The tragic cost of tourism on the Li river, China
Rafting on the Li river takes you past some spectacular and famed scenery, but the area is bursting with hundreds of tourists, all chugging along happily on their brightly coloured boats. The “bamboo” raft is made of primary coloured plastic tubing, and a noisy, oil guzzling engine jerks us along. There is a fitted sliding canvas roof of a yellow that was once of a bright sunflower, and is now bedraggled by rain and pollution. The wooden benches set up in the middle are moveable, wooden slatted and solid. They can be pulled forwards to take in the view, or back to enjoy the benefit of the shade. There are hundreds of tourists, hundreds of rafts. It simply cannot be compared to our rafting trip on the Yulong river. It needs to be taken as an entirely separate experience.
However, the scenery here on this section of the Li river is indeed breath taking. Verdant green mountains jut up from the landscape, great teeth of a slumbering carnivorous giant. They are strange, and sharp and sudden these peaks, thrust up through the ground like incisors, jagged and alien and beautiful. The most scenic formations are to be found between Xingping and Yangdi. We make a round trip upstream, then down, taking it in twice. The mountains tower above us on either side, casting shadows that overwhelm the small boats as their majestic heights look knowingly down on the tourist circus that has sprung up as a direct result of their glory.
Every bend in the river reveals something new – a new cluster of peaks with an imaginative name and a freshly serrated skyline. The mountains here are so picturesque they have been immortalised on the 20Y note. On the banks of the river, crowds of people cluster together to have their photographs taken in front of the famous view. Tourism is booming, with every island in the stream saturated with stalls selling food and photos and souvenirs. The boat motors are noisy and the pollution they leave behind is sadly all too visible in the sludge coloured streams tailing behind them. We see one driver filling his engine with a slurry of mud coloured oil from a 2 litre plastic drinks bottle. When it’s empty, he casually chucks it over the side and into the river without so much as a second thought. How utterly short sighted it is to poison the beauty of the very river whose splendour provides your livelihood? If it continues in this way the pollution will overcome the attraction of nature and the river will no longer be a place tourists want to visit. The tourism itself, and the attitude of both those who make a living from it and the visitors that create this income, is poisoning this place so greatly it will defeat itself. The incredible scenery is magical seen from the unique vantage point of the water, but will this be lost altogether by the uncaring, thoughtless destruction of nature’s great beauty?
Tips: A river rafting trip from Xingping should take you up to Yangdi and then back again – this is the most scenic stretch of the river. There are hundreds of people offering you trips, and the general rule is that if their prices seem too good to be true, they probably are. It is sadly all too common for these operators to take tourists out for only half the time they should or not take them very far at all. We booked through our hostel in Yangshuo, but if you turn up in Xingping and decide to go you can book rafting trips at “This old place” hostel, located next to the pizza place on the road to where all the boats depart. From the bus stop, you walk straight ahead into the town till you reach a depot with motorised carts for transporting tour groups, then turn right and keep walking. “This old Place” is on the right at the end of a row of shops and restaurants. You can also take photographs from multiple viewpoints on the river bank of the famous 20Y scenery – you don’t need to pay, whatever anyone tells you, unless you buy a photo from one of the professional photographers. After your trip its worth the climb to the top of Lao Zhai Shan mountain, located just before the landing stages with all the boats. Views from the top over the river are breath-taking as it curves around the mountains right below you.
Words and photographs copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe.