LiJiang, Yunnan Province

April 22nd, Thursday: From Chengdu, it was a two-hour flight to LiJiang, a very popular tourist destination in Yunnan Province. The LiJiang airport is about 20 miles outside of town and my Lonely Planet guidebook indicated I could take a shuttlebus to town. I did this and it only cost 15RMB. However, the shuttlebus station in LiJiang is still at least a mile from “Old Town,” the beautiful area where tourists stay. So, using the map provided by Lonely Planet, I decided to walk. After about 30 minutes, I started wondering if I was lost. I saw a restaurant named MammaMia’s with English items listed on their signs so I stopped for lunch. The waitresses spoke some English and I noticed a Caucasian man speaking Mandarin to two young Chinese ladies at a table near the back. When he saw me, he came over and introduced himself. Diego is from Italy and has lived in China for 8 years, so he is able to speak with the locals. His little restaurant has a New York ambience and the menu included many pastas and other western dishes. Diego pointed out the restaurant’s location on Lonely Planet’s LiJiang map and it was clear the map had the wrong location for the shuttlebus station. (I later got confirmation of this error from an internet chat group.) This most recent bum steer from the Lonely Planet folks was annoying and I considered just throwing the book away. However, some fellow travelers pointed out that the book was published nearly 3 years earlier and things change quickly in fast-developing China, so I decided I would continue to use it… with caution. Diego showed me how I could easily walk to Old Town from the restaurant. He also gave me his business card and told me to call if he could help in any way. I thanked him and headed toward Old Town.

LiJiang’s Old Town is a very large maze of beautiful old homes, teahouses, restaurants, hostels, and shops. It dates back about 800 years, but it’s hard to tell which buildings are really old because the new ones are built to the same style. Adding to the charm are the two or three small streams of cool, clear water that flow through town. Many small footbridges cross these streams and, as you walk around town, the soothing sound of the gurgling water is almost always with you. It was a path along one of these streams that led me from the restaurant to the entrance to Old Town and it was beautiful.

All of Old Town’s walkways are built using large rough stones. These stones are visually beautiful but have a very rough, uneven surface that makes pulling a rolling suitcase difficult, so I rigged my REI “hybrid suitcase/backpack” as a backpack. I discovered that I wouldn’t want to have to carry it on my back very far because it’s just too heavy, but it was a great option for getting into (and out of) Old Town. I didn’t have a hotel reservation because many Chinese friends in Mianyang (who absolutely love LiJiang) told me there are so many little hotels and guesthouses that I wouldn’t need one. As I entered Old Town, a lady came up beside me and asked if I was looking for a hotel. Her English was minimal, as was my Mandarin, but I was able to ask whether she had single rooms and what the rate would be. She told me that it was her family’s hotel, that they had hot water 24 hours a day (some do not) and that it was quiet, away from “Pub Row” in the center of Old Town. She seemed nice enough so I said I would check it out. It turned out to be a stroke of luck that she happened to see me because her hotel, the Mu Lin Inn, was perfect. For only 100RMB (~$17) a night, I had a private single room with my own bathroom and cable TV. My room was on the second floor overlooking a charming courtyard. She runs the hotel with the help of her brother and two sisters and none of them spoke any English. At the time I checked in I seemed to be the only English speaker and, it seemed, I was going to get a great opportunity for “immersion” in a Mandarin-speaking environment. Later, I learned that some of the Chinese guests spoke English. Also, a large group of foreign exchange students from Beijing University checked in the very next day. One young man in that group was from Ridgewood, NJ.

April 23rd, Friday: I spent most of the morning exploring “Old Town.” One thing Lonely Planet was right about was that you will get lost in Old Town because it is massive! I tried to find some of the places that Lonely Planet recommended for eating and getting local travel information, but it was difficult because their map is very small. You can buy local maps (which I did) but they are not English-friendly. I walked a lot that morning and had lunch at “Les Petit Bookstore,” which Lonely Planet recommended. The waitresses spoke a little English, and I had scrambled eggs with toast. In the afternoon, I had a nap in my room and, that evening, I went to see a performance of the “Naxi Music Orchestra.” LiJiang is the base of a Chinese minority people known as the Naxi. They have their own customs, ways of dressing, architecture, spoken dialect, and even their own written language (although it is no longer used.) The women, in particular, have a very distinctive way of dressing that includes a blue apron and an interesting cape-like thing on their back. This article has some interesting facts about the matriarchal nature of Naxi society.

Every evening several Naxi people (mostly ladies) dance in the Old Town’s square and tourists are welcome to join in, although I never did. They move in a large circle with little distance between dancers and they often make quick changes in direction. I watched for a while to try to discern the choregraphy of their movements, but I decided against dancing because it seemed likely I would run into someone :-).

