Guilin is an intoxicating city. Osmanthus trees bloom at every turn, and the air is heavy with their sweet fragrance. Located in the South of China, the climate here is hot and humid during summer months, with the sticky, enervating heat often lingering into early autumn. One of the best ways to escape the cloying heat is to take a river cruise in Guilin.
After the crowds, queues, traffic and noise of China’s mega-cities like Beijing and Xi’an, Guilin feels like a different, more relaxed and greener country.
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Arriving in Guilin the afternoon before our journey to Yangshuo, I was craving serious relaxation after long, exciting and hot days exploring Beijing and Xi’an. BUT, I’ll admit right now that I’d not done any real preparation for this part of our trip! Other than a vague idea that there would be breath-taking scenery and funny shaped mountains to enjoy, I didn’t know what to expect from Guilin or the Li River cruise we’d booked.
Before the River Cruise in Guilin
Guilin is safe to wander about in, with a couple of charming lakes to stroll around (local people do this to get some relief on hot, cloying summer days and evenings). You’ll probably come across groups of people sitting, playing local instruments and singing near the water’s edge late into the evening.
Luckily, our hotel was moments from the shore of Shanhu Lake and minutes from popular bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, we made a huge, hilarious mistake trying out the hot pot in Guilin.
Departure Points for a River Cruise in Guilin
It’s a 45-minute drive from Guilin to Zhujiang Pier, the departure point for the river cruises. Expect an early start as cruise boats start to depart from 9 am. While there are lots of boats it’s good to be there extra early if you’ve not pre-booked as the river cruises are Guilin’s number one attraction, equally popular with international and Chinese tourists.
Prepare to ‘run the gauntlet’ of the usual touristy shops, and stalls selling the freshest of local fruit on your walk from the parking area to the dock. The sweet, juicy local peaches are delicious.
Prices here are higher than in Guilin itself, however, if you’ve forgotten to bring a sun hat or fruit for the journey, buy them here. You won’t be able to get either on the boat!
When we arrived, there were more than 50 cruise boats moored up, ready for the day. The dock area was heaving with people. It’s all very well organised though, with an efficient booking system (we came to expect this in China!) and allocated seats on each cruise boat.
How Long Does a River Cruise in Guilin Last?
Typical Li River cruises last 4-5 hours. As you gently putter along from Guilin to Yangshuo, you’ll have oodles of time to enjoy the picturesque karst landscape, described by National Geographic as “One of the world’s Top 10 Watery Wonders“.
What Are The Li River Cruise Boats Like?
How Comfortable Are the Li River Cruise Boats?
We were surprised by the large, well-padded seats (very important!) and wide picture windows offering an unrivalled view of the river. Each boat also has outside deck areas to enjoy, perfect for taking photos.
Should You Take a 3 Star or 4 Star River Cruise in Guilin?
While there are 3-star and 4-star river cruises available, most Westerners are offered the 3-star cruises with local tour companies competing to offer the most attractive prices!
Here’s where they differ:
4-star cruises offer a buffet lunch, superior seating with seats on the upper and lower decks, and about half the number of passengers of the cheaper cruises.
3-star cruises are comfortable, but lunch is a pretty basic brown bag sandwich and drink option (unless you ask for the Chinese meal, which is much tastier). You can buy a very limited selection of hot snacks onboard, but need to be quick, as they stop serving after about one hour. The deep-fried whitebait and river prawns were delicious!
Information on Board
English language information about the journey and the landscape you travel through is scarce onboard and the majority of announcements are in Chinese. Without our guide, it would have been easy to miss the highlights of the scenery.
Know Before You Go on a River Cruise in Guilin
Be prepared for squat toilets and don’t forget to take loo paper or wipes with you! After a 5-hour river cruise, there’s a very slim chance of there being any left…
If you’re a wheelchair user, contact your tour company before paying for this trip, as this might not be the perfect river cruise for you. Here’s why:
- There’s a flight of steps down to the boarding jetty and a similar flight of steps to ascend on arrival at Yangshuo. I didn’t see a ramp at either location and the steps at Yangshuo are crowded with street hawkers selling fruit and souvenirs
- The best views are from the upper decks, which are not wheelchair accessible. Our cruise boat had two flights of steps up to the upper viewing decks which provided nowhere to sit
- There’s no disabled toilet on board (the three-star boat we cruised down the river on only had squat toilets)
That said, the views from the picture windows are superb and there is a ramp onto the cruise boats, once you reach the jetty. If you can manage the steps down to the jetty and you arrange with your tour company to be picked up as you disembark at Yangshuo, you’ll enjoy this river cruise.
Sightseeing Highlights on a Li River Cruise in Guilin
- Nine Horse Fresco Hill (you’ll need to use your imagination to see if you can spot all nine of the white “horses”)
- Yellow Cloth Shoal (natural markings in the rock that look like a large yellow fish)
- 20 Yuan Bill Hill (the view that inspired the artwork on the 20 Yuan note)
- Xingping Town
- Local Fishermen, fishing with cormorants
- Water buffalo grazing at the water’s edge
The depth of the river varies, depending on the time of year. During summer and early autumn, you’ll be able to admire the skill of the boat captains as they navigate narrow, channels, avoiding the dangerous shallows.
Help for you as you plan your trip to China
- How to save £££s on your visa for China
- Fun facts about China you need to know
- Essential tips for your first China vacation
Tours you might like to consider:
Where to stay before your River Cruise in Guilin
In Guilin, we stayed at the boutique Aroma Tea House hotel, where the warm, caring service was exceptional. The staff couldn’t do enough to help and the freshly cooked-to-order breakfast noodles were incredible! We loved the stylish rooms, the beautiful traditional Chinese décor and the view of the lake from the 5th-floor restaurant. A very affordable luxury experience.
In Yangshuo, we struck it lucky with the fabulous 21 room Moondance Hotel, a short drive from the city and moments from the Moon Water Cave, Jinshui Cave and Moon Hill. With dramatic river and mountain views, super helpful staff and excellent food, this is truly a place to relax. It’s also the perfect base for more adventurous activities in the region including rafting, ziplining, cycling, and hiking in the karst mountains and paddy fields.
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I hope this post inspires you to visit the South of China and to try a river cruise in Guilin. Let me know in the comments if you’ve been to Guilin or are planning to go. Did you take a Li River cruise? I’d love to hear your highlights