Finally we were ready to put out kayaks on the water. Our plan called for a week of touring before and after the kayak trip. If we had brought folding kayaks we would have had to drag them around with us for most of the trip. So we arranged to rent kayaks for the trip down the Li River. The tour company that we hired to arrange this said that they could not get permission to let us paddle the river unless we had a support boat follow us around.
We were taken to a dock and met this support boat and our kayaks. The boat turned out to be a Marine Safety Association (MSA) boat. Essentially the equivalent of the Coast Guard in China. Apparently someone thought that kayakers needed to be watched over on the river! We waited for a long time then learned that the truck with the kayaks had broken down. So the support boat motored us 10 minutes downstream to a point close to the truck. There we discovered that the kayaks were made out of heavy fiberglass that looks gray where the surface is worn. I joked that they are concrete kayaks, and my experience has made me more convinced that this impression is correct. Yachts are often made of “ferro cement” and these looked as if they were made in a similar fashion out of “glass fiber cement”. Most of them were shaped as if they had been squashed a little as they came out of the mould. As a result they do not have enough leg room to hold onto the coaming with the knees. Only one had the correct shape and Ken Mannshardt grabbed that one! None of the boats had foot-pegs to rest your feet on or get support for holding onto the boat. None of them had bulkheads or float bags either, so if one filled up with water it would sink like a rock. (We saw this happen later when one of the kayaks sank while being towed by the support boat). Some of the paddles are heavy aluminum/plastic and others are hand made wooden ones. I triyed out a plastic one and wished that I had brought a paddle from home. I wished I had brought a folding kayak from home. But if I had brought any of this equipment I would have had to lug it all over China for two of the four weeks I was there.
The beautiful scenery of the Li River are the limestone karsks rising steeply everywhere. Even in downtown Guilin there are karsks on the edge of the river. Some of these are parks and others have pagodas on top of them. So even though the city was built in a large flat plain, there are sporadic spots with great scenery. As we paddled down-river the horizon became crowded with these peaks. In pairs they split off and arrived at the side of the river faster than I expected. Our first one had a large cave above the water line that had light shining through it. We could see sunlit trees on the other side.
We passed many people dragging up water plants from the river. Some diving in the shallow water and piling it up onto inner tubes. Others using poles from bamboo rafts. Sometimes the poles were bamboo and others were metal pipes. We found out that the eel grass was being harvested to feed to cattle.
Some of the bamboo rafts were used by fishermen and some of them fished with cormorants. A group of cormorant fishermen were shouting, growling, splashing paddles and jumping on their rafts to encourage their cormorants as we paddled past them. These cormorants look very stocky compared to the ones I see back home. Are they a different species? Or does being domesticated agree with them?
When the time came to stop for lunch we climbed onto the support boat one at a time. The kayaks were tied to the boat and towed alongside. One of them flipped over and the boat turned to shore to rescue it. We moved a little farther down and landed on a gravel beach to turn off the engine for a quiet lunch. But we sat inside for a very nice meal, one of the best meals of the trip! It was cooked on the back deck/galley.
After lunch we kayakers headed down the river ahead of the support boat. We began to wonder where it was after a while. Finally the little motor boat (normally towed behind the larger boat) zoomed up to tell us that the large boat had snagged a fishing net in the propeller and was stuck. We were instructed to take our time. We hung out in the shade on the side of the river for over an hour before the boat showed up. It was a good thing that we waited because it was only a few miles farther to the town, Daxu, where we were supposed to land for the evening!
We were treated to a tour of a 400 year old street and given opportunities to spend more money. One place we stopped at was the herbalist shop. Here we saw many animals preserved in “rice wine” for medicinal purposes. One jar that impressed everyone was a jar full of preserved snakes. A few minutes later, Ken and I smelled fermenting rice farther down the street. We followed our nose to the local “wine maker” and sampled his wares. The stuff that the Chinese call “rice wine” is incredibly strong, 35 to 38% alcohol by volume! We bartered for small 250ml and 100ml bottles of it with herbs preserved in it. No snakes for us, but for the rest of the trip in China we referred to any strong drink as “snake juice”.
While we were paying 7 ywan (about 80 cents US) for 250ml of rice wine, a local man came up with a two liter plastic jerry can. This was filled with a ladle out of a crock under the counter for only a few cents! But it didn’t have its own bottle or any ginseng floating in it. When our guide found us there we asked him to query the wine maker about how he distills the wine. Because we had purchased something, we were invited in to see the operation. We saw bags of wet rice mash fermenting, jars of distilled wine buried in the ground for aging 5 years, and THE STILL! This turned out to be a hot-tub sized wooden tank with a metal bottom. A small fire underneath boiled off vapors. A soldered metal lid funneled the vapors into a pipe that lead to a concrete vat. Inside the vat full of cold water was a condenser: Two round metal boxes with pipes soldered between them. The vapors have to pass through the boxes and the pipes and get cooled down, condensing and dripping out through a small pipe through the side of the vat.