Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Ancient Town of Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China

(Now back in Thailand China feels a world away and writing about China has been quite difficult. Especially with all the great climbing here, I can not be bothered to spend much time on the computer!  Going to try to catch up on the blog over the next few weeks but with the super slower internet connection it may take a while). 

At the foot of snowcapped Jinhong mountain, Lijiang is one of the major stops along the Yunnan backpacking trail. One of the most visited ancient cities in China and UNESCO World Heritage site we have often heard it referred to as China's Disney Land.  Old Town is similar to the example at Dali with its maze of cobbled streets and ancient rickety wooden buildings.  It's much more likely for one to get lost, as Old Town, Lijiang is much larger than its neighbour to the south and unlike Dali, is not built to a grid system. Its architecture is a blend of many cultural influences reflecting the ethnic diversity and geographical position of the town within Yunnan's borders.  Where Dali is home to the Bai people, Lijiang is predominantly home to the Naxi (pronounced Nah-shi). In 1996 when a earthquake devastated the area, it was noted how well then ancient Naxi architecture held up in comparison to modern structures and millions was subsequently spent in rebuilding the area in Naxi traditional style; cement and bricks being replaced with cobblestone and wood. 

I have used some pretty disgusting toilet facilities over here, especially in China, though never before have I refused to use one.  The toilets at the bus terminal were my first exception and I opted to walk around with a full bladder after a five hour bus ride rather than risk the facilities there.   As we entered the streets of old town in search of accommodation we were discouraged to find prices well above our norm'.  Travelling in low season has resulted in some fantastic bargain room rates in some nice places throughout China, yet this did not seem to apply to Lijiang. We were further put off by notices everywhere insisting tourists pay 80RMB each for the privilege of walking the streets as a mandatory contribution to the restoration and preservation of the buildings (although the cynic in me wonders where the money really goes as another Maserati rolls by).  We wandered narrow cobblestone alleyways with hanging red lanterns and crossed bridges arching over sedate canals, weeping willows sagging over our heads until an hour and many guest houses later we finally put our bags down in a closet of room at the Memory of March YHA Hostel just outside the old town limits.  Our room was actually a converted entrance way, a locked gate acting as a wall which would have opened into the neighbouring alleyway. Two breeze block walls flanked the bunk beds and a single table inside, not offering even enough floor space for the two of us to stand at one time. Here, we were able to avoid the Old Town fee and at 80RMB a night for the room, we were able to stay within budget.  Upon check-in they gave us sheets to make our own bed which, they requested, we strip upon checkout.  It was evident staff here hardly raised a finger but mercifully the beds had heated mattress pads and the cost of the room included a small kitten and two playful puppies to keep us amused first thing in the mornings.

Once again we were a major attraction on the streets of Old Town, Chinese tourists snapping pictures and eyeing us as curiously as we eyed our surroundings.  Restaurants and boutique guesthouses with prices well over our heads were intertwined with shops selling local handicraft, artwork, musical instruments, street food and a random Irish pub.  Despite being low season the streets were rammed with people snaking their way up and down the cobbled thoroughfares and back alleys.  Occasionally horses plodded along the cobblestones with tourists on their backs led by elaborately dressed Yunnan horsemen in animal skins and wide brimmed hats and here and there, beautiful women in traditional dress would charge to have their pictures taken.  We munched on some unmemorable fried street food dripping with oil as we explored the ancient old town, eventually finding our way into the modern new town; a striking contrast with white multi story concrete buildings and where the roads were thick with rush hour traffic as we searched for a pair of socks.  The temperature, noticeably cooling as we make our way further north, has us faced with the harsh reality that our attire suited for the heat of the tropics leaves us chilled to the bone as we climb in altitude and latitude and autumn marches it path through the hemisphere.  In addition, my shoulder was in constant pain, worsened by the cold.  The sporadic pinching sometimes turned into sharp pain, like a knife digging into my shoulder, resulting in numerous painful knots tensing my entire upper body into the base of my skull making the simple action of turning my head just about impossible. 

As we explored an open air food court in search of dinner we were approached by a Chinese man in his mid 50's sporting a angled baseball cap, inviting us to come stay in his home.  Intrigued, we learned he lived in a traditional Naxi village 2.5km from Lijiang, home to 150 families who settled there about 700 years ago.  He and his nephew were in the process of setting up a guest house in the village, inviting foreign tourists into the village for the first time.  The guesthouse is still a work in progress and despite his warnings that there was no running water at all, and electricity only in the main house, we agreed to meet him in the central square two days later. 

