It’s late afternoon, and we’re walking. It’s not a clear day by any means; in fact, the rain has just stopped, and water is steaming up from the surrounding greenery, compounding the intense humidity. I’m sweating profusely, and my girlfriend isn’t faring much better.
We're Xingping, a relatively untouched village in the Guangxi province of mid-China. It’s a beautiful place, pitched right beside the Li River, encompassed by towering limestone karsts that are almost synonymous with the local region. Guangxi is renowned throughout China for its stunning landscape, part of which is celebrated on the 20 yuan note. It’s one of those places that locals take for granted, but which mesmerises everybody else.
The path we’re following has been recommended by the owner of our hostel. ‘Go through the gates’, he said, ‘and walk through the farm; follow the road lined by pomelo trees until you reach the lake; turn right, and climb’. It hasn’t been easy, but at last we are climbing. It’s clearly not a path well-trodden; the only company we’ve had so far has been a cow and her calf, which ran past us as if late for a meeting. I question the wisdom of continuing, given the onset of darkness, but I remember what the hostel owner said: ‘It’s worth the ascent’.
At last, we reach the summit. In front of us stretches the Li River: a broad, winding vessel carving its way through the limestone. Local fishermen emerge from humble riverside dwellings and prepare their bamboo rafts for an evening’s work, with trusty cormorants at their sides. The sun has emerged from the clouds to make a farewell appearance, and its shallow rays provide perfect lighting for dramatic photography. I could stay here for hours, but my girlfriend is worried about our being stranded in the dark. She’s got a point. We descend towards the river.
The walk down is much easier, and we soon arrive at the river. We’re about two miles from Xingping now, but there is no riverside pathway to take us there. Two fishermen are talking on their rafts, not more than 20 metres away. One of them points at me, shouting ‘laowai!’, which my laughing girlfriend translates as ‘foreigner!’. He’s an old, frail man, with a welcoming smile. Observing our predicament, he kindly offers to take us back to Xingping on his raft. We’re more than happy to accept, and soon we find ourselves on the river, gliding through the water with quiet satisfaction founded on tranquillity and tiredness. I look ahead, and a distant silhouette seems familiar; upon pulling out my wallet, I see it matches the scene depicted on the 20 yuan note. I smile at the irony, for the experience today has been priceless.