3 September 2011: Now, the Yunnan Province of China was our top pick. With 22 different ethnic groups and landscapes ranging from glacier topped mountains in the north – to volcanic lakes in the west and topical jungles in the south while also borders 3 countries – it was China’s most diverse.
We decided to fly there to save time, landing in the capital of Kunming and hopping a short flight to Lijiang. Ah Lijiang, how I’ll love you forever. Looking back, this small town was my absolute favourite place in China. There we relaxed, overcame tummy troubles and let it’s cool waterways lull us into staying much longer than we’d originally anticipated.
We arrived late at night and were dropped off at the edge of the pedestrianised Old Town. Without many street names, a friendly Dutch guy who ran a bar nearby led us to the Moon Inn, which was booked for us by an eco-tour company (more on the eco-tour later). It was charming from the outside, with a central stone courtyard that the rooms surrounded. There were wooden screens with intricate carvings lining the walkways. Yet inside the room was not good, smelled (what’s up with drains in China) and had little bug carcasses stuck onto the wall, slaughtered by previous guests. I vowed to find new digs later on.
Waking up without an alarm clock for the first time in what seemed like ages, was a real luxury for us. We made our way to Petite Bookshop Cafe for breakfast and to plan out the next few days. On the way, we spotted a large mama making traditional flatbread (baba) with a fried egg on top. We bought one, eating while walking, it was delish!
We wandered around the town, and what a joy that was! Comprised of cobbled lanes, with small wooden shops lining the pathways – the place is also riddled with crystal clear water canals. Originally planned to give every house access to water, the result is a picture perfect place built for humans (as opposed to cars and traffic). The main ethic group are the Naxi – over 200,000 of which live in and around Lijiang. The women wear dark skirts and simple blue tops, with a sort of padded back cushion that wraps across the chest in a criss-cross pattern. This is used to protect the back while carrying large baskets of veggies from the field or shopping and the like.
Crossing stone bridges and walking under weeping willow trees – it was the easiest place to be, even getting lost was fun! It wan’t long before we discovered one of the things I came to like most about Lijiang – it’s diverse food options! We came to one lane full of street vendors making food: spring rolls, fried beans, noodles and various meats on skewers (including chicken’s feet!). We sampled a couple things, and though very spicy, we enjoyed them.
Later we sat in a cafe sipping lemon & dandelion tea, watching people go by. More tourist took photos with us and we ended the night at Lama’s House of Tibet – everything we ordered was great, and the Tibetan milk tea was so good, that drinking it would become my daily ritual. After dinner we sat going over on our time in China so far and compared it to our own countries – the governments, the people, the values. It seemed like we’d never had much time to reflect before this, and I really cherished this moment.
We changed guesthouses to the lovely, designy and homely A Liang Inn – run by Becky, Ray and their little dog Bobo (which means ‘baby’). Beyond that, the next three days were spent in much the same way, with slight variations of restaurants and sights.
We went to Black Dragon Pool Park – a scenic lake and the source of the town’s water supply. Several pagodas surrounded it, in one the local Naxi Traditional Orchestra played ancient string and wind instruments. There was a singer too. It sounded a bit screechy, but we enjoyed it immensely. In the park were lots of elderly Naxi people in traditional dress – playing chess or dominoes on stone tables, or collecting water from the sacred mountain springs around the lake. They looked at us curiously, in the same way we looked at them.
Further along the lake, I poked my head past the gate of the Five Phoenix Pagoda – and a finger & palm painter beckoned us over. We were engrossed as he demonstrated how he creates beautiful landscapes using just his finger and side of the palm. Beautiful & quite a skill!! We bought one scene of Guilin – which marked the first time we’d purchased a memento for ourselves. We were also happy to support a talented local artist and craftsperson.
