Published: August 27th 2009August 27th 2009
Day 414: Tuesday 18th August - A beautiful old Chinese town
My overnight bus journey to Lijiang from Kunming started as the low point of my China trip but it ends up turning out for the best. The cheat in Kunming bus station and the bumpy journey in cramped beds were both unpleasant experiences, but had I not taken the night bus I would never have met the four girls from Dorset. In adversity solidarity breeds and as each of us had to endure the horrible man in Kunming bus station trying to cheat us out of money and the worst of the journey in the beds at the back of the bus, our friendship begins. Jenny, Rachel, Lou and Holly are all 20/21, are on a month long trip around China, inspired because Lou is studying East Asian studies at university.
We arrive in Lijiang at 6am. It is dark which is strange as it is summer if anything here. With the light it feels like a winter’s day back in England. In China, the whole country operates on Beijing time (which is situated near the east coast) so despite the fact that I’ve travelled west since I
left Vietnam, I’ve actually gained an hour. Six of us (an American joins us too) get taxis to take us to the bus station to Mama Naxi’s, the hostel we want to stay at in Lijiang, but the taxi drops us on the edge of the old town, a long way from our destination. In part this is not his fault, no traffic is allowed in the old town but I’m sure he could have done better than he did. We end up wandering Lijiang’s deserted streets for an hour in the rain lugging our heavy bags around in our forlorn attempt to find Mama Naxi’s. Eventually we succeed, but we’re tired and wet when we arrive. The hour hasn’t all been bad as we’ve seen Lijiang at the best time of day before all the tourists arrive. The old town belongs to a different age, the buildings are centuries old, the streets are cobbled, the town is criss-crossed with canals, bridges and there are even a few waterwheels. The grey, inclement weather adds to the Olde Worlde atmosphere. It’s not too unlike a Chinese Beamish, but better.
There are three Mama Naxi hostels and we are shown to
the main one, where we are acquainted with Mama. What a character, nothing quite prepares you for Mama Naxi. She is a small bundle of energy, she shouts and cajoles you, all her other guests, the staff, her family and her four-legged friends in a frenzy not too dissimilar to the Tasmanian Devil character from the cartoons. She talks, no make that shouts at you in a language best described as Chinglish. Part Naxi (most of the people in Lijiang belong to the Naxi minority), part English, you pick up a few words and from that you try and decipher what she is saying to you. At first, she is a bit overwhelming but the longer you spend with this crazy, crazy woman the more you begin to love her, laugh at her and appreciate her unique hospitality.
First impressions lead you to think she is not that hospitable. This is despite being served the biggest breakfast I can remember eating. They serve western food, all excellently prepared, huge portions, whether it be sandwiches, fruit or whatever. The breakfast helps us get over our arduous journey but we all need sleep to make up for the lack of it
on the bus. No problem, Mama to the rescue. ‘Cheap, cheap room for five people, I have’. And so we set off for another of Mama’s guesthouses, down a few of Lijiang’s narrow lanes following the small ball of energy in front of us. She stops at the room she has in mind and then proceeds to turf out the girl staying in it and puts her in another room. This is all before 9am, and all of us feel sorry for the girl who was rudely awoken but grateful that we have a room together and a bed to now sleep in. We dump our bags, climb into bed exhausted and sleep the remainder of the morning.
When we wake, the first thing on all our minds is lunch. Eating as a group is the best way to appreciate Chinese food. We order several main dishes accompanied with rice and get to try each one, and the food is excellent. Baba is the Lijiang speciality. It is a flatbread of wheat served plain or stuffed with meats, vegetables or sweets. The first experience is of a plain one, and we have a stuffed savoury one at Tiger Leaping
Gorge which is disgusting but the sweet ones we find on a stall in Lijiang are divine. It reminds me a bit of a jam pasty, but better and it is one of the best new things I’ve tasted on my travels. Each day in Lijiang, I have to hunt down the stall and get my fix.
After lunch we wander the tight streets of the old town. Now packed with hundreds if not thousands of Chinese tourists, its charm is diminished. However, it is hard not to love Lijiang as you walk through its tight cobbled streets, over small cute bridges which cross the many canals. Just about every building is given over to selling souvenirs but it is largely tasteful. Indeed, Lijiang has a feel of Hoi An, Vietnam to it. Architectually, and scenically Lijiang is superior to Hoi An but it’s shops cannot rival those of its Vietnamese counterpart. And because of the numbers of tourists Lijiang hasn’t the tranquillity of Hoi An, but in a different way is equally as charming and beautiful. Hoi An was probably my favourite town in Southeast Asia and just to compare Lijiang to it, shows the esteem I already
hold it in. If I do fall in love with China, this is where it all started.
Our wander takes us to the Mu family mansion where we pay 45 Yuan (4 pounds) to visit. Entrance fees in China are steep. You can eat and sleep inexpensively, I’d even say the prices are on a par if not cheaper than Southeast Asia in that regard, but when it comes to visiting the sights be prepared for a shock and to lighten your wallet substantially. Transport isn’t that expensive, but because of the distances involved adds up, but it is really only the entrance fees that hurt. If I wasn’t with the girls I may have baulked at the entrance charge and decided to give it a miss as I’ve seen Chinese family mansions before. The buildings were built from scratch following a earthquake which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale in 1996, but it is the beautiful grounds that are the highlight. As you climb up the hill behind the mansion you get a view over Lijiang’s old town, which is well worth seeing.
One thing that is apparent is that I’m well and truly out of the
tropics. Lijiang lies on the edge of the Tibetan plateau in northwest Yunnan, and is situated at an altitude of 2300 metres. In Lijiang the weather reminds me of England. Grey skies, drizzle and persistent rain have replaced searing temperatures, stifling humidity and a thunderstorm at the end of the day. Whilst I wish it would stop raining, generally I welcome the change in climate, it is a refreshing change from Southeast Asia.
At the end of the day, we decide that tomorrow we will walk the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The girls have a similar timescale in mind as me, and also want to walk the gorge. We’re all thinking of two days in Lijiang and two days at the Gorge. I ask them if they’re happy if I join them and they are, so we set out making arrangements to visit tomorrow. Originally I was going to spend two days in Lijiang and then go to Tiger Leaping Gorge but doing it this way around is better as it will give us all a day to recuperate in Lijiang afterwards. The girls are not really kitted out to do a trek and watching on as they try to
work out what they are going to wear and who’s going to wear what footwear is funny. Jenny goes shopping and it is hilarious as she models her purchases - a pair of walking boots which she gives to Lou in favour of a pair of walking sandals, a pink poncho, a striped blue and white pullover which looks very ‘French’ and the signature item; a pair of white sports socks! The girls have a wicked sense of humour and this is the start of many ‘belly laughs’ over the next few days.
In the evening the five of us visit a bar called ‘Sexy Tractor’. Being from Dorset, the girls absolutely had to visit this bar. They’ve been talking about it all day. As it happens it proves to be an anticlimax. The food is terrible; Jenny shakes off her amiable exterior and complains quite strongly. At least the ‘entertainment’ gives us a laugh. There is live music; the act can be best described as the Chinese Ozzy Osborne. Long hair, buck teeth, he takes a shine to Holly. He wants to be her Chinese boyfriend. She is squirming, the rest of us are howling with laughter. He
wants to serenade her. ‘Eagles....Hotel California, I can still hear the heavily accented English. Rachel does a great impression of him saying this phrase over the next couple of days as we recount our night in the Sexy Tractor with the Chinese Ozzy Osborne which always succeeds in reducing me almost to tears.
Day 415: Wednesday 19th August - Day 1 Trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge
We set out for Tiger Leaping Gorge after breakfast, arriving at noon following a three hour journey. Like most places in China, it isn’t free to walk the gorge and we must pay 50 Yuan (5 pounds). We start from Jane’s guesthouse, walking along the road for a few hundred metres, before we start to climb the high path and leave the hubbub and the Chinese tourists in the buses behind.
