were rowed downstream to motorised rafts, which are noisier and far less relaxing.

Xingping today receives tons of Chinese tour groups, and most of the picturesque old homes along the cobblestone lanes have been converted to shops selling tacky souvenir items. Thus, we used it as a convenient base for sleeping and eating on our recent trip, but escaped every morning for higher ground.

Leaving our guesthouse just after sunrise, we headed out of town by bicycle and soon passed the famous twenty yuan viewpoint. By mid-day, this spot is absolutely packed with folks lining up for a picture of what is shown on the back of Chinese twenty yuan notes, three of the more iconic limestone peaks framing the languid Li, which reflects the jungle clad karst on clear mornings. In the cool morning, we had it all to ourselves

We left the main road and headed down a dirt track, pedalling through orange and pomelo orchards, and beautiful verdant farmland. We’d been told to search out a peak called Xianggong Shan, one of the few mountain tops that was accessible without a rope or a death wish, that gave one of the most breathtaking viewpoints of the entire limestone terrain, with the river flowing through it all.

Birdseye view of the Li River from Xianggong Mountain, Xingping, Guangxi Autonomous Region, China

Birdseye view of the Li River from Xianggong Mountain, Xingping, Guangxi Autonomous Region, ChinaArmed with a simple copied map and a better intuitive GPS, we figured we were headed in the right direction, especially when every farmer we stopped to ask laughed at our attempted Chinese and pointed in the direction we were going. Eventually, we headed up a valley with Xianggong Shan on our right, the furthest peak out on a ridge that obviously looked out over the river from where we had come.

Unfortunately, the road decided not to head to the mountain, instead turning in the opposite direction and winding up a series of steep switchbacks and around forested slopes seemingly forever. Our one geared city bikes were absolutely unsuited to any of this, and we stopped a local on a motorbike coming down the mountain to inquire about the route. Through pantomime, we quickly got the gist of the bad news. The road meandered for miles, up and around to reach the high ridge, and then went across to Xianggong Shan, miles and epic hills out of our way.

We looked at the alternative, which was a straight shot up the valley in the opposite direction, going directly to the peak. It didn’t look all that steep, and there were orchards halfway up, so I figured there must be a path. As we were doing this, a woman stopped on her motorcycle and looked at us quizzically. I pointed to our peak, pantomimed going via this route or the normal road, and she looked at me and adamantly started imploring us to take the road, indicating that we couldn’t go up the valley on our bicycles.

Bicycling amidst the towering limestone karst mountains near Yangshuo, Guangxi Autonomous Region, China

Bicycling amidst the towering limestone karst mountains near Yangshuo, Guangxi Autonomous Region, ChinaOne thing you learn when it comes to asking and receiving directions in places like China and India: you will get a lot of opinions, and none of them are necessarily going to be right. We looked at the long route versus the short route one more time, looked at each other, and pushed our bikes up the dirt track heading up the valley.

The path narrowed and climbed, soon entering a dale full of kumquat trees. As long as there was agriculture, we were on good footing. Of course we couldn’t ride our granny shopping bikes anymore, and within another twenty minutes, we were bent over pushing them, occasionally having to lift them over rocks and roots. Yet still the path persisted, staying true up to the valley head.

Another thirty minutes and we hit the crux, the only place where the path could have finished. We rounded a corner, heard voices, and looked ahead. The path went straight on, flattening and coming out to the main road, right next to the start of the entrance up to Xianggong Shan.

Spectacular mountain view from Laozhai Shan mountain, Xingping, Guangxi Autonomous Region, China

Spectacular mountain view from Laozhai Shan mountain, Xingping, Guangxi Autonomous Region, ChinaA long set of spiralling stairs leads up to the top of Xianggong Shan, which is starting to get tour groups, mostly Korean, who have to be brought via a long tortuous route by bus, to reach the base of the mountain. They come during the day, leaving the peak isolated and untrammelled during sunrise and sunset. If one is lucky, at times of year a sea of clouds envelops the river below, with the thousands of karst peaks rising up from it.

Sunset over hundreds of mountains, Xingping, Guangxi Autonomous Region, China

Sunset over hundreds of mountains, Xingping, Guangxi Autonomous Region, ChinaWhether by bicycle, foot, or other means, the views from the summit are worth the trek ten times over, with the Li and surrounding mountain spires looking much as they did in those Chinese paintings of yesteryear.

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Dave Stamboulis is a travel writer and photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His photos, represented by Alamy and Getty Images, have appeared in publications around the world. He is the author of Odysseus’ Last Stand, which received the Silver Medal for Travel Book of the Year in 2006 from the Society of American Travel Writers. In addition to working as the updating writer for Fodor’s Guidebook to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, he is the "Bangkok expert" for USA Today's 10Best website, and a regular contributor for publications throughout Southeast Asia such as Silver Kris (Singapore Airlines), Asian Geographic, International Traveller (Australia), Virgin Voyeur, Tiger Tales (Tiger Air), Bangkok 101, Look East, Tropical Magazine, Get Lost (Australia), Sawasdee Thai Air, and Bangkok Post among others.

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