Monday, April 23, 2007

The People of the Li River - A Photo Essay

The Li River or Li Jiang in Guilin is one of the most beautiful river courses in the world. It is known for two distinct features, one is physical and the other is economic. The first is the craggy but beautiful "karst"-limestone hills that jut out all over the province. It looks like a mystical dreamland. The other is the fisherman and their "cormorant" or diving birds.

The region had been immortalized for centuries by Chinese poets. One of their praises read, "He who sails along the Li River finds himself floating in a sweet dream."

Beyond the hills and the birds there is plenty of activity along the river and many beautiful things to see. Enjoy the ride!


Small fishing villages are scattered throughout the Li River. Out in the rural areas Chinese instituted "communes" still exist. Many of the parents and grandparents who live in these villages were forced here in the 1950's and 60's by Mao. Most people are trapped here without enough capital to grow, diversify or just leave. They are left with only farming and fishing in order to live out their days.

Cruise boats lumber in caravans down the river. Last year an attendance record for set for Li River tourists averaging over 200,000 per month in the summer. My trip was in April 2005.

Our boat was not crowded. Most of the passengers were down below because of the drizzle. In the background you can see the huge "karst" hills. It's beautiful and scenic but it is only a backdrop to a very sad reality of the rural Chinese people. Unlike the dwellers in the large cities they have very limited economic opportunity and political freedom.

On the back of the cruise boats is the kitchen and dish washing facility.

A young boy has the duty of flagman for this cruise boat.

Two peddlers eye a pair of cruise boats churning down the Li River. About every half mile the cruise boats are targeted by peddlers who row right next to the cruise boats and plead with tourists to buy their goods.

The boats are made of bamboo and can move fairly fast in the water.

Once alongside a cruise boat, the peddlers will plead with passengers to purchase goods. Usually it's a carved object like an elephant or monkey. Most tourist buy their goods out of sympathy for their plight.

Some villages have their own pier to support the activities of many fisherman. This is a typical fishing vessel. It is large enough to be used as a home for a Chinese family. Don't be surprised if five or more people live aboard.

Some villages are large enough to have roads, vehicles and shops. The little blue van is a common vehicle in China. They are used for everything including taxi rides.

A young boy fixes a bicycle along the Li River. The stone pier is covered with a type of "chicken wire" to hold the rocks in place.

A boat launches out for a day of dragnet-fishing. The most delicious fish from the Li River is the steamed Mandarin fish which is so tender it will literally melt in your mouth.

Two girls think about taking a dip in the water. It looks a bit polluted to me but China is all about water. Several major rivers and thousands of tributaries flow Northwest to Southeast and on to the ocean. Sanitary conditions are not up to any Western standards. Bottled water is a must for all foreign travelers.

Help! I have these two stupid birds stuck to my pole! These birds are actually the cormorants, or fishing birds. At night the fisherman takes them out in his boat and they dive for fish. During the day the fisherman hangs out on the pier and charges 5-10 yuan for anyone who wants to take a picture with him. Not a bad way to pick up some pocket money.

Here's a pretty well-worn vessel, longer than most, at its dock.

A woman relaxes in her fishing boat/"home" which is also her source of income. You find entire families living on some of these boats.

In the West you would chuckle if you saw someone napping like this but in China many people work multiple jobs and sleep is taken whenever the opportunity arises. You'll actually see scenes like this all over China. The average monthly income is $25 to $300 per year so any additional job helps. Unlike India and other third-world countries, the Chinese always have enough to eat. Starvation is unheard of in a country of well over a billion people.

A woman relaxes in the shade along a riverside farm.

Another woman heads down to the river to wash clothes. Life is simple here.

A fisherman prepares his nets for a day of work. Because of pollution and overfishing it is more difficult to get a good haul of fish.

A mother nurses her baby along the shore of the Li River. The Chinese still have a policy of one child per couple. Unfortunately, the Buddhist religion requires a son to pray for his parents after death in order for them to obtain heaven. This causes many Chinese to abort or abandon girls in order to have another chance at having a son. Many Chinese girls are adopted by Americans. When flying from China back to America our plane had at least a dozen Chinese baby girls being escorted to America. (They all woke up and cried at different times too! No sleep for me.)

While hardly anyone in America is solely dependent on a river for their livelihood, the opposite is true for much of China. The river is a major source of food, water, cleaning and employment. Here a young woman washes clothes by scrubbing them across rocks along the shore.

A pathway leads to a village where a group lives in a communal farm. They grow rice, peppers and catch fish in the river. Some members work on the larger cruise and fishing boats. Again, for all you hear about China's new prosperity, the average person is very poor and lives a meager life.

A man prepares to paint his vessel. The green and blue vessels are a common color combination along the river as you can see from the image below. No, they are not the same vessel!

A family takes a break onshore to do some washing and purchase supplies. There are ten people here. The boat is big enough to hold all of them.

Two boys watch the river traffic. Unless they get an educational opportunity they will probably live their entire lives along the river. Some Chinese are migrating to Shanghai and other large metropolitan areas to find work.

A beautiful cave entrance along the Li River. The enterprising villagers offer boat rides into the caves. If you enlarge the image you can see laundry hanging out to dry on the trees above the boaters.

A fisherman rows out to the river with three cormorants or "fishing birds." The fish will dive out into the water and catch fish in their mouths. Around their necks is a "choke" rope which prevents them from swallowing the fish. The fisherman retrieves the catch from the bird's mouth and then rewards the bird with a smaller piece of food they can swallow.

There are many wonderful pictures of these boats and cormorants working the river at night. The boats have mystical-looking red lamps that glow like fire at night. Unfortunately, I did not have opportunity to get that image. But I'll be back.

There is much more to show and tell about the people of the Li River but I hope this gives you a small picture of how these people live. They smile and laugh and are happy to do business with you. But you wonder what they are wondering, how high their dreams are, and how good we have it just to be born in America. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It just shows how important it is for all mankind to see the global and spiritual links that are already in place. Think about that! I know I do.

Copyright 2007 James D. Fisher
All Rights Reserved.

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