Walking Tiger Leaping Gorge isn’t without its hype. It is included on most lists as one of the must do’s in China, never mind Yunnan. The trek lives up to its hype though as we walk through what is one of the deepest gorges in the world. I’m sure you are wondering how it got its name. Well, that came from
a legendary story about a hunter who was chasing a tiger. The tiger escaped by leaping over the river with the assistance of a large stone in the middle. That is no mean feat as the gorge is about 200 metres wide (although the Changjiang river -a tributary of the Yangtze - is only a fraction of this) and 20 kilometres long. The gorge runs through Haba snow mountain and Jade Dragon snow mountain, each rising to a height of over 5000 metres. The bottom of the gorge itself must be at about the 1500 metre point, and as we climb to a height of 2700 metres, the river seems a long, long way down the dangerously steep sided gorge.
It is a two hour walk to the Naxi Family Guesthouse, where we stop for lunch. We are followed by a Chinese guy and his mule all the way. He’s clearly hoping that one of us will ride his mule but we insist that he stops following us after lunch. We stop for a long lunch, and it must be 3:30pm before we set off again. It is another 3 hours, the last hour in the rain until we
reach the Tea-horse guesthouse where we stop for the night. That’s the walk in brief but how can I gloss over the scenery which is simply stunning? This is the best trek I’ve done since leaving New Zealand. Indeed, the towering mountain peaks and the deep gorge remind me a bit of the Lord of the Rings - filmed in New Zealand. This isn’t a fantasy land though as it is right there before my eyes, but it easy to get dreamy as you walk along some beautiful and diverse scenery. Rice terraces, a steep sided valley covered in vegetation, pine forests (which I particularly like after Southeast Asia), snow capped mountains, waterfalls, some impressive bare rocks....it’s all here. I’ve even got entertainment on tap as the girls talk about Cormorant Love (?!?) operas and dream up making a Chinese musical of Dirty Dancing!!
The Tea-Horse Guesthouse is in a fantasy location. It looks out over the mountains on the other side of the gorge. Our weary bodies are rewarded with some tea (cha) and a Naxi feast including some Baba of course. One thing I love about China is that there always seems to be a ready supply
of tea, often for free with your meal. The tea is so varied, and always taken without milk, but that doesn’t matter as it is so tasty. Another thing that I don’t like, and I don’t know if it is unique to Yunnan are the toilets. In Kunming they were western style, but then they went to squat toilets at Mama Naxi’s and on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek they could be best described as troughs. The trough’s are partitioned but it’s still not right and the smell is disgusting.
Day 416: Thursday 20th August - Day 2 trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge
It is after 10am before we get going from the Tea-Horse Guesthouse on the second day of the trek. The hardest part of the trek is behind us though, the section named 28 bends which climbs up to the highest point on the trek at 2700 metres. The last section before we stopped last night was downhill and the first section of today is flat, taking us past and through a few waterfalls. It takes maybe two hours to reach the Half Way Guesthouse where we stop for three quarters of an hour to rest and
get some cha and fruit. From the Half Way Guesthouse it is another hour or so, all downhill. The last section is a bit tricky as the clay is greasy from a sprinkling of rain. A tour group catches us up for the last half hour of walking to Tina’s Guesthouse. Our peace is disturbed, and the conversation behind inane, and I think we’re all thankful when we reach Tina’s Guesthouse and don’t have to put up with that drivel.
We get lunch at Tina’s Guesthouse and ring Jane’s Guesthouse to send a minivan to pick us up at 4pm and take us back along the low road to Qiaotou. Seeing the gorge from a different perspective as we drive along the low road, much closer to the river and the bottom of the gorge rounds off the experience of Tiger Leaping Gorge. I’m safe in the knowledge though that the best way to see the gorge is by hiking the high path. Soon after arriving back at Jane’s Guesthouse we are collected by Tintin and taken back to Lijiang. The five of us have nicknamed him Tintin because we saw him wearing a ‘Tintin in Vietnam’ T-shirt on
the first morning of our stay in Lijiang. Not to disappoint us he has the same T-Shirt on today, and I never see it off his back. The drive back to Lijiang is one of much hilarity as we laugh about being driven to our impending doom by Tintin, aka Mama Naxi’s favourite henchman; Rachel has everyone in stiches each time she does her impression of the singer from Sexy Tractor, and often I don’t even know why I’m laughing, I just am.