The following day was spent entirely walking around Old Town, admiring the low rise architecture, the two market squares and the hill top pavilions which offer views of the city and snow capped mountain peaks beyond. The traditional curved roofed buildings stand shoulder to shoulder, open fronted to the shops on the ground floor. Artists and sales people ply their trades. Local ceramics shops with their beautifully crafted, fantastically shaped vases and plates, glazed in earthy colours depicting scenes from the town or covered with the Naxi hieroglyphics (the oldest pictorial language in the world still in use today) vie for space with the leatherworkers, the weavers, engravers and silversmiths, the wood carvers, candy factories, barbecues, bongo makers, flute sellers and clothing shops. Each junction with the two rivers that pass down through the town provides space for tables and chairs for the restaurants, cafe's and hotels that hold ground for their customers; themselves a constant writhing mass of humanity, creeping aimlessly, vocally and with much gaiety on along the narrow cobbled streets from sunrise to after dark.  One can't help but wonder what happened to all the people who used to live here, and where they had been displaced in preference for all this and we later learned that they were now living very comfortably off the extortionately hight rent prices they can charge for this prime real estate.  North of the old town centre, a majestic gate guards the entrance to Black Dragon Pool Park at which they requested an admittance fee of 80RMB per person.  Shaking our heads we retreated, to be accosted by a couple of middle aged Chinese women (who spoke no english) offering their services as guides around the park.  Not willing to pay the park entrance fee we were certainly not in the market for a guide (especially one that didn't speak english), and playing with the language barrier we invited them to join us for a stroll into the new town for a lunch of  bubbling hot pots down the back streets at a fraction of the prices in Old Town.  Giggling they waved us away and as we smiled in parting, noticing as we did a side street alongside a stream leading towards the park.  Thinking perhaps we might be able to slip into Black Dragon Pool Park unnoticed we followed it only to find it ended abruptly, the stream marking one edge of the park.  As we deliberated our options a local man bounded past, crossed the river and disappeared up the path only to return moments later.  Finding us clearly debating sneaking into park grounds he encouraged us, nodding and pointing to the stepping stones and satisfied with his approval we followed his lead.  

We joined the other tourists in the walk around the edges of smaller ponds en-route to the main Black Dragon Pool, a striking white bridge spanning its width towards a pagoda.  Jade Dragon Snow mountain with its snow capped glacial peaks, the source of this pool, is perfectly positioned amidst the visible landscape making this one of the most photographed scenes in south China, an obligatory snap for tourists and professionals alike.  The park itself was lovely with its clear walkways and manicured flowerbeds, though we would have been disappointed had we forked over 160RMB for the experience. 

My shoulder was so bad that night I couldn't sleep and had to support my head in my hands in order to sit up the following morning.  Richard was expecting to meet us but the pain was so overwhelming I couldn't bear to move and felt seeking professional advice at this point was necessary.  Julian went to meet Richard, explained the situation and upon returning had in hand some herbal Chinese medicine patches Richard had suggested.  On-line I found the address for a Chinese medicine and acupuncture office and we set out to the city in hopes of some relief.  If this place exists I still don't know about it; we spent five hours traipsing around the city in vain.  Overwhelmed with pain we gave up as evening was upon us and returned to the hostel to call Richard in hopes of getting out of the city and into the countryside.  Within 30 minutes, his nephew Thomas was loading our bags into his van and we headed away from the tourists to his village. 

At his courtyard home we were greeted by Ted and Louanne, an American couple from California who have lived together in China since 2008. Ted has been in and out of China for the past 14 years, initially invited by the Chinese government as an economics expert.  Having travelled China extensively they settled temporarily in Litang based on a personal interest Ted developed in the Naxi people. Whilst researching for the first ever book on the people (White Horse - Ted Erskin), he and Richard; a Naxi linguistics expert (who can speak all local Tibetan and tribal dialects in addition to english and who acted as Ted's guide) formed the idea of opening up a guesthouse and guiding service. Also there to greet us was their adult guard dog, Mighty Dog (who stands an impressive 7 or 8 inches from the floor) and a tiny new puppy, Oreo.  Leaving our bags in a simple room with two twin beds, no electricity and plenty of blankets, Ted showed us the upper level.  Upstairs will be the male dormitory with eight wood framed beds with woven rice straw mattresses (which I found to be very comfortable having come to like the harder sleeping surfaces in Asia).  The building itself had been bought and dismantled in Tibet before being transported to the village and rebuilt as a giant jigsaw puzzle on the grounds of Richards family home, forming the second of what will eventually be four buildings making a courtyard house. Upon learning about the stress my shoulder was causing Thomas went about setting up a meeting with his good friend, a master masseuse who would certainly be able to help me and arrangements were made to pay him a visit after dinner. 

Ted and Luanne's bedroom was on the second floor of the neighbouring building and we would share their bathroom on the ground floor.  Running water had yet to be set up; a well in the corner of the yard was the water source, bathing done by mixing boiled and cold water in a bowl.  Of course, as is the same everywhere we have stayed over the last 6 months, there is no heat, and bathing is done as quickly as possible, especially in the cooler temperatures at the eastern end of the Himalayas.  The women living in villages at higher altitudes in the neighbouring mountains would come down to Lijiang once a year in groups, for their annual bath.  

The main house (opposite our own building) was the only room which had electricity. Louanne was busy cooking dinner in the kitchen which has been furnished with a few creature comforts like a single gas burner and a table top combo-oven.  Ted originally built an oven on the front porch and they were the first people in the village to produce baked goods. Of course this has been of great interest to the Naxi though the baking Louanne shares with them is often too sweet for their palates.  Local kitchens here similar to those we have seen in rural villages throughout SE Asia where they cook over the heat of open fires or hot coals set in brasiers.  As Louanne was putting on the finishing touches to dinner we went for a short stroll down the street and Ted told us about this village.  

The village does not have a name itself, indeed one of the biggest issues facing Richard and Ted in marketing the guesthouse is that they have no address. Instruction to future guests are going to be along the lines of: "Take a taxi to the big statue of the horse, then call us!" but therein of course lies part of the charm. Sitting about 3km east of the centre of Lijian, the village contains about 150 homes, each of which may well contain several generations of the family. All the men in the village are related and known by their position within the family rather than by a given name. The women are married in from the surrounding villages and must pass the scrutiny of mothers, sisters and aunts (to make sure their housekeeping skills are up to the task and their personality will be compatible with the women she will have to live with) before any wedding might be blessed. The groom will go to his prospective brides village, with all his important family members and the two families will meet. During lunch, the prospect will serve and clean up, the scrutineers will follow her around en-mass. They will check to see how the house is kept, looking for dust, how the beds are made, the organization within the house and the planning around it. If all is well, the groom and his entourage may stay for dinner too, all the while, the prospective bride (and by implication, her family) are on trial to make the very best impression under the closest of pressures.

The kitchen smelled fabulous upon our return and we were soon presented with an american style home cooked dinner, a very welcome change to the oily, fried Chinese food.  A chicken and yak cheese casserole topped with crunchy bread crumbs and a side of green beans which Julian went head over heels for.  It was fascinating learning about their experiences and getting an inside look at local culture from a western perspective as the first and only foreigners welcomed into this village. 

Soon after dinner I left Julian in front of the PC with Oreo on his lap and Thomas and I went to see the masseuse who suggested a half hour massage followed by a half hour of acupuncture.  He passed me off to one of his younger apprentices for the first half hour of massage who had the best hands anyone had ever massaged me with (granted, I had only ever gone in for two professional massages in my life, one of which I walked out of five minutes into it).  Then the master came up, his touch far exceeding the younger man as he massaged and contorted my body in ways which shocked me, applying chiropractic methods in with his massage.  He followed this with a series of needles into my neck and shoulders, probably 30 in total, which put me into a trance like state, a tingling sensation through my limbs which was followed by a temporary sense of paralysis accompanied by gentle waves of nausea.  He followed this with a intense massage and more chiropractic adjustments and by the time he was through I felt quite shaken up by the intensity of that hour.  That night, my upper body pulsated with such energy that it kept me from sleeping for a few hours, but for the first time in over a month I was almost free of pain.  

The following morning Ted and Louanne lent us the best maintained bikes we had used in six months and we ventured off into the countryside.  The Naxi farming the land seemed exceptionally pleased to see us and when we greeted them in english they responded in kind with 'hello', followed by a good hearted laugh, pleased and amused to have used the only english word they know.  The obvious pleasure they had in seeing us riding through their farmland was heartwarming as we peddled through their corn fields laced with tall marijuana plants (for their morning tea of course).  In the distance atop a hill, a large golden stupa shone in the sunlight, enticing us in that direction.  

Pushing our single speed bikes up the final stretch of road we found ourselves in a very large, empty car-park, easily capable of hosting a couple of hundred vehicles.  Music drifted from tall whitewashed walls where two monitors showed film images of temple grounds.  Parking our bikes and noticing nobody in the ticket booths we followed a few locals to the huge red doors with golden handles, swung open to revel two duelling dragons and four taoist guardians protecting the entranceway and the multiple turnstiles, taped aside allowing us entry.  Staff in small open tents selling incense to the devoted hardly acknowledged us as we passed, walking the pathway towards a 5m high, golden, fat, laughing buddha, who greeted us whole heartedly.  Chanting Tibetan prayers drifted over our heads from speakers set at regular intervals in the ground as we walked up the steps, spinning the golden prayer wheels and goosebumps erupted over my skin.  Standing in front of a fountain alive with golden koi the stupa which had drawn us here rose in to the north at the end of a perfectly symmetrical pathway lined with green bushes and smaller white stupas. Colourful prayer flags fluttered in the wind adding to the ambience and my eyes well with tears; Julian and I were both overwhelmed with emotion with this unexpected first taste of Tibetan culture and we both felt the need for solitude as this feeling washed over us. 

The Goddess of Mercy, towering above me to the west and still under construction, eyed me watchfully as I circled the fountain towards a smaller temple to our rear, dedicated to her. We crossed a small arched bridge over more water and entered the cool building. Inside another image of the Goddess dominated the space and two life sized statues of monks sat behind to her left and right. The pillars supporting the roof were bound with silk prayer scarves left by worshippers and the scent of incense hung in the air, still burning at her feet. The walls were decorated with murals depicting the Goddess and we spent a few minutes there admiring the artistry and absorbing the feeling of the place through open hearts and bare feet.

Retracing our steps back towards the central fountain and slowly onwards to the main stupa three local woman in traditional Naxi dress walked towards me, their leathery skin, browned and wrinkled from years of working in the fields, and a group of middle aged Chinese men in suits smiled at me in obvious amusement and surprise.  The prayer music drifted overhead as I crossed a small white bridge spanned a trickling stream encircling yet another white stupa, the constant wind playing with more dancing prayer flags providing a constant fluttering accompaniment . 

As I neared the golden stupa the hundreds of prayer flags splaying outwards from it created that sound which can only be associated with flying Tibetan prayer flags, and intertwining with the musical chanting creating an overwhelmingly atmospheric experience. I was approached by  a local Naxi girl; a tour guide here who spoke excellent english.  I learned that this magnificent Buddhist site was still under construction which at the moment was free for local people to experience before the grand opening in a months time when they would start charging 160RMB per person.  In previous generations and for a thousand years only a stone stupa stood here, the last incarnation having been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The most recent renovations, the forth rebuilding on the site, had begun in 2004.  Together the guide and I circled the first level balcony of the stupa discussing Tibetan Buddhism before entering the interior shrine, still under construction.  The stupa and the site are now dedicated to Taoism, Buddhism (both Chinese and Tibetan) and Confucian, and within the ground level of the stupa are a collection of statues dedicated to the 81 gods of wealth and the '18 ways'. This multi denominational and money orientated dedication should if nothing else make it a popular sight for the coach loads of Han tourists that make up the majority of the four million visitors Lijiang sees every summer.

Thankful for her open hearted information and her humble, quiet soul I found out she felt herself fortunate to have inherited the tour guide position here, as generations of her family are buried within the grounds in their own stupa where eventually she will be laid as well.  As Julian joined us he commented that a trip to the gift shop was essential (knowing full well it was not open yet), as the music was so moving he wanted a copy of the CD.  My guide wandered over to her colleagues and soon produced us with a copy of the moving Tibetan chants wafting over our heads and presented it to us as a gift. We parted having exchanged e-mails and Julian and I headed back to our bikes for the ride home in the sunshine. 

Our final day around Lijiang was a relaxing affair before hitting the road once more to continue our journey north. We took a couple of local busses out to the edge of the valley to hike the hills below Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and spent a slow afternoon overlooking the city and the surrounding fields. It had been a most welcome break from the cycle of moving from hostel to hostel very couple of days. Ted and Luanne had made us feel quite at home for a time, providing some relief from the pressures of language barriers, an insight into local culture from a western perspective and some wonderful, most welcome home cooking in a style familiar to us. Well fed and recuperated we were excited to continue further into the borderlands the following day towards the infamous Tiger Leaping Gorge and a two day hike through some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. True to form, and after our farewells were all said, Thomas obliged us in the morning with a lift across town to the bus station where we purchased our tickets for a ride into the wild.


  1. Wow what an experience! You can really write bri! Well done!

    Krystal Snider

  2. Hi, I am Kara.
    After i read your blog, i m interest to corporate with you.
    Can I have your email? So i can provide more details for you=)
    This is my email,

    Thank you so much=)