Other days we visited The Three Wells – where locals go to get drinking water from one, wash veggies in the other and clothes in the last. There were locals there using them in just this way – it was great! We visited a large supermarket to stock-up on supplies for our upcoming eco-tour/hike, which was really interesting to me. All the strange food and crazy packaging with pictures of gothic lolitas or anime. In the evening we tried new restuarants – some local, some Western style. At a place called The Well, some Chinese girls were watching a Simon Pegg film (a British comedy actor, for the Americans reading). I tried to recommend his flick Sean of the Dead, though walking around the restaurant imitating a zombie in order to explain the film seemed to put them off.
It’s worth mentioning that Lijiang has it’s own soundtrack actually. Not just the water gurgulling through the trees, but of a local singer whose CD is playing non-stop all day long at over a dozen tiny CD shops all over town. La-dee-da-dee-da-dee-da….her voice would greet us every morning. I decided to buy a copy for myself (it was a bootleg, as it was released online – I think her name is Kan Kan), but wanted to buy from a woman-run shop. We found one, and listened to the CD while also being given bongo drum lessons by her friend who spoke perfect English. Serenading the streets – we sounded terrible – but it wasn’t a bad way to spend an evening.
The Wenhai Trail
On the fourth day in Lijiang, we woke up early to met by our guide Carrie for our pre-arranged 3-day eco-tour around the area. Our first day was trekking to the small village of Wenhai. We were driven by car to the ancient town of Baisha, and visited a government-funded social project that trains women in the traditional craft of embroidery. Sounds simple, but the work is more like art, framed and to be cherished. It was explained that in normal silk thread, there are actually 250 individual strands. They use one of these almost microscopic strands when stitching. It takes years of training just to create the first real pictures, with two-sided pictures (where both sides of the canvas look great) being possible only by masters with 25+ years of experience. In their gallery she explained the symbolic meanings of the subjects and also the craft behind creating certain scenes and images. Some pieces took years to create, some months. We were in awe, and chose one for purchase to be shipped to us in the UK.
We then walked through Baisha village, once the capital of the Naxi Kingdom – and into the mountains. At over 1000m, we couldn’t tell if it was the steepness or the altitude that was making us so winded. It was tough! But it was very green with wild azaleas, butterflies and a cool breeze making it manageable. Until 20 years ago, this narrow pass was the only way to reach Wenhai Village. This seemed unimaginable to us, but the well-worn and deep groves confirmed the story. After a hard four hour slog – we reached the gray lunar landscape on top and descended happily towards Wenhai’s seasonal lake and our Eco-Lodge.
We were greeted by a rotund Naxi woman who was to be our cook. Her little rust coloured mini Chow dog followed her happily around the place. It was another typical Naxi construction of carved window screens, wooden walls and a courtyard lined with stone walk ways. But this one used solar panels and rainwater harvesting.The food was simple, all locally grown courgette, potato and my favourite tomato and egg dish.
After our late lunch, we took short naps and then Carrie walked us around the village. She seemed to know everyone, and being half Naxi – she could speak their language too. She explained the houses to us – ‘three rooms, one wall’: one room for cooking, one for storing and drying, and one for living. In China’s countryside, you are allowed two children (in the cities, only one), but they must be 6 years apart. We passed by lots of small fields growing mostly potatoes, barley and turnips (as the soil is quite poor in the mountains). A few people were carrying big round cakes for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. It sounded like Thanksgiving to me – everyone is supposed to come home from wherever the are living and you eat a lot. You also light incense ‘for sacrifice’ and look at the moon. I made a mental note of the date and vowed to celebrate it, it sounded fantastic!
After dinner, it began to rain heavily, with lightening going off all around. It was just like after our hike in Austria – with a huge storm following our arduous journey through the mountains. We spotted some flashlights & yelling up in the mountain, and hoped whoever was up there would make it down ok.
Very tired, I went to wash-up and was brushing my teeth while Chris was in the loo. I thought I saw something big fly out of the ladies room and into the men’s. I hollered to warn Chris. Within seconds, Chris shot out with a bat in tow! The thing was deranged, flying right into his face! Chris was ducking and dodging it in quick sharp moves, like bad break dancing! It finally dispersed, and apparently the dang thing flew straight into his face in the loo as well – poor guy! I thought bads could ‘see’ so well with their sonar – what the heck was that crazy ass bat trying to do? We had to laugh tho, and were reminded of our previous bat sightings in Bulgaria.
