As an Australian living in Guilin for the last 15 years, and working in the travel industry, I have done the Li River Cruise many times. Because it is one of the 'must-do' activities on any visit to Guilin, I have escorted many people over the years, to the point that the cruise if now a bit of a chore rather than something to look forward to.
Recently, a new way to see the Li River has become available to Western tourists. The trip to Yangshuo by raft was until recently only available to domestic Chinese tourists. The Government has recently opened this unique adventure to foreigners.
Now that there are two ways to see the famous Li River, which one is best, open raft or air-conditional cruiser? This is the view through my eyes.
There are many Li River Cruise operators providing cruises from Zhujiang Wharf, about 30 minutes drive from downtown Guilin, where most hotels are located. The cruises leave the wharf between 9 and 9:30am and the boat covers the 83 kilometers to Yangshuo in 4–5 hours depending on the level of water in the river.
Boats vary in standard and this of course is reflected in the price. I personally would not travel on the lower level boats and China Highlights would not book customers onto the cheaper ships.
The 4-star cruise boat is by far the best boat for the Li River cruise. It quite spaciously accommodates 72–80 passengers, so you can enjoy the amazing scenery along the Li River peacefully.
The ships are air-conditioned, which is necessary on hot summer days, and usually have two decks for passenger seating and outside observation decks and areas. The seats are comfortable without being luxurious.
A Chinese buffet lunch is served on board. Drinks and other refreshments are available on the boat. In my experience, the restrooms have been clean with Western style toilets. I am told that some of the lower-priced boats have squat toilets.
The ships provide a great platform to view the picturesque Li River, the karst mountains, which are the main attraction, and life which is happening both on the river and on the bank.
The cruise terminates in Yangshuo, which is one of the playgrounds of China.
When I heard that there was a different way to see the fantastic scenery on the Li River I was excited. I knew that I had some very old friends visiting in the near future and as the Li River cruise is a must for people coming to Guilin, I have to say I was not looking forward to another trip down the river on a cruiser.
We were picked up from our friend's hotel by a guide and driven about an hour to Yangdi, which is a village with good access to the Li River (about 1 hour from Guilin). Dozens of rafts have their slightly-turned-up noses butted on to the concrete wall which forms the river bank.
The rafts are built in the traditional design which has plied the river for centuries and is still used by fisherman and farmers. Bamboo was originally used in construction, however these days the hull consists of 10 large plastic pipes fastened together to form the hull. It is very stable. The rafts are open at the front, rear and sides but are covered to protect passengers from the sun. Needless to say rafting would not be an option when them the weather is bad or in the depths of winter. It is moderately noisy with the outboard motor.
We sat on comfortable bamboo armchairs. The rafts hold 4 people not including the boatman and are powered by a long-tail outboard motor, which does a make the trip noisier than the river cruises, but is not excessive and we were able to talk during the trip quite easily.
The trip to Xingping takes under 2 hours and includes the most renowned parts of the river — Nine Horse Mural Mountain and the mountains which appear on the CNY20 bank note close to Xingping.
It is possible to stop during the trip for taking photos or for a simple lunch at local restaurants on the river bank. No refreshments are available on the raft. It is easy to buy drinks or snacks before leaving Yangdi.
There is no restroom on the raft. Xingping has lots of restaurants if you did not eat on the cruise or choose not to wait until arriving in Yangshuo
After arriving in Xingping we explored this ancient village for a short time before making the 45-minute drive to Yangshuo. The drive to Yangshuo is a pleasant trip through the countryside, although the road is currently being upgraded and rough in some places.