LiJiang in Low Gear

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April 30th 2007
Published: August 6th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

LiJiang in Low Gear

I was stuffed, buggered, worn out and exhausted. I needed a break from this hectic life that I have been leading, I needed to just sit down and do nothing for a while. Well, perhaps I was just lazy. I did however manage to pick the ultimate location for my lethargy: LiJiang.

LiJiang has been described by several of my recent friends as Chinese Disneyland, a place packed with holidaying Chinese, each with their mandatory souvenir hats (the cowboy hat was most popular) and matching clothing. Troops of holiday-makers walk down the streets behind their leaders who themselves are decked out like some sort of minority group clothing warehouse, almost every street is clogged with tourists and walking around without getting in the way of someone’s photo is an almost impossible task. For some reason I actually liked this side of the place, unlike most of my friends, as it was a genuine Chinese tourist location. It wasn’t a westernised hovel like Dali and I didn’t have to pay to get in like all other tourist attractions, therefore I liked it.

The city of LiJiang is split into two parts, the old town and
I Feel SmallI Feel SmallI Feel Small

Only kidding, just bringing the ego back to where it should be.
the new town. The old town is a well preserved version of the original town built centuries ago and is thus full of character and charm. Thin cobbled alleyways run almost at random throughout the town, sporadically broken by a few small streams which run clear and cold through the city (a bout of food poisoning later in my stay made the streams slightly less clear, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Old bridges and old buildings are literally everywhere and it truly feels like an ancient town, thus making it the big attraction. The new town of LiJiang surrounds the old on three of its four sides and is just like any other Chinese city: thriving, exciting and full of awesome cheap food. As such, the new and old towns are almost totally different, one is beautiful, charming, expensive and packed with tourists; the other is dirty, busy, dirt cheap and almost devoid of tourists.

I guess I was lucky with my hotel, I found the best one in town. It was almost the cheapest bed around and it was almost totally empty. I had an entire dorm to myself, including a double bed, right in
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These horrible cats sit atop many Naxi roofs in order to fend off evil spirits.
the center of the old town. I was also lucky to befriend the owner of the only decent bar in the old town (an Irish place named Sexy Tractor) which resulted in discounted drinks and being able to watch movies every afternoon. Between sleeping and Sexy Tractor the majority of my time was spent either sitting in a cafe studying Chinese or walking around the new town looking for interesting restaurants (Rich and I had a roving four course meal one night where we moved from dumpling restaurants to BBQ places to other dumpling restaurants and so on). Looking back it really seems like a week went by where I did bugger all, but then again…

First off I’d like to point out a couple of funny things which happen in LiJiang that could not possibly happen elsewhere. In fact, it was barely plausible even there. First of all, Chinese people get a funny idea in their heads when in LiJiang which I describe as the “Yell uselessly at other bars in the vain hope of looking cool”. Basically what happens is that the patrons of each bar on the aptly named bar street line up on the second

Typical street in the old town.
floor balconies and yell at the patrons of the bar opposite. This would be ok, in Australia we do this, and then we run out of the bar and then have a fight. In LiJiang however, they do this in a mannerly way. They take turns, they all shout the same song, and they don’t actually seem to know why they are doing it. It’s just a case of “when in LiJiang you must shout at bars”; their holiday wouldn’t be complete without it. This is funny enough in itself, but then the local tourism authority throws in another auditory comedy for westerners to giggle at. Someone, presumably someone big and tough, goes around town and rounds up all of the real Naxi women (the Naxi are the major ethnic group in LiJiang) who all happen to be 80 year old women. Being Naxi they are all dressed in their traditional garb of indigo dyed shawls and hats and they look as though they’ve lived through hell. The tough guy then forces the Naxi women to dance in the center square for the benefit of tourists, but they don’t dance to traditional music. Instead they dance (or shuffle as ably
Looking DownLooking DownLooking Down

LiJiang's old town.
as they can) to some dodgy Chinese pop music. So there I was, standing in a square where 30 old ladies were being forced to dance while dozens of drunken Chinese businessmen shouted at men. What high class entertainment the Chinese people provide!

So ok, what did I do in LiJiang? My first stop was at Black Dragon Pool, a beautiful park with pagodas and temples surrounding a lake just north of town. I actually hadn’t planned on visiting the lake when I did because the weather was lousy, but I ran into Rich in the old town that morning and we just sort of wandered there by accident. Rich is an American who taught English in Korea before traveling to China whom I had met in Dali. We decided that the entrance fee for the park was exorbitant (60 quai even with a student discount) so we walked around to the back entrance and casually toured the park at our leisure. Now, the park is famed for having one of the best views in China as you look across the lake, past a bridge and a temple, towards Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. For someone like me who hasn’t
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A bridge in the old town.
seen big mountains this view was incredible; the mountains rise out of a flat plain to a height of over 5500m almost instantly, their peaks totally covered by snowfalls and glaciers. The peaks are so severe that most of them remain unclimbed by man, a feat which seems ludicrous in an age where casual tourists can climb Everest (perhaps ‘casual’ is a bit weak, but you get my point don’t you?). Unfortunately for me, clouds shrouded the peaks every day while I was in LiJiang so I am lacking that perfect photograph, but the immensity of the mountain was not lost on me.

Attached to the park is the Dongba institute and this is where my cultural education began. The Naxi people have the only hieroglyphic language still in use and it is something that the Chinese government is desperately trying to conserve, if only for its tourism value. Within the Naxi people there is a sub-class know as the Dongba; essentially they are shamans or priests of the Naxi people. The Dongba are the only people allowed to write the language officially and are thus highly revered, however, only eight Dongba remain in LiJiang. At the Dongba institute I was shown the Dongba language (and asked to guess the meaning of certain phrases) and I was also presented with some special Dongba paper which is supposed to last many generations (they suggested that it should be used as a trace of my family tree in subsequent generations). Some of the characters are obvious, such as the word ‘pregnant’ which is simply a stick figure with a stick figure baby in its chest, while others were so obscure as to leave me wondering even after their meaning was explained. All in all Rich and I thought that it was a remarkable experience to see this last remnant of the past, especially seeing how we didn’t have to pay for it. (Oh, I think I just set a record for the most uses of the word ‘Dongba’ in a single paragraph. Whoops.)

To complete my Naxi education I sat through a performance of a Naxi orchestra for an hour and a half. The concert had been previously described to me as “random noises by geriatrics” by the owner of Sexy Tractor, not exactly a positive review, so I was prepared for the worst. In actuality I found the concert rather entertaining if a little eclectic. One of the singers had a voice like no other I have ever heard, a soaring Tibetan soprano, and some of the songs were subtly interesting in ways that western music has yet to capture (by choice perhaps). However, like any high school band performance back home, the conductor spent far too much time talking about the music and the instruments, and about his stroke and subsequent medical problems, and about whatever else he though funny at the time. This would have been ok had he not said everything in both Chinese and English; there is nothing more boring than a ten minute monologue about medical problems in a language which you cannot understand.

Another day was spent in an effort to buy tea. In order to solve that most intriguing question of the world, “What is the price of tea in China?”, I set out to procure a small collection of teas. Yunnan province happens to be famous for its healing teas known as Pu-Er and LiJiang is literally filled with tea shops, so it would have been rude for Rich and I to not sit down in one of them and sample everything behind the counter. After about two hours and 40+ cups of tea I had decided on two particular favorites, and I had also decided that a toilet stop was mandatory so we quickly bought up and vacated the premises. That answer was 120 quai for two boxes, and I don’t know how that compares with prices back home but I am now a true Chinese backpacker thanks to my flask of tea.

The last item on my list of sights in and around LiJiang was the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain itself which can be ascended via a series of cable-cars. Rich and I started out early for the climb at around midday. I had of course been out until 4am thanks to a group of American students who were studying in Kunming and had decided to grace Sexy Tractor for the evening. I suppose it didn’t have to be quite as late as it was but I was getting on extremely well with one of the girls (name withheld) and Rich couldn’t have pulled me away if he’d tried. We got up to the mountain, or at least to the front gate, without any troubles and then
Dongba ScriptDongba ScriptDongba Script

On a random wall in the old town.
tried to ask directions to the cable-car that we wanted. Somehow one of the guards got 200m confused with 10km so we ended up walking a long way before realising the mistake and catching a bus, but in the end we made it to the top. Unfortunately we weren’t as high as we had hoped and we had somehow stumbled into a low-level Chinese tourism hell-hole. Even when we trekked off the path for a half-hour or so we were disappointed with the views as we had intended to be standing on a glacier at 4500m. Disheartened we turned around and headed back to the lift with our heads down, defeated by bad Chinese signposting. Somehow Rich had the presence of mind to look back and I am so thankful he did because the mountain in the late afternoon sun was like nothing I had ever seen. Brilliant white glaciers tumbled off the peaks in the last glowing sunshine while we stood in an open meadow all by ourselves. We took some time to take in the view while we snacked on some Yak jerky until we eventually had to head back to town. The jerky gave me food poisoning.

Back in LiJiang we had to head to the bus station as Rich was leaving for XinJiang province and I was feeling decidedly ill. This was bad. This was the worst possible scenario. I had arranged to meet with the American girl later on, something that would be less than pleasant while sick. Considering that it was only a piece of jerky that was upsetting me I thought that there was still hope, I just needed to sit things out until I came good, so I sat down at the Sexy Tractor to watch a film with John the owner. Now, here is what I learned in LiJiang: Pink Floyd’s The Wall is not an appropriate movie to show a girl under those circumstances, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so disturbed by a film. So, no guesses as to how the night turned out.

So in the end I really didn’t do much in LiJiang at all. Just learnt a whole lot of Chinese and spent a whole lot of time sitting around doing nothing. Quite enjoyable at the time, but in hindsight it was perhaps a waste.

Back on the Road: LuGu Hu

Animal Liberation Chinese StyleAnimal Liberation Chinese StyleAnimal Liberation Chinese Style

For all the animal lovers out there, I didn't actually buy from this store.

I got the hint, I was being damned lazy, so I decided that I should just leave town despite my dodgy stomach. My first stop out of LiJiang was a lake somewhere in the north-east name LuGu lake. The lake lies right on the border of SiChuan and Yunnan provinces where the giant mountain ranges from each run into each other. At more than 2000m above sea level it was to be my first big mountain lake and I was also excited to see the local villages. The area is populated by the MoSuo people who are one of the only matriarchal societies in the world (the Naxi are another) and who also practice a form of open marriage. Unfortunately the majority of the area has been taken over by Chinese tourism so the MoSuo I saw were somewhat westernized (the first place I visited was actually built and operated by Beijing-ers), however, the culture still remains in the surrounding villages.

What made the journey memorable was not the people, or even the lake itself (I believe that the best photo I have ever taken was from a mountain overlooking the lake), but was the drive there and back. The bus from LiJiang follows a giant valley, perhaps gorge is a better word, for almost four hours, winding its way along the edge of a mountain as the valley gets sharper and the mountains get taller. Unimaginably tall mountains sour straight up from the river at the foot of the valley and small villages hang precariously from the hillsides. The road first winds down to the bottom of the valley, to where a large village sits beside the river, before slowly ascending for the entire length of the valley until it passes over the range at the far end. As my bus climbed to the pass something amazing happened: it snowed, on the bus. I actually saw snow falling from the sky; I was giddy with laughter and the whole bus thought I was mad!

Once over the pass I made a quick change of bus before heading up another range of mountains. By now the snow had stopped but a thick layer of white lay on the ground around me as we passed the peak, I thought that nothing would look better than the snowy mountaintops but then the lake appeared. Almost as though it was

This was labelled: Beef with acid pepper. It just had to be tried. In case you're interested, if anything deserves that name then this is it.
a mirage the lake sat flat and calm below me, wedged between giant cloud covered mountains on all sides it sat there in blistering sun, shining like a beacon. It looked like paradise! That afternoon I walked up some hills near to the lake’s shore and I never stopped being amazed at how the lake could exist. All around were peaks with white tops and yet here at my feet there lay what looked almost to be a tropical paradise.

Later on I found out that it wasn’t even close to tropical. Freezing cold would be close to adequate description as I walked along the lake shore looking for dinner. Somehow, despite the cold and the wind, I found myself standing on the rocky shore looking out over the lake. The moon was perfectly aligned in the middle of the sky, framed by two points of land sticking into the lake. As I stood there I was totally taken aback, I have never been so moved by a single scene, it was sufficiently inspirational to bring my first ever poetry from my lips. I guess I am the faggy cat after all, Lindsay.

On my return to LiJiang I retraced the same bus route, this time on a warm and sunny day. There was no snow this time, but the views were even better than they had been. I could now see the full length of the valley and the details were astounding: terraced fields and small villages were everywhere despite the forbidding terrain. Small pockets of green sat sheltered in valleys surrounded by harsh and rocky mountain slopes; if ever I have seen the concept of Shangri-La then it was there in that valley. Small bits of beauty amidst the harshest of environments, and I saw not one but several of these. I wanted to turn around and go back on foot just to stop in all of the villages. However, I had to keep moving, Tiger Leaping Gorge and Golden Week demanded it.

Additional photos below
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My first Mao statue.
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Black Dragon Pool

Obligatory photo.
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Fake Minorities

No doubt preparing to dance to some techno on the bridge.

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