Other minorities, such as those from Tibetan areas, also live in the LiJiang area and they also performed their dances publicly.

One of the most famous shows in LiJiang is the Naxi Music Orchestra; so I bought a ticket to see this nightly show. The orchestra is headed by an octogenarian who is trying to keep the ancient music of the area alive by performing it the same way it has been performed for hundreds of years.

I must admit that I didn’t really care for most of the music but it was interesting to see and learn about the unusual musical instruments that were used. The orchestra also has more than ten members who are over 80 years old. The turnout for the concert was disappointing: less than half of the seats were filled. I’m afraid the orchestra may not last much longer. Most of the people who attended were foreign visitors. It’s pretty clear the Chinese tourists, who comprise about 99% of LiJiang’s tourists, prefer the excitement of “Pub Row,” whose pulsating bass rhythms could be felt even inside the Naxi Orchestra’s concert building. While it’s easy for me to understand why the old music might not hold much appeal for a modern audience, I hope the orchestra can survive. When I left the concert I walked over to get a closer look at Pub Row, where hundreds of (mostly Chinese) patrons drank beer and listened to music loud enough to burst eardrums.

April 24th, Saturday: On Saturday, I booked a day-trip with a company I had discovered on the internet before coming to China – Xintuo Ecotourism. I met my young tour guide Kerry at 9am at the entrance to Old Town. Her English was pretty good and we walked out of Old Town into “new LiJiang.” Like many “ancient” towns in China, LiJiang is only a small part of a much larger city, and the city itself is typical of a modern Chinese town. At a nearby bicycle rental place, we picked out two bicycles and then walked around the corner where a man in a small truck loaded our bikes in the back. We drove about 30 minutes to a large lake called LashiHai Lake, where we started our three-hour ride. It was a pleasant day and I enjoyed riding along the lake’s edge. We visited a large Buddhist monastery and rode through farm country where we occasionally competed with water buffalo, sheep, pigs, cows, and horses for access to the road.

We ended up at a farm house where we had a nice Chinese lunch. I was proud that I had kept up with the 19-year old all morning but also happy that we didn’t have to ride any more after lunch. The truck picked us up, along with our bikes, and took us back to Old Town around 3pm. There, I enjoyed another well-earned nap.

Late afternoon, I finally decided I would not go to the town of Dali as previously planned. I had heard, from more than one source, that Dali is really more of a “Western tourists watering hole” than a culturally interesting destination. I would, instead, stay in LiJiang a few extra days. So, I started working on planning my next days’ trip to a couple of smaller “old towns” near Lijiang known as Shu He and Bai Sha. I say work because it took some effort to try to figure out how to get there. Lonely Planet said there were shuttle buses from LiJiang but neglected to tell me where I could find them. I spent some time at a local bus stop trying to read the bus schedule. I only know about 300 Chinese characters and you really need about 3,000 to read. I asked a couple of young ladies where I could catch a bus to Bai Sha and they went out of their way to try to help me. No city bus went directly there but they wrote down the name of the bus stop where I could catch the “special bus” to Bai Sha. They spoke a few words of English and they tried very hard to help me. They even offered to take me there but I didn’t want to go at that moment. With their instructions in hand, I went home and practiced reading, writing, and saying Shu He and Bai Sha :-).

