Most Chinese have heard of the Li River, one of the top tourist sites in the country. A row of karst hills along its banks has been immortalized on one side of the 20 renminbi note. Lesser known is the Yulong, which runs to the west and south of the town of Yangshuo. It is a narrower, more bucolic waterway flanked by the same kinds of mountains.
Each river has its character, which is reflected in the towns associated with them. Like the Yulong River, Yangshuo has a reputation as a laid-back rural haven. For years, it catered to backpackers with its hostels and banana pancake cafes.
The Li is more closely tied to the bustling city of Guilin, a magnet for package tourists and the place that the Chinese government has long promoted to the world as one of the most beautiful places in the country. From Guilin, large and loud motorized tour boats ply the Li.
Now, the government of Yangshuo County is looking to push the Yulong River and Yangshuo, the county seat, into the spotlight. Officials here crave the prominence that Guilin and the Li River have had for decades.
They have asked the central government to designate the area around the Yulong River as the Yulong National Geological Park in order, the proposal says, "to better protect these geological relics gifted by nature."
No corner of China outside of the Yangshuo area better embodies the imagined landscape of the country — karst hills, bamboo groves, rice paddies and villages, all occasionally wreathed in mist. Children bike to school along narrow dirt lanes. Farmers lead water buffalo through the wet fields. It is a traditional Chinese painting come to life.
County officials unveiled their plan in May and have not released details, so local residents and workers are unsure what changes would take place should the national-park designation be approved by Beijing. But some speak of the proposal with pride.
"Most people who visit Guilin come to Yangshuo only if they have time," said Li Zilong, general manager of Yangshuo Resort, on a bank of the Yulong. "If Yangshuo has a national park, maybe people will recognize that Yangshuo is as beautiful as Guilin and will know that people should spend more time here. A national park shows that experts recognize the value of Yangshuo."
County officials "want to build better roads so that more visitors will come," he said. "We are all for that because once a tourism zone is built up, more visitors will come, and those visitors will attract more visitors. The government will also do some marketing."
The profiles of Yangshuo and the Yulong River have been on the rise in recent years. In the 1990s, Yangshuo became a major hangout spot on the backpacker trail through China. Those travelers, most of them foreigners, lingered at restaurants and teahouses on a quiet street in the middle of town, while Chinese and outsiders on package tours preferred to stay in plush hotels in Guilin.
In the 2000s, as the domestic tourism industry in China boomed, so did Yangshuo’s. Midrange hotels and even a few luxury ones sprouted throughout the town, as well as in nearby villages and on the banks of the Yulong.
The area has also attracted young Chinese wanting to decamp from cities to lead a simpler life.
"There was a lot of pressure at work," said Li Chunhua, 32, who opened Little House Cafe near the east bank of the Yulong a year ago after leaving his job at an export company in Shanghai. "A lot of people from Beijing and Shanghai have moved here to get away from the cities and from all the stress."
Outside his cafe, rice fields glistening with water stretched from a roadway to a bank of the Yulong. Farmers with bamboo hats stood bent over in the paddies.
Other parts of the Yangshuo area have become more crowded as tourism has risen. At night in Yangshuo, thousands of visitors flock to a riverbank to watch a sound-and-light show created with the help of Zhang Yimou, China’s most famous film director, and featuring legions of dancers in ethnic costumes.
The granting of national park status to the Yulong River and its surrounding villages "will give Yangshuo and Guilin more equal status on the average tourist’s itinerary," Mr. Yang said. He noted that nearly 14 million visitors came to Yangshuo last year, and their average length of stay was just over two days. If the Yulong received national park status, that figure could increase to three days, Mr. Yang said.