Published: December 20th 2006December 15th 2006
Lijiang is an oasis for the burnt out backpacker. After six weeks of nonstop travel, endless bus rides, late nights on the town and early morning rushes to pack, rapid sightseeing tours and too much street food, we arrived weary and drained into Mama Naxi's Guesthouse for some much needed nurturing and mothering. Mama has a reputation around the inner travelling circles of China. Her name is whispered across pubs and communal rooms and her bent card is passed from hand to hand with declarations of affection and fond memories. Mama's cooking is an acclaimed ritual and grumbling tummies will come from miles to sit on her squat wooden chairs in the dim lighting of her courtyard. It was of no discussion then that we too decided to visit Mama's guesthouse, based in the center of Old Town Lijiang. Comfy beds, dark rooms, clean bathrooms, a loving Mama and Papa (yes, that's what we called them), endless plates of food, free internet, and always a tiny kitty cat to nestle on your lap. Home sweet home.......except that Cara hates cats.
Mama Naxi is a Chinese version of Mother Teresa, an almost carbon copy of my own mother. Her loving
heart and stark generosity was a refreshing change from many of our earlier experiences with the management of hostels and guesthouses. Mama, as was the common label to address her, was constantly buoyant and smiling, always passing out hugs and pats on the pat, and forever shoving food or hot tea in front of us. "No problem, no problem, Mama help you," was her trademark as well as her infatuation with making us all fat with her excellent cooking.
Dinner was eight yuan ($1 US) and the plates kept coming and coming until you remove your plate from the table to stop the playful forcefeeding (still even then, Mama would try to place food in your empty hands….kind of yucky). Dinner time was almost like a circus. At spot on 6 o'clock, Mama shoved you into a childlike chair or send one of her beautiful young girls to knock on our door - "you come to dinner now" and then you were pulled clear across the courtyard to the kindergarten height tables. It was impossible not to enjoy yourself. There were individual bowls of rice that remained constantly full throughout the meal. The girls just wouldn't let them get
below the halfway mark and I certainly fulfilled my quota of rice for my lifetime. In the center of the table there were about eight to nine heaping plates of food. Everything from chicken curries, beef and veggies, broccoli and cauliflower, lima beans, stir fried tofu, eggplant, pork, green beans, sautéed mushrooms, marinated chicken, and Chinese salads were placed in front of our widened eyes.....and it kept coming and coming. The plates were communal and we picked off what we wanted with our chopsticks (which I'm getting quite talented at using!). When one plate started to dwindle, it would be whipped away, rushed back to the kitchen and quickly replaced. Mama wouldn't take no for an answer and kept us giggling away as she surveyed us like a hawk. If, at anytime we took a break or set down our chopsticks, Mama rushed over and started filling up our bowls once again, "Eat, eat, eat...Mama make good for you!" After dinner, we sat around for hours enjoying hot tea or the cheap 3 yuan liters of beer until it simply became too cold to sit outside any longer.
Breakfast, though only 2 yuan, was banana pancakes or eggs and
tomatoes. Yummy for one morning but too greasy for several mornings in a row. Not wanting to hurt Mama's feelings, we pretended to sleep in and then secretly ate on the street. There were some delicious pork buns down the street that felt somewhat more healthy compared to the deep fried pancakes. However......we were caught! Papa saw us munching away one morning, outside of the guesthouse gates. He waved and grinned, but we think he rated us out to Mama for she later reprimanded us for missing out on breakfast. We humbly apologized and we were once again seated at her little tables the following morning.
We became lazy in Lijiang and spent several days lounging in the sunny courtyard, playing with Mama's cats, drinking tea and chatting with other travellers. One morning, with nothing else to do, we decided to accompany Mama to market while she shopped for the evening's feast. With baskets loaded on our backs, she led us through the winding backstreets of Lijiang until we suddenly came upon the wild, colorful market - alive and bursting with festivities. She wound her way through the tumbling maze of fruits, veggies, and dripping animal parts to find
her favorite hawkers, old friends she greeted with a pat on the back and, what I'm assuming was a "hello, how are you..how are Suzzy and Billy?" .....or something along those lines.