April 25th, Sunday: Trip to Bai Sha – On Sunday morning I was concerned when I noticed a dark red rash on the backs of my hands and I wondered what I might have eaten to cause it. It quickly dawned on me that they were simply sunburned. On my bike ride, I had worn a hat and long sleeves but had forgotten to protect my hands. After a western style breakfast at a KFC (the American chain Kentucky Fried Chicken) just outside Old Town, I started my quest to reach Shu He and/or Bai Sha. The instructions the young ladies gave me told me where to catch the Number 11 bus, but the only information I had about where to get off was “… at the Li Ke Long supermarket.” Not knowing which stop this might be and knowing the supermarket’s sign might be in Chinese characters only, I decided to follow the bus. I waited for the Number 11 bus to arrive but, when it did, I didn’t get on. When it left the stop, I followed it at a brisk pace. Of course, I couldn’t keep up with it but I could see when it turned or when it made another stop. When I lost it, I just waited until the next Number 11 bus came along and followed it. In this way, I was able to go to each bus stop and look for the Li Ke Long market. Lucky for me, the Number 11 bus ran about every five minutes. Also lucky for me was that I found the supermarket only about six stops from where I started. I was feeling pretty good about how I had solved the puzzle created by my illiteracy but, when I asked people at the supermarket about buses to Bai Sha they all told me there were none. I had almost given up when I saw the Chinese characters for Bai Sha (百沙) in the window of a small minibus. Aha! This was one of the “special buses” the young ladies had told me about! I had been asking people for a “gong gong qi che” which is a public bus and that’s why several people had told me there wasn’t one. The ride to Bai Sha only took about 15 minutes, but the domestic squabble going on in the minibus made it more interesting than I would have liked. It became clear that the young lady driving was learning to drive and her complaining husband sat in the back seat with their young daughter. Driving in China is not easy as it seems yielding to other vehicles is largely a matter of which driver has the most nerve. You must also dodge pedestrians, bicycles, children, dogs, and occasional farm animals. And, of course, you must honk your horn all the time to warn all these creatures about your presence. The minibus had a manual stick-shift and, with all the sudden stops or changes in speed, she often forgot to down-shift when it was needed. Her husband yelled at her every mistake. She didn’t seem too bothered by his hectoring but I found it quite annoying. It was probably a good thing I didn’t know the Mandarin words for “Hey!! Give her a break! Will ya!?” or I probably would have been walking. When we reached Bai Sha, I discovered it to be a very small town without modern buildings. It had a much more relaxed feel than LiJiang, probably because it has very few overnight rooms for guests and hasn’t reached critical mass for becoming a true tourist destination. I had lunch at Buena Vista Café, which Lonely Planet had recommended as a place for good food and travel information in English. I saw some travel information near my table but, at the time I was there, no one in the place spoke any English. But, my lunch was good and I enjoyed the quiet of Bai Sha after living in LiJiang for several days.

In mid-afternoon I shared a minibus back to LiJiang with 3 ladies from Italy. One spoke fluent Mandarin and told me (in English) she had lived in Beijing for 6 years. She also told me not to feel too bad if I had trouble understanding the locals – she also had that problem as their version of Mandarin is quite far from the standard.

Late afternoon, I started a new quest: to figure out how to get from LiJiang to my next destination, Shangrila, on Wednesday. I knew there were buses that made this 100-mile trip but I had to figure out where they departed from, their schedule, and how to buy a ticket. So, I went back to the local bus stop and asked a young couple where I might find the bus to Shangrila. Like the young ladies from the previous day, they were very kind about trying to understand and help me, and the young lady spoke a little English which helped. She showed me which bus to get on and then told the driver to let me know when we arrived at my stop. As the bus departed the Old Town area, I tried to pay attention and memorize the route it took, so that I might travel it on foot should it be possible (or necessary.) After about 15 minutes and several turns, I realized it was too far to walk, and I just hoped the driver would let me know when I reached my stop. I figured it likely the bus made a big circuit and, if nothing else, I could just stay on until it arrived back in Old Town. But the driver did tell me when to get off, and I found the “long-distance” bus station. Inside, I couldn’t read anything on the wall. I asked the lady at the information desk about buses to Shangrila but couldn’t really tell what she said in response. A nice young Australian man told me there are buses leaving for Shangrila almost every half hour. Since this was in line with what I had read in Lonely Planet, I decided I would just come here early Wednesday morning assuming I could get a ticket to Shangrila. I went back to Old Town by catching the same bus in the other direction. On my way back to my guesthouse, I saw a travel shop with some English signs and I booked a day-trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge for the next day (Tuesday.) I had read about the beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge and the trip only cost about $22 for the day. However, other than the name of the destination and the price, I didn’t really have any details about the trip. When you are illiterate, you really must just “go with the flow” and try to give up feelings of needing to be in control. I tried to be at peace with the idea that I would go somewhere on Tuesday and I would take photos. 🙂

April 26th, Monday: Leaping Tiger Gorge Trip – I met my tour group at 8am at the entrance to Old Town. I was the only foreigner and that didn’t surprise me. The bus was only half full so I sat in the last row so I could easily move to the opposite side when the better view was there. The tour guide spoke no English and spoke very fast Mandarin so I couldn’t pick up much of what he said. At one point, he stopped talking and looked expectantly at us. A few people raised their hands. Then, he said something else and a few other people raised their hands. I was hoping he was asking who wanted corned-beef and who wanted pastrami for lunch but I knew that was unlikely. I never did know what he was asking. Later in the morning, a nice young couple from Beijing near the back of the bus spoke to me in English. After that, they made sure to translate any really important information for me.