After a cozy sleep and a breakfast of traditional steamed buns and green tea – we decided to change our plans. We were meant to walk over a longer but easier road to our homestay with a Naxi family, but instead decided to take a car. Being so wet – the area would be crawing with leeches falling off the wet leaves.Carrie advised it was best to avoid them! I requested we detour through Shuhe – a similar town to Lijiang, but on a smaller scale. It was nice, and I bought some cool trousers in the local style. We stopped for lunch at what looked like a real dodgy dive. They had a chiller display case in the restaurant showing the veggies and meats on offer. Carrie pointed to what she wanted and they cooked her ingredients. I wasn’t hoping for much, but oh man, it was soooooooooo good. The best Chinese food we had in China. Just goes to show you the difference between a tourist area and a non-tourist area. Four dishes including tea & rice for four people – came to just 50 yuan (about 5 quid / 8 bucks).
We arrived in the afternoon at Lashi Lake and to the house where we would stay that night. It was another Naxi house, but two stories and much more farm-like. There was a vegetable garden off the kitchen, chickens running around and a pig and yak farm as well as a large storehouse. We were offered fruit, tea and walnuts from their tree. Three generations lived in the home: grandparents, their oldest son and his wife and their little boy (who sadly had a broken arm but was in good spirits when I handed him the box of chocolates we’d brought as a gift).
We relaxed and played cards with Carrie, a Chinese game she’d taught us called “Rich people, Poor people” – it was really fun though I don’t think I could remember how to play it without her! Dinner was had in the kitchen with the family, around a tiny wooden table with small benches just off the floor. Everything was from their garden, they also worked some land they owned in the vicinity. It was so nice to have such fresh food, after all these months of eating in restaurants! The kitchen itself was the most interesting room to me – just one hot plate and an open fire, fueled by used corn cobs, with a kettle boiling on top. I was amazed that in this simple set-up the daughter-in-law had managed to make 5 dishes: squash, corn, battered and fried aubergine, egg and greens, a pork dish + rice!
We walked around the village of 300 families. Carry explained that every week there is a gathering of the old folks in the village. The hosting house rotates each time, and everyone pitches in to help make food for everyone. We spotted many walking home from the gathering that day. We passed by the lake at dusk, and then made our way to the basketball court behind the school where the daughter-in-law was learning to drive their new mini-van (they hoped to be one of the drivers for the tour company). She tried to drive us home, but after stalling twice, the husband took over due to saftey concerns for the tourists, haha! We watched some funny Chinese TV with them, before heading to our very simple room which was sort of open to the elements. Apparently it gets pretty cold in winter (minus degrees). I wondered how they coped?
Next day, we were given bicycles and cycled around the lake through a series of 23 small communities. Many buildings were painted with murals of the Naxi mythology, which is similar to Tibetan. However, their written language is not! Like Egypt, they use pictographs – which looked very pretty written on the sides of buildings.
We were the only ones on bikes, tho there were other tourists – all Chinese – all riding on ponies. We smelled them as we passed by. There were lots of fields of corn, with squash growing along the edge, just like we used to in our garden back in London.
We splattered through the muddy paths, but before it got too bad our driver came to drive us the rest of the way to the Zhiyun (Under the Clouds) Tibetan Monastery. It really was under the clouds and a very blue sky. It should was nice and peaceful, except upon my trip to the loo I realised I didn’t know the male/female symbols! I picked one at random, and may have used the monk’s toilet. I’m pretty certain this is a big NO-NO, considering you aren’t even supposed to look a monk in the face if they pass you. Both sides were empty and luckily no one else entered, but I still can’t confirm to this day if I was in the men’s or the ladies. But we didn’t get kicked out, and spent some time looking at the Wheel of Life, Carrie showing us the various stages of life (including a very graphic and bloody hell), while a young monk laughed at her description and attempted to educate us, prompting that if you want to know the Buddhist faith – you must first understand this wheel.
