By Jack Souther
The landscape around Guilin, where we began our trip down the Li River, has been described as "the best scenery under heaven." But travelling south into the heart of China's renowned karst mountains the scenery becomes, if not better, then certainly more dramatic around every bend of the river. In places our boat drifts close to cliffs overhung by fronds of feathery bamboo. We pass simple fishing villages, lush paddies, and fields full of grazing water buffalo. And towering above the fields and villages the surreal mountains of karst rise abruptly from the earth. With their steep sides and gently rounded tops the clusters of limestone pinnacles resemble gigantic stumps from a primordial forest.
The massive limestone that forms the karst was lifted from the sea by tectonic forces about 200 million years ago. Because limestone is soluble in slightly acidic fresh water the exposed rock was etched into its present bizarre forest of stone pillars by millions of years of rain and mist. The "solution weathering" that sculpted the landscape also produced myriad caves and channel-ways below the surface. Over the millennia, while surface water slowly shaped the hills and valleys, water flowing below the surface enlarged tiny cracks into vast stalactite-hung caverns.
Half way through our trip down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo we docked near the small town of Coping for a tour of Crown Cave. As we descended a long series of corridors into the semi-darkness of the galleries our local guide announced proudly that Crown Cave was in the Guinness Book of World Records. With a length of 12 km it is far from being the longest, nor is it the deepest, or darkest. What sets Crown Cave apart is the number of ways the Chinese have devised to tour the underworld. While most of our three kilometre underground trek was spent walking we were also trundled through a long connecting tunnel on a small, open-topped railway car, and taken by rowboat along an underground river. Narrow passageways lead into cavernous galleries adorned with spectacular pillars and hung with great clusters of stalactites. The lighting is subtle, just enough to bring out the natural colour of the rock without destroying the slightly claustrophobic sense of being deep underground. At the end of our cave tour an elevator whisked us from the depths of a lower gallery back to the "peach and plum garden" high above the Li River where our boat was waiting.
Between Coping and our final destination of Yangshuo the number of villages and farms increases. Kids splash in the shallows and water buffalo cool themselves in the river between shifts in the rice paddies. Most of the people living and farming along the Li River are Zhuang, China's largest ethnic minority. A Tai-related people who emigrated from Vietnam into southern China at least 2,000 years ago, the Zhuang now form about 80 per cent of the rural population in Guanaxi Province. They have retained their own language and customs and are renowned for their folk songs, which are deeply rooted in oral tradition. "Do you know the story of Liu Sanjie?" one of the boat crew asked me.