Back at Lijiang and Mama Naxi’s we tuck in to one of Mama’s family meals. For 15 Yuan (£1.50), you get a seemingly endless supply of food, all of it good Naxi dishes. Mike even you would be happy with the price and portion size here!! It’s a nice way to share a meal, the table is full of food and as many hungry backpackers as can fit crowd around the table and share their experiences and stories. I’m still to master the art of chopsticks, however. I have a technique which you wouldn’t describe as either natural or classic in style but it works for me. Well, it works to a point, but getting those
last few grains of rice in the bowl is a waste of effort and time. It takes so much effort that I’m sure I expend more energy getting the grains of rice than I actually enjoy calorific content when I’ve eventually gripped them after chasing them around my bowl several times and dropping them several times more!!
After dinner is over, the girls drift off to shower and go back to Mama Naxi’s Guesthose Number 2 where we have the same room together. This is after we’ve all had several belly laughs at Mama Naxi’s expense. The Naxi culture is matriarchal and certainly Mama Naxi runs the show in this house. Papa Naxi wears a weathered look of a beaten man. He often seems to be on the end of one of Mama Naxi’s outbursts and mostly he just sits in the corner and takes it, but occasionally he will shout back which is just hilarious. The whole family show is like a Chinese soap opera, along the lines of Eastenders but of course much funnier. Mama and Papa’s one-sided arguments may be the central plot, but you’ve also got the dutiful staff and children who also do as
they’re told, the playful kittens who are tied to a table leg, Tintin of course and then backpackers who will ask the occasional question and not get much sense but who also know not to argue with Mama Naxi. This woman is just fantastic, I’ve stayed in better quality hostels but none as entertaining as this. She is a larger than life character but I would say she is definitely one of the must see’s in Yunnan!
I’m so caught up in conversation with other backpackers and the girls that I forget to have a shower. Mama makes Papa accompany me and Jenny on the short walk back to Mama Naxi Guesthouse No. 2 at the end of the night which is sweet. When I arrive I realise I’ve forgotten by backpack so I walk back with Papa. Strangely, when I get up early the next morning it is Papa that unlocks the front door and I thought he’d gone back to Mama Naxi Guesthouse No. 1 with me last night? Maybe he’s wiser than he looks and he sneaks off to get a peaceful night away from Mama if he can’t enjoy it during the day!
417: Friday 21st August - Accepted into the Naxi inner circle
Jenny and I get up early to wander the empty streets of Lijiang before the tourists arrive. If you want to see the best of Lijiang then you have to be out and about before it starts to get busy at 8am. We all go to breakfast at Mama Naxi’s together where I get her to sort out my onward travel to Guilin. I wasn’t going to ask her a few days ago after seeing several backpackers approach her and come away either bemused or having to accept what she offers as there is only the Mama Naxi way. The thing is though after more and more time around Mama, I’ve come to understand that Mama does know best and that she has your best interests at heart, even if you can’t always comprehend what she is telling you. My requirements aren’t that straightforward hence my prior concern. I need to get to Guilin which involves a bus to Kunming and then a train from there on to Guilin. I also want to avoid having to take the night bus after the experience getting here so I ask
if it is possible to get the first bus of the morning and then connect to an evening train in Kunming. Mama can’t get me the sleeper ticket I want for the train but manages to get me a seat and sorts out an express early morning bus too. With that all sorted I can enjoy my final day in Lijiang.
After a lot of travelling the last few days, we all just want to chill out. Some sleep, some read, some chat, some catch up on the internet, some want their own space and four of us wander the old town again to get a bite to eat at one of the many excellent food stalls. But all in all it is a day to relax and enjoy doing not a lot and that suits me just fine ahead of what will be a long journey tomorrow.
In the evening we pop around to Mama’s to get another excellent family meal and of course some on-tap entertainment courtesy of Mama. I buy Papa a beer, he looks like he needs one and several of us sit around chatting after the meal. Before the night is over, Mama
presents me with some fruit for my journey tomorrow, as well as a Naxi handicraft. I’m touched, I’ve won this woman’s love and I’ve now been accepted into the Naxi inner circle!! I’ll wear the good luck charm around my neck with pride and it will feel like I’m going to be just okay on my onward trip through China as long as Mama is with me.
At the end of the night a few of us walk through the streets of Lijiang and find the street with all the bars on. It’s gone midnight though and there must be a curfew on noise after midnight and soon enough all the music is turned off. The atmosphere goes a bit flat and we return back to Mama’s.