As we neared Tiger Leaping Gorge, we came to the Yangtze River’s famous hair-pin turn at Shigu. This is where a mountain range changes the Yangtze’s flow from southbound to a northeasterly direction. At least a thousand miles downstream from here is where the big river flows past my primary school on ChangXing Island and enters the sea. After Shigu, the road paralleled the Yangtze. Even this far from its mouth the river is large and the muddy water flowed peacefully. Along the banks were terraced fields growing, among other things, strawberries. At roadside stands, farmers did a brisk business selling packs of bright red strawberries and I was very tempted to try them. But, with my MianYang illness still fresh in mind, I decided to be careful. The general advice to follow if you want to avoid digestive tract problems is to eat “only what you can peel” – e.g. bananas, oranges, etc. As we neared Tiger Leaping Gorge, the bus turned to cross a bridge to the other side of the river. The bridge looked sound but, apparently, there are some concerns about its capacity to hold a bus load of tourists so we all walked across the bridge after the empty bus went ahead of us.
At the Gorge, the tour guide spoke to us for about five minutes before we got off the bus. I listened carefully and was able to pick up that he wanted us back on the bus by 12:50. My Beijing friends checked to be sure I understood and were impressed that I had understood that part (not wanting to be left behind sharpens the senses!) Although it was a rainy, cloudy day, the gorge was very nice. Paths built on the steep cliffs along the river take you to it. At a few points where constructing a walkway on the side of the sheer cliff was not possible, tunnels have been dug through the rock. These walkways and tunnels were probably as interesting as the gorge itself.

Video: Tiger Leaping Gorge Trip

The gorge has English-friendly signs although some of them are in “Chenglish.” For example, the sign that read “Within 200 meters, notice the rockslide, please is run about the cliff.” I decided this probably meant “For the next 200 yards, watch for rock-slides – if one occurs, hug the cliff so the rocks may pass over your head.” It was a long walk to the end, at which point you are at the center of the gorge, where the sides are the steepest and some large rocks in the river create exciting whitewater (now I understood why I hadn’t seen any boats on the river.) I walked most of the way with my new Beijing friends and we took turns taking photos for each other. At a couple of spots, some local tourists asked me to pose with them in their photos. These people are probably from areas where there are few foreigners, and I had to pose several times so that everyone in the party had a photo of themselves with the foreigner. On the way back to LiJiang we had lunch in a restaurant along the river that specialized in tour buses, and then we were dropped at a large souvenir/jewelry store. You didn’t have to buy anything and I don’t think anyone from our bus did. Back in LiJiang that evening, I enjoyed another western-style meal of spaghetti carbonara and potato soup at the Prague Café, a restaurant with beautiful décor and a nice, cozy feel. Both the soup and spaghetti were loaded with cheese, something rare in China, and I savored the taste of home!

Tuesday, April 27th: On my final full day in Lijiang, I walked to Black Dragon Pool, just north of town. I got a late start because I had spent the morning packing and taking photos in Old Town, so I stopped at MammaMia’s restaurant for lunch. Just before arriving at the restaurant, I had another slightly disturbing experience. Two young men on the sidewalk looked at me in a way I knew meant trouble. As I walked by, one of them passed directly in front of me and shouted something almost directly in my face. I didn’t really need to know what he said to know it was meant to intimidate me. I’m sure the wise thing would have been to ignore him, but my patience with this kind of thing has grown thin so I stopped and faced them to let them know I wasn’t going to be intimidated. They just smiled back at me and, after a few seconds, I walked away. I’ve had a couple of similar encounters with young men in China in the past. I really don’t think they are looking for a fight, or to harm me. My perception is they are just trying to demonstrate their manliness by showing each other they can intimidate a foreigner. I tried to put this little encounter out of my mind and went on the restaurant. There, I enjoyed a delicious chicken and potato dish for lunch, said goodbye to Diego and headed on to Black Dragon Pool. This small lake is very beautiful and reminded me of the famous West Lake area in HangZhou.
Video: Black Dragon Pool

The beautiful tree-covered walkways around the lake, the plentiful fish clearly visible in the clean water, and the melodious singing of the caged songbirds (hanging in trees near their owners) all contributed to a pleasant couple of hours spent there. That evening, I decided I couldn’t leave town without trying some Naxi cuisine so I went to a restaurant and ordered fried yak meat with potatoes. It tasted great but the garlic and green onions stayed with me for at least 24 hours.

Wednesday, April 28th – Goodbye to LiJiang: I was up at 5:30am because I wanted to get to the bus station early. It was a scheduled 4-hour trip to Shangrila but I knew from past experience that, in these mountain roads, a 4-hour trip can easily become a 6 or 8 hour trip. Since I didn’t have a reservation in Shangrila, I wanted to arrive in time to scout out a good place to stay. The planning I had done on previous days made it easy to get from my guesthouse to the bus station and the lady at the ticket counter seemed to understand my request for a ticket to “Shang-ge–li–la.” I got on the small but comfortable bus and started the next phase of my journey

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