At 270 miles long, the Lijiang is not one of China's mighty waterways. Yet it looms large in the national imagination, thanks to a breathtaking 52-mile stretch of river between the southwestern cities of Guilin and Yangshuo. The landscape here inspired countless artists and writers of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and later periods; China's current regime honors it with an image on the 20-yuan bill.
More than the river itself, what inspires awe is the landscape: alluvial plains rippling with 300-million-year-old limestone formations. The geological term for these oddly-shaped lowland pinnacles is karst, but residents have come up with more colorful names for them: Watching An Apple, Calligraphy Brush, Eight Immortals, Elephant Trunk Hill, Folded Brocade Mountain. Many of these fanciful monikers are tied to a local legend.
Similarly, this soul-stirring portion of the river is nearly inseparable from Chinese art history. Few places in the country better embody shan-shui, the nature-oriented aesthetic (literal translation: "mountain-water") that emerged in China a thousand years before European Romantics went off in pursuit of the Sublime.
Painters and poets alike tried to articulate the magnificence of these surroundings. Many of these verses resist translation, but in a line often quoted by tour operators, the Tang dynasty writer Han Yu compared the river to a green ribbon. A millennium later, the poet Yuan Mei imagined that the hills had "run to this remote frontier to show off their weirdness." Buddhists and Taoists thought of this section of the Lijiang as the Pure Land, an earthly paradise.
Even with more tourists than ever now pouring in, timeless scenes remain: bathing water buffalos, farmers tending rice paddies, villagers harvesting wild greens on the riverbanks and using trained cormorants to haul fish onto their bamboo rafts. On a clear day, the river offers up a mirror image of nearby mountains. It's a striking sight, even if the ancients preferred to contemplate the hills when they were wrapped in mist.