Ranked by CNN as one of the best 15 rivers for travelers, Lijiang River is a significant element of Guilin's scenery. Lijiang River has not only been mentioned in Chinese textbooks but also appears on the back of China's 20-yuan banknote.
Hailed as one of the most beautiful rivers on the earth, Lijiang River, where clean water flows between the scenic karst mountains, winds through four counties in the city of Guilin in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Apart from its fame in the world, Lijiang River means more for local fishermen and residents whose fate has been closely tied to the picturesque river.
Huang Yuechuang, 79, is one of the fishermen who has witnessed the ups and downs of the river.
FISHERMEN'S CONCERNS OVER THE RIVER
Rowing a bamboo raft with several cormorants on it, Huang sports a bamboo split hat and linen rain cape. Despite what it looks like, he is not actually fishing; rather, he earns a living as a model on the river for photographers from across the world. Huang's classic fisherman appearance has gained popularity and has even been viewed as an indispensable part of the river.
Born into a fisherman's family on the bank of Lijiang River, Huang said they had lived on fishing for generations.
When Huang was young, his family stayed on a boat all day long.
"At that time, Lijiang River was crystal clear. It was easy to catch fish whenever you cast a net," Huang recalled. However, not many people bought fish, so his family led a hard life then.
Increasing tourists after China's reform and opening-up in 1978 brought benefits to fishermen on the river.
"There used to be over 500 fishermen living around this section of the river. Fishermen developed a deep affection for the river," said Huang Xingyue, another fisherman from the Xingping Village along the river.
"Our ancestors taught us the rules for sustainable fishing and the importance of river protection," Huang Xingyue said.
However, rapid urbanization has posed a threat to the water quality of the river, which is a big concern for people living by the river.
"We felt hurt when Lijiang River was tainted by pollution from some local factories in the 1970s," Huang Yuechuang said.
Authorities said about 175,000 tonnes of industrial and domestic sewage was poured into Lijiang River every day in the 70s, despite the city government's efforts in curbing pollution.
The ever-developing tourism has also threatened the environment of the river.
Guilin was among the first batch of Chinese cities open to foreign visitors. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, more than 160 prominent government officials from across the world have visited the river, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
In 2009, Guilin received 18.6 million visitors. The number surged to over 80 million in 2017.
Huang Yuechuang said the booming tourism propelled local fishermen to turn to tourism-related businesses such as restaurants or hotels over ten years ago.
Before becoming a model of a fisherman, Huang had never thought of giving up fishing.
"We only made ends meet when we lived on fishing about ten years ago. But now, I can earn more than 10,000 yuan (1463.2 U.S. dollars) each month during the peak season," said Huang.
Huang Gang, in his 60s, used to run a restaurant on Fulongzhou Island, one of the four islands -- Fulongzhou, Mahuangzhou, Nanzhou, and Dazhou -- on Lijiang River.
Fulongzhou Island is home to over 100 residents. To cater to the demand of the increasing tourists, most of the residents started to run fish restaurants on the island starting in 1998, according to Huang Gang.
"The sanitary sewage and wastewater from the restaurants discharged directly into the river," he said.
Apart from the river islands, Xiaodongjiang -- the branch of Lijiang River stretching through the downtown area of Guilin -- also suffered from the pollution brought about by over 10,000 tenants living in the rental houses on both sides of the river.
At its worst, the water quality of Xiaodongjiang was deemed "inferior to Grade V," the worst in China's water quality grading system and "too polluted for any purpose."
Chen Xuwen, 40, who has rowed a bamboo raft for tourists for years on the river, was quite familiar with all the pollution.
"You can see white plastic bags floating in the river. What was worse, they frequently got caught in my raft's propeller," Chen recalled.
ANTI-POLLUTION EFFORTS REVITALIZE THE RIVER
As China has attached great importance to environmental protection in recent years, the local government has made all-out efforts to reduce pollution and restore the beauty of Lijiang River.
Last year, the dry toilet at Huang Yuechuang's home, which used to discharge waste directly into Lijiang River, was transformed into a flush toilet with subsidies from the local government. Now the waste is processed in water treatment facilities before draining into the river.
This is just one example of the "toilet revolution" launched by local authorities in recent years, which has renovated or upgraded household toilets for all residents living by the river.
To protect the bamboo trees growing on the banks of the river, the government has compensated residents who used to cut down bamboo to make room for growing oranges, said Qin Rongjun, deputy head of the Lijiang River Scenic Area Management Committee.
The committee, established by the local government in 2015, was in charge of the administration and protection of the scenic area around the river.
All quarries in the area have been closed, and local authorities have stepped up the crackdown on illegal sand mining and cage culture in some sections of the river, Qin said.
The government also launched a campaign in 2016, with a total investment of 314 million yuan, to relocate residents out of the four river islands to restore their damaged environment.
So far, all the residents on the Fulongzhou Island have been relocated to the city proper of Guilin, with restaurants closed and illegal buildings torn down. The island is now being transformed into a park.
"My family received about 1.4 million yuan, which bought us two apartments in the city," said Huang Gang.
Besides the compensations, the local government has provided the residents with free training programs to help them find jobs in the city.
Huang Gang said he would cherish the memory of living on the island forever. He sometimes went back to walk around the island and was glad to see the better environment and clearer water there.
Thanks to the anti-pollution efforts, today's Lijiang River has regained its original glamor, with water grass flowing in limpid water and egrets flying overhead. Residents now wash vegetables by the river, and children can swim in it.
The river's water quality has met the national standard for the past three years, according to local statistics.
"The environment of Lijiang River has improved a lot. I often see volunteers clearing garbage by the river. The better the environment, the longer my family can rely on the river to make a living," said Huang Yuechuang.
His son, Huang Qiaosong, 46, has been steering boats on Lijiang River for more than 20 years. "We have replaced all old diesel-powered boats with low-emission cruisers, and we stopped cooking in them," said Huang Qiaosong.
"We don't have to worry about the pollution any more. I should take care of my long white beard now," Huang Yuechuang said. "I wash it every other day. Sometimes, I wash it in the river."