We carried on with our bikes, I managed to crash right outside the monastery while attempting to photograph Chris whilst riding. My first crash in years – I have never even crashed once while riding on London roads…what a jinx! But the rest of the ride was beautiful and scenic – a portrait of farm and village life. Families worked every inch of their small plots of land. Planting ranges of fruit trees, with root and lefty vegetables underneath. I really connected with this approach, having grown vegetables in London for a few seasons with Chris. I wondered how hard it would be to do things on a slightly larger scale like this?
We were driven back to town, and rested a bit before walking around Lijiang – which at this point had become so familiar, we didn’t even need a map to navigate it’s twisting and winding lanes.
Next day, we decided the bike ride was too short. My back was doing okay and Ray, the guesthouse owner, told us to ‘Go see Mao at Red Square’ to find some rentals. We found him and two good bikes with baskets and complimentary water bottles + a map. But Chris had his fancy GPS and plotted us a route. We wanted to get out of town through smaller roads, and then journey to another monastery and then onto another lake. Accidentally passing through a large locals-only market where we had to walk the bikes, we made it out of the town and into a more rural area. But it wasn’t very pretty, and soon I felt like we hit a dumpsite! There were piles of organised rubble of stones, wood, gravel and plastic bottles. Further on we realised: the government was buidling a new highway and these piles were all that was left of the houses that once stood in it’s way. Lord knows where all the people who lived here were ‘relocated to’. The workers looked at us with suspicion, so we didn’t linger.
Finally we made it to the small town of the Fugo, home to the monastery of the same name. But without a detailed map, we were lost. We asked some people where to go, and they said look for the characters with the name. I also followed my nose as I’d spotted a tourist van a ways back – we headed up and around a couple turns came to a dead-end with a woman standing alone. She seemed to be guarding some other bikes and pointed up – to a small muddy path. We locked our bikes and away we went. With prayer flags gracefully leading the way, we knew we’d found it finally and took some time to eat some nuts & raisins.
At the top was a quiet monastery, bigger than the one we’d seen before and somehow more hushed – even though we were much closer to town. Chris seemed cautious about going in, but I managed to persuade him it was okay. Inside incense were burning and ancient trees grew inside the courtyard. The temple was quiet and empty – I ventured in to leave a donation – hunching over to not make myself higher than the Budda, and bowed before I left. I felt something for the place, so secluded and close to nature. Others had left donations of rice, fruit and milk. I liked this idea very much – it shouldn’t always be about money, but about what you have to share.
Back on the bike, we traveled further south through more villages – some dusty and old, some prettier and more moneyed. We got the feeling, we were well off the tourist path – as the stares sort of gave it away. One guy shoveling gravel stopped in mid-air, mouth agape, body frozen – in a sort of dazed stare. It kind of wiggled me out – but Chris was sympathetic – saying maybe it was the first time these people had seen non-Chinese people. It rained a bit. Unfussed, we donned our raincoats – it was nothing compared to cycling in London rain. We passed many farms – a few so pretty they looked more like gardens..lined with red rose bushes instead of fences.
The lake further down turned out to be a reservoir which we couldn’t get very close to – and also Chris was chased by a very mean dog in the vicinity – so we headed back to town…with the rain reaching London levels. We sheltered under a tarp with a sort of flatbed attached to a motorcycle type vehicle – and another guy who was trying to save his three huge moon cakes. We made it back – wet and hungry. We decided to eat at the joint of the nice guy who rescued when we were lost on our first night in Lijiang – Jack’s New Amsterdam Pub. The veggie burger and homemade fries really hit the spot…and we toasted Lijiang goodbye.
I felt I could live in Lijiang quite happily, and was sad to leave. But it was time to move on…next stop Shangri-La !