Like a true, distracted mother, she sat us down on juvenile stools, bought us each a bowl of boiled bean dumplings and promised to be back in five minutes. Mama then disappeared into the crowd to finish her shopping without the ducklings following her. I'd like to say that our treat was yummy, but the dumplings were disgusting. They had the consistency of boiled fat, soggy and mushy and totally unappetizing. Though we were choking with each bite, we knew Mama would be disappointed if we didn't eat them and we would be wasting her hard earned money. (Even the dog under the table wouldn't eat them when we tried our hardest to feed the starving mut.) Mama returned and, when seeing our nearly empty bowls (good effort everyone), she piled in some more dumplings. We gagged at the thought of eating anymore but she refused to leave until we ate a few more bites of the horrid, pasty dumplings. With that feat accomplished and with green
faces, we were then free to follow her through the rest of the market. Even then, she continued to shove food in our hands, apples, oranges.....I honestly don't know where she expected us to put all this food. Perhaps it's a common law that Westerners eat exorbitant amounts??!!?
The Old Town of Lijiang was fabulous. We spent hours sneaking through the cobblestone streets full of twists and turns and getting lost among the red peaked roofs and gushing canals. Around every sharp corner was another beautiful bridge and another friendly, blue capped lady selling her precious fruit. Whether or not we bought anything she shouted hello and giggled to herself, then went back to straightening her meager fruit selection. Everyone is happy here - the young, the old, the poor and the rich, all are friendly and helpful at a moment's notice. Cara and I have indeed fallen for this little town.
Off to the Gorge!
Our group numbered eight. Eight completely different people that crossed a span of ages and a maze of nationalities. There was Claud, 54 years old, originally from Vietnam, now residing in Monteal; Brian, 72 years old, a brilliant Irishman
who now spends his time documenting his travels in beautiful postcards and calendars; Sarah and John from Sweden, a fun loving and equally good looking couple on holiday; Eric, a 33 year old native of Holland who is now teaching English in Beijing and Christopher, a young Danish student studying in Hong Kong. Cara and I wrapped up the package. Having met up the night before over Mama Naxi's fine cooking, we quickly became friends and decided to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge during the next few days. Plans were finalized over tea and, with Mama's assistance, we planned to leave after sunrise the following morning.
Mama filled us up on banana pancakes again
and wished us farewell as our minibus pulled away. The trip to Qiaotou took just over two hours and we were let out to pay the 50 yuan entrance fee. From here, we strapped on our backpacks and embarked on our trek along the world's longest, deepest, and narrowest gorge. Armed with our hand sketched map and a few bottles of water, we took off at a jolly pace for our first destination. Five minutes and three huge hills later, after we stripped off
some of our layers, we slowed down our pace and began shuffling along at a mini-marathon pace. Two hours into the Gorge's path lies Naxi guesthouse, a perfect place to catch your breath and buy a cold drink. We were already breathing heavily and sweating in the hot sun of mid-day - the first time I’ve been actually hot the entire time I’ve been in China. The group tried to delay the next portion of the trek, the dreaded 28 bends. Some call them the 24 bends, although there seemed to be about 30 or more. Whatever the number, they were not fun. I tried to count them, but, after seeing stars, and almost loosing my footing enough to tumble to my death, I concentrated on climbing. The bends lead straight up the mountain and are a series of sharp, steep, rocky paths......very nearly like a staircase winding back and forth. Our tight little group broke up at this point as we each settled into our own comfortable pace. Cara and I stuck together near the front and took it upon ourselves to relay the happy news down the mountainside whenever we stumbled upon a semi-flat patch of ground.