Day 418: Saturday 22th August - The start of a mammoth journey
It’s still dark when I leave the hostel at 7am to commence what is going to be the longest land based journey of my entire trip to date. The girls get up to bid me farewell which is very sweet of them. We may have spent just four days together but I’m going to miss them. Going your
separate ways is all part of travelling as is making brief friendships with people, but even though you know it is only temporary when you meet people it doesn’t make it any easier when you have to say goodbye, particularly when you’ve had a great time together. And, I’ve had so much fun with the girls. One of the girls commented that I bet I don’t have this much fun on the remainder of my trip. If fun is measured in terms of laughter then that is entirely possible, because I can’t recall having laughed as much as in the last four days for a long, long time. Mama Naxi often provided us with much of this laughter but the girls have all got a wicked sense of humour. It’s a shame I can’t travel with them longer but after they catch the later bus to Kunming, they fly on to Hong Kong and they head back to the UK in a couple of days.
After saying a last goodbye to Mama Naxi, her favourite henchman, Tin Tin drops me off at the bus station. The first leg of my journey is to take the bus to Kunming which
takes a little over 8 hours. I don’t arrive at the bus station I was expecting, and I therefore have to take a taxi across the city rather than walk the short distance to the train station. I was expecting my first experience of a Chinese train station to be a daunting one but it is quite easy to follow the information boards to get to the right departure lounge. I have about an hour to wait, during which I stock up on food for the train journey.
The train journey isn’t as bad as I’d expected. The carriage I’m in is all seats but as it is not full one of the guards motions me from my seat and shows me to three empty seats together where I can at least lie down to get some sleep. The guard later asks me to fill in a questionnaire on my experience on the train. Quite why he chooses me to fill in the form when it is written in Mandarin and I’m the only foreigner on the carriage I don’t know, but with the help from an English speaker further down the carriage I give positive feedback. I get
a reasonable night’s sleep aided by my fatigue from what has already been a long journey and I’m only half way through. It’s only in the morning when the carriage fills and I have to give up two of my three seats but all in all it’s as good as you can expect a 19 hour journey on a train to be without a bed.
Day 419: Sunday 23rd August - 36 hours later I arrive
The temperature has gone up a good few degrees when I arrive in Guilin in the middle of the day. When I left Lijiang it was cool, grey and drizzly but I’m back to a hot, humid environment like Southeast Asia. Even though it is only a 10 minute walk to the bus station I am soaked with sweat by the time I get there. Purchasing a ticket is straightforward, thankfully my guidebook has Chinese characters next to each place name so you just point at the book, reaffirm it by attempting to say the name and motion with your hand that you want one. It also helps that the girl behind the ticket counter also speaks basic English. It is surprising
how many Chinese actually can speak a few basic words, certainly more than I expected and it does help. She tells me which platform to go to which shortcuts the process of matching the Chinese symbols on your ticket with those on the front of the bus telling you where it is going. This process usually takes a while as many of the characters are so unfamiliar (or to a non-Mandarin speaker they are), and I only recognise one at the moment (strangely the symbol for mountain which isn’t much use in a bus station!!). The process of matching the Chinese characters reminds me of an adult version of the games designed for kids where you had to match the shape with the hole and put it in. I can’t remember if I was any good at it as a kid but I’m bloody hopeless at the Chinese adult version!!!
The bus to Longsheng takes 2 hours and still feeling fresh enough to complete the last leg of the journey I decide to take another bus to Ping’ An, a further hour away. At least this last bus is easy to get as a boy approaches me as I
get off the Longsheng bus and shows me the Ping’ An bus. The bus journey goes through some beautiful scenery as it climbs up to the Longji rice terraces, and the architecture of the housing is interesting as is all the corn which mysteriously hangs from the front of the houses.
36 hours after I left my hostel in Lijiang I have arrived at my destination. I’ve travelled the best part of 2000 kilometres, across three provinces (remember each the size of a country) and I now find myself in Guangxi province after three bus journeys and one long train journey. China is vast and if you want to see the main attractions you have to be prepared for some long journeys in between. Just how long I didn’t realise, now I do.
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