Life on the Li
In days long past, to attract
fish the cormorant fishermen would alight lamps of fire held on
poles extended over the water. Today they use propane lanterns,
but the practical and visual effects are nearly the same. When
the man senses a potential catch below, the avian associate
takes over, and as has occurred for hundreds of years on and in
the sustaining waters of the Li River, man and bird fish as
In a flash the sleek cormorant
is over the side, down, shooting dart-like through the currents.
Minutes later he (or she) surfaces and springs from the water to
reassume a perch aboard the bamboo raft. While submerged, the
bird may have snacked on one or two smaller fish, but it is the
larger still bulging in his throat that will be on the family
dinner table this evening.
It is said that a single
athletically-proficient bird can feed an entire family. And in
return the birds are treated with respect and care. The job does
not come without some indignities, however. A ring of cord
around the neck prevents the swallowing of larger fish, and
perhaps not every bird is pleased to have his long gullet
probed, pumped and disgorged of his catch. But such is the
nature of this partnership, and the cormorants seem to go with
Typically the fishing team
consists of three partners – a man and two birds. The birds
spend most of their time perched upon their solitary posts at
the bow and at the stern, respectively. The human stands
midpoint, propelling the raft with a pole. If garbed in
traditional manner, with a protective shoulder shroud jutting
out at a sharp angle and wide hat, the man takes on a bird-like
appearance in his assumed plumage. This writer can only
speculate as to the original purpose of the unique uniform: The
wide hat, to guard against the sun in the day; the wing-like
shoulder protection, perhaps to ward off sparks when open
torches were extended out over the water at night.
The cormorants, too, have their
adapted and very functional work wear. Unlike most water foul,
the feathers of the cormorant are not waterproof and do not hold
air while diving. This enables the birds to shoot more quickly
to the bottom of the river, where the big fish meander. This,
too, is why the birds so often strike a photogenic pose: While
the sun rises over the mountains, perched on the bow of the
boat, his wings extended (obliging the photographer), he dries
Of course, less intriguing but
perhaps more efficient modes of fishing are employed on the Li.
If one kayaks some kilometers with the flow, for instance from
the now overly-active tourist town of Yangshuo to the bucolic
PuYi Town down south, one will come across not only cormorant
fishermen, but also those of the hook, line and netting variety.
Besides bamboo rafts, their craft range from a single inner tube
moved by paddle to motor-driven skiffs.
Along the way, robust water
buffalo bask in the shallows, and well-fed oxen graze on the
green shorelines. The children of riverside villages pause in
their play to shout “helloooo” to the kayaking laowai. Birdlife
is abundant and, besides the occasional laughing child, only the
sounds of nature are heard. The constant honking of horns is an
irritant left behind in Yangshuo.
But that’s south of Yangshuo.
North of town one encounters a vehicular irritant of a different
sort. Originating in the city of Guilin to the north, with
Yangshuo as the southern terminus 83-kilometers downstream,
during the day a never-ending procession of massive tour boats
ply the fiscal waters of the Li, and their diesel engines are no
treat for the senses of smell and sound. At times traffic jams
form and so begins the bellowing of horns. The hundreds of
camera-toting tourists on board are friendly enough, yelling
competitively in greeting to the passengers of adjacent boats.
And litter transforms into the riverine variety with a carefree
And so, sourcing from land and
boat, trash lines much of the Li’s shoreline, and one often sees
non-degradable and non-buoyant detergent bags drifting below,
most likely discarded by a local after the day’s riverside wash
was complete. Surprisingly, despite the toxins of man and
machine expelled into the once pure waters, some locals still
swim in the Li – mostly children.
During a cycle ride begun at
dawn, outside Yangshuo on a rocky trail tracing the shores of
the Yulong River, a few kilometers from where that flow meets
the Li, the writer rounded a bend and was presented with a
picturesque and silent scene. The broad trail beyond curved
gently out of site between two rivaling karst hills, the new sun
rose behind, the plant life was lush, exotic and green, and the
complete image was made soft by morning mist.
Dismounting the bike, I unslung
my backpack, retrieved the camera and formed the shot: The sandy
trail in the foreground reached gracefully for those mountains
in the back. About to release the shutter I heard the rumble. I
lowered the camera and dropped my jaw – around the corner
between the green hills came about the biggest tour bus I had
In his seated perch about two
meters off the ground, the driver looked down at me. He gave a
palms-up shrug and what seemed a slightly embarrassed grin, as
if to say, “Yeah, I know, I can’t believe it either.” Ensconced
in their couch-like chairs and air conditioning, the tourists on
board laughed, smiled and waved as the motorized monster jostled
by, the diesel engine rumbling and belching fumes into the moist
morning air. I would later learn that the bus, like the several
others that passed me before my ride on that wooded trail was
complete, transported passengers to the embarkation station for
their bamboo boat ride. Then, maybe an hour later, at the
downstream disembarkation point, they would no doubt have only a
few steps to walk before reboarding that same bus.
Like never before in history,
and in staggeringly accelerating numbers, the Chinese people are
traveling. It is good that so many now have the fiscal freedom
to explore their nation, but environmentally-aware, low-impact
and tactful tourism, this is not.
Whether traversing an historic
walking street, paddling a kayak downstream, or peddling a bike
along a backcountry trail, one can’t escape the damage. In
far-flung regions and provinces across China, from mountain to
stream to ocean, on the streets and pathways of the nation’s
most aged, delicate and precious places, it is the same.
On the shores of the Li River,
Yangshuo is emblematic. The pedestrian boulevard packs up solid
with harried hat-wearing tour groups. Shoulder-to-shoulder, they
and the foreigners in the thick of it are buffeted and hassled
by competing loudspeakers and the shrieking sellers of stuff. On
the streets the honking of horns is incessant and seemingly
without good cause. The stream which runs through the old town
has been made toxic. The once pristine countryside is littered
with polystyrene containers and plastic bags. And the river,
upon which nature and humans have depended for thousands of
years, is ever less scenic and ever less safe.
On the Li, that’s life.