After much effort and many promises to whatever gods where watching over me, we finally reached the pinnacle and the beautiful view awaiting us. From the top of the mountain, we could see straight down into the frothy waters rushing through the gorge several kilometers below us. To the west we saw the large open valley from where we began and flowing rice fields miles and miles beyond the entrance point. To the opposite side lay the rest of the gorge, a narrow crater between snow capped mountains. Unfortunately, the very best view was already taken by a little old lady who claimed her ownership of the viewpoint. She was charging 5 yuan to the sweaty, half delirious hiker who arrived at the top in the hopes that they would be so awe struck that they would pay the meager fee…..none of us did.
After resting our burning calves, we followed the downhill path to Teahorse guesthouse, a set of lovely, solid cabins built on the cliff’s sharp side. The beds were warm and the food was cheap - there were two blankets (very exciting)!!! Cara and I watched the sunset behind the Five Fingers Mountain and warmed up
by the wood burning stove inside the kitchen. The girls that ran the guesthouse were darling and made us a chocolate cake for dessert. The floury concoction was missing some much needed sugar but the caring thought was there. It was a beautiful night with a full moon and dancing stars. The wolves were out as well and competing packs on either side of the gorge took turns calling back and forth for the remainder of the evening.
The gang met for breakfast and set off at ten a.m., before the sun had risen over the mountains. There was still fresh dew on the trail, causing us to slip and slide along the narrow path and we were walking in shadows for much of the first part of the morning. Although the trial on the second day was rather flat and rocky, in many places the trail was only a few inches wide and we had to walk single file - we were nearly teetering on the edge of the cliff on several occasions. The strong winds didn't help much, often causing us to grip the side of the mountains in panic of being blown away.
slowly woke up along the path. We met donkeys carrying their wares to neighboring villages and several herds of goats who were either off to market of in search green pastures (hopefully the later). The animals were not too concerned about sharing the path and we often had to move aside or climb up the steep cliff, allowing them to pass. There were waterfalls and small villages.... plenty to keep us occupied as the sun rose high into the sky. Eventually, we reached Tina's guesthouse for lunch and waited until the rest of our trailing group caught up. It was then that someone suggested hiking to the very bottom of the gorge before we called it a day and caught a bus back to Lijiang. Looking back, I’m thrilled with our decision, but, at the time, I wasn’t a happy camper. The hike down to the Tiger Rock is steep and winding, kind of like doing the 28 bends in reverse. Not too bad though and the stunning views along the rapids made up for any leg pains.
We were entranced by the scenery below. In front of us lie the huge gorge that we had been watching for
You can't really see them from this spot - basically we had to scale this wall to the top of the Gorge
some many hours on the path way above. Down below at eye level, it looked so much bigger and more impressive. It was here, in the narrowest portion of the gorge where legend began. Centuries old stories say that a tiger lept across these very stones in hopes of escaping a hunter. If you felt so inclined, you could climb along the ropes to the very spot where the tiger actually lept - someone died there a few years ago so we passed on that opportunity. A picture was enough to satiate my curiosity.
What goes down must come up. In the case of the Tiger Rock adventure, this meant hauling ourselves up the steep, almost impossible ladders that led straight back up to the road. There was a bus to catch in an hour so we couldn't take our leisurely time. Much of the ladders are spent on hands and knees as the ropes and cables were too frayed to be trusted...... it was also best not to look down. By the time we arrived at the top, we were too winded too speak and were full of scrapes and cuts. However, we made the bus just in
time with our record breaking marathon efforts. A two hour bus ride back to Lijiang followed and Mama was waiting for us on the doorstep surrounded by yummy aromas wafting from her kitchen. Back again.......
Less than a week left in China and the days are passing more and more quickly as we make our way back to Kunming. A 40 hour train ride awaits us. Actually, though everyone we tell grimaces at the thought of two days on a train, we are excited about the journey. Trains are a perfect way to see the countryside and get to know many of the locals. Then we will have three days to see the sights in Shanghai before once again boarding Singapore Airlines (a wonderful airline to fly with if you ever get the opportunity - you get real cutlery!!)
There are more photos below