Quiet River in Southern China Seeks Its Turn in the Spotlight
With both hands gripping a pole, Deng Hongyou rowed a bamboo raft carrying a couple and their 2-year-old daughter down the quiet Yulong River one morning. Hills of karst rock shaped like camel humps and blanketed with plants rose from the banks.
“The Yulong River is just as beautiful as the Li River,” said the wiry Mr. Deng, 53, comparing this waterway in southern China with the larger and more famous river nearby. “Here the water is much calmer. If a child falls in, I can jump in and save her. In the Li River, there are too many big boats that create waves.”
Most Chinese have heard of the Li River, one of the top tourist sites in the country. A row of karst hills along its banks has been immortalized on one side of the 20 renminbi note. Lesser known is the Yulong, which runs to the west and south of the town of Yangshuo. It is a narrower, more bucolic waterway flanked by the same kinds of mountains.
As Mr. Deng put it, each river has its character, which is reflected in the towns associated with them. Like the Yulong River, Yangshuo has a reputation as a laid-back rural haven. For years, it catered to backpackers with its hostels and banana pancake cafes.
The Li is more closely tied to the bustling city of Guilin, a magnet for package tourists and the place that the Chinese government has long promoted to the world as one of the most beautiful places in the country. From Guilin, large and loud motorized tour boats ply the Li.
Now, the government of Yangshuo County is looking to push the Yulong River and Yangshuo, the county seat, into the spotlight. Officials here crave the prominence that Guilin and the Li River have had for decades.
They have asked the central government to designate the area around the Yulong River as the Yulong National Geological Park in order, the proposal says, “to better protect these geological relics gifted by nature.”
No corner of China outside of the Yangshuo area better embodies the imagined landscape of the country — karst hills, bamboo groves, rice paddies and villages, all occasionally wreathed in mist. Children bike to school along narrow dirt lanes. Farmers lead water buffalo through the wet fields. It is a traditional Chinese painting come to life.
County officials unveiled their plan in May and have not released details, so local residents and workers are unsure what changes would take place should the national-park designation be approved by Beijing. But some speak of the proposal with pride.
“Most people who visit Guilin come to Yangshuo only if they have time,” said Li Zilong, general manager of Yangshuo Resort, on a bank of the Yulong. “If Yangshuo has a national park, maybe people will recognize that Yangshuo is as beautiful as Guilin and will know that people should spend more time here. A national park shows that experts recognize the value of Yangshuo.”
County officials “want to build better roads so that more visitors will come,” he said. “We are all for that because once a tourism zone is built up, more visitors will come, and those visitors will attract more visitors. The government will also do some marketing.”
The profiles of Yangshuo and the Yulong River have been on the rise in recent years. In the 1990s, Yangshuo became a major hangout spot on the backpacker trail through China. Those travelers, most of them foreigners, lingered at restaurants and teahouses on a quiet street in the middle of town, while Chinese and outsiders on package tours preferred to stay in plush hotels in Guilin.
In the 2000s, as the domestic tourism industry in China boomed, so did Yangshuo’s. Midrange hotels and even a few luxury ones sprouted throughout the town, as well as in nearby villages and on the banks of the Yulong.
The area has also attracted young Chinese wanting to decamp from cities to lead a simpler life.
“There was a lot of pressure at work,” said Li Chunhua, 32, who opened Little House Cafe near the east bank of the Yulong a year ago after leaving his job at an export company in Shanghai. “A lot of people from Beijing and Shanghai have moved here to get away from the cities and from all the stress.”
Outside his cafe, rice fields glistening with water stretched from a roadway to a bank of the Yulong. Farmers with bamboo hats stood bent over in the paddies.
Other parts of the Yangshuo area have become more crowded as tourism has risen. At night in Yangshuo, thousands of visitors flock to a riverbank to watch a sound-and-light show created with the help of Zhang Yimou, China’s most famous film director, and featuring legions of dancers in ethnic costumes.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of tourists took pictures of each other in a field of lavender where someone had erected large, white letters that spell “love.”
Though Yangshuo County agencies did not respond to requests for interviews, the park proposal suggests a sense of rivalry with Guilin and the Li River. In it, officials note that while Guilin and the Li River were designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations last year, Yangshuo County was named as having the single best karst landscape by Chinese National Geographic magazine. The proposal also insists a section of Yangshuo named Grape Town falls within the World Heritage Site.
尽管阳朔县相关机构未回复采访请求，但国家公园的申报材料表现出了与桂林其他地区和漓江竞争的感觉。在申报材料中，官员指出，尽管桂林和漓江去年被联合国列入了《世界遗产名录》(World Heritage Site)，但阳朔县也被《中国国家地理》杂志列为最美的喀斯特峰林。申报材料还坚持认为，阳朔县下辖的葡萄镇位于被列入《世界遗产名录》的地区范围以内。
The proposal has supporters among provincial scholars of tourism, who say that Guilin and Yangshuo and their two rivers should be regarded as equals.
“Guilin has been a metropolis since the Tang dynasty and has the best preserved Ming dynasty houses,” said Yang Yongde, founder of the Tourism Research Institute at Guangxi University. “Yangshuo has authentic rural villages and fields. The two complement each other and are inseparable.”
The granting of national park status to the Yulong River and its surrounding villages “will give Yangshuo and Guilin more equal status on the average tourist’s itinerary,” Mr. Yang said. He noted that nearly 14 million visitors came to Yangshuo last year, and their average length of stay was just over two days. If the Yulong received national park status, that figure could increase to three days, Mr. Yang said.
China has yet to establish a national park system that prioritizes conservation, so it is unclear what ecological rules would apply to a “national geological park.”
A manager at Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, a long-established riverside lodge, pointed to a map and said that she had heard the area would be blocked off to outside traffic, and that people entering would have to pay a ticket fee at several booths on the roads. Villages and hotels would be enclosed in the tourist zone.
Standing on his bamboo raft as it floated past karst hills, Mr. Deng said that the national park, if it comes to pass, would no doubt attract more people to Yangshuo. “They will hear about the Yulong,” he said. “Where else can you take this kind of a ride on a raft? Not on the Li River.”