The Li River (also shown on the 20-yuan note) provides a great photo opportunity.
The Li River (also shown on the 20-yuan note) provides a great photo opportunity. Supplied

China cashes in on its beauty

MONEY was the last thing on my mind.

But as our cruise along the Li River neared its end, the back deck of our boat was filled with people holding up 20-yuan notes and smiling for the cameras.

Our guide had let us know that we were approaching the point where we would see the scene depicted in the banknote. Forget the fact that we had already travelled through some of the most spectacular scenery in China. This, apparently, was the shot you needed for your scrapbook.

I was surprised that this dream-like landscape was rated worthy only of a bill worth about $4.

I passed on the photo opportunity. But, having already been asked to pose with half-a-dozen groups of Chinese tourists on the five-hour cruise, I understood that, for some, taking pictures was a big part of the experience.

And I suppose if you have seen the image staring out at you from your wallet countless times, it would be nice to be able to show you have seen the real thing. I wondered if New Zealanders ever pull out a $20 note for a photo when they met the Queen.

After the hustle and bustle of Beijing, Guilin seemed like a land from another world. Rebuilt after being largely destroyed during World War II, it doesn't have much interesting architecture, but that is more than made up for by an otherworldly landscape. Limestone hills rise majestically like giant statues of forgotten gods that long ago became covered in bush.Our day began in Guilin - a city of about 710,000 in the autonomous region of Guangxi, in southern China - and was to end in Yangshou, a city of about 300,000, popular with backpackers for its markets and scenery.

The region is not well-known to foreigners but it's easy to see why it has become one of the most popular destinations for domestic tourists. Such spectacular scenery feeds the sense of patriotism of a generation of Chinese who take great pride in their nation's achievements.

Guilin is full of cranes and construction sites but, realising that the real magic of the city is its landscape, planners have restricted the height of buildings so the karst hills don't become obscured by progress.

Similar restrictions have been placed on the communities that live along the Li River, so most buildings are hidden behind long curtains of bamboo.

But the people who rely on the river to make a living are never far from view. Our journey takes us down a lazy 80km stretch where water buffalo laze in the shallows, locals try to sell ornaments from bamboo rafts that they tie to tourist boats, and fishermen use cormorants, large shag-like birds, to bring in the catch of the day.

As we wind our way through mountains shrouded in cloud, it is easy to understand why so many Chinese artists have been drawn to the area over the centuries, and why it is considered the home of Chinese landscape art.

The efforts of the river vendors are a constant reminder, though, that this isn't paradise. They wait for each ferry filled with tourists and in a well-practised routine guide their bamboo rafts so they can hook them to the side of the passing vessel. From there they do everything they can to attract the attention of the ferry's passengers offering everything from jewellery to jade Buddhas.

Almost everywhere we go in the region, someone is trying to sell us something.

The two-hour drive from Guilin to the terraced rice fields of Longsheng, which were still magical even though largely hidden in a misty rain, was like a trip back in time. Even there, though, if the old women in traditional dress weren't carrying heavy loads on their backs, they were trying to sell trinkets and jewellery - admittedly at interesting prices.

Back in Guilin, there is also plenty to explore below the city's surface, such as the Reed Flute Cave with its grand limestone stalagmites and stalactites, and Fubo Hill, home to the Thousand-Buddha Cave (although only 250 Buddha statues survived the Cultural Revolution), and again vendors are everywhere.

It was the same when our boat journey ended in Yangshou, where the lines of people trying to sell handcrafts and souvenirs were so thick it was hard to disembark. We were told the street stalls and markets were one of main reasons tourists visit the city.

The amazing Liu Sanjie Impressions light show is another attraction in Yangshou. Created by Zhang Yimou, director of films such as Hero andHouse of Flying Daggers and of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the show features 600 local performers and transforms an area of the Li River and surrounding hills into an outdoor amphitheatre.

If the area is breathtaking during the day, it is awe-inspiring lit up on such a grand scale at night.

The performance tells the history of the local ethnic groups. As the story unfolds, performers dance across the water, music fills the air, young girls hold the crowd's attention with hypnotic harmonies, and the hills are bathed in different coloured lights.

It is much more dramatic than I could have imagined and again I am reminded of how serious China is about tourism.

As we leave, a Chinese albino on the street outside plays an erhu, the two-stringed Chinese fiddle. Played badly it can sound like a sick cat, but this man makes it sing, in a strangely feline sort of way. But the amount of money in the bowl in front of him suggests his musicianship skills are not greatly appreciated.

It seems if there isn't a photo opportunity, people are less inclined to open their wallets.

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