Next stop on our Yunnan exploration was Lijiang up in the northwestern part of Yunnan. While the city as a whole has over a million people, tourists come here for the UNESCO-recognized Old Town. It’s as though you took the town of Dali and put it on steroids, just vastly more people and shops and lights and music and all that. Along one stretch just off the main square is club after club after club, all playing loud music, often live, with dancers on stage and bright pulsing lights and everything – and all going strong at 9:00 PM. At first I wasn’t too happy about being here, as it was just too touristy and intense. After a couple days, though, I came to appreciate it a little more.
While the old towns in Kunming and Dali that we’ve enjoyed on this swing through China have been fairly compact, Lijiang’s old town is almost three square miles in area and just a jumble of winding cobblestone streets, barely wide enough for the millions of Chinese tourists who come here. With no grid and almost no street signs, you’re all but guaranteed to get lost here as I did repeatedly. You think you’ve figured out how to get back to your hotel and … BAM! … you took a wrong turn and you’ll never find your way out.
For all of the challenges here – the crowds, getting lost, the noise – it’s easy to see why UNESCO would recognize the cultural importance of Lijiang. It was another important way station on the ancient Tea-Horse Road connecting China to India through Tibet. It was also the political and cultural capital of the Naxi people, still the primary minority ethnic group here. Interestingly, according the Lonely Planet anyway, the written Naxi language is the only hieroglyphic language still in use.
Even more interesting, the Naxi were a distinctly matrilineal culture. The matriarch is the dominant figure in the family, and a child’s paternity was considered relatively unimportant. Daughters, not sons, inherited property and village disputes were judged by elderly women. This even extends to the Naxi language: when the word for “female” is added to a noun, the word is enlarged, while the word for “male” diminishes the noun. Thus a “female stone” is a boulder, while a “male stone” is a pebble.
Our activities here consisted of walking around, getting lost, walking around some more, and getting lost some more. Because the economy is overwhelmingly aimed at Chinese tourists it was sometimes a struggle to find restaurants with English translations but eventually we succeeded. One day we walked to the neighboring town of Shuhe, close enough that it’s also part of the UNESCO heritage district, and that was fun. We continue to be astounded that outside of tourist areas we find just mile after mile of what certainly look to be comfortable middle class developments.
We thought we were going to ride a big cable car up Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a huge snow-covered mountain that sits behind Lijiang, making it feel more like Switzerland than what I imagine China to be like. Sadly it was not to be. We took a taxi out of town maybe a half hour to get there only to discover that because of the weather the cable car and hiking trail were both closed. Kind of a wasted trip.
We were supposed to be in Lijiang for three nights and then we would be off to hike nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge. The weather, however, had other ideas. When we got to Lijiang the weather was beautiful, but it soon turned cold and wet. When we checked the forecast, we saw more cold and rain for the two days we were supposed to be on the trail. After that, though, it is supposed to turn sunny and relatively warm, so we just extended our stay here two days. As I write this the night before our departure the forecast still looks perfect for the next two days so it seems to have been a good choice.
Finally, one last word on an oddity that just perplexes us here: the challenge of getting tea in restaurants. I’ve heard it said or at least implied that there’s a lot of tea in China. Yet overwhelmingly when we go into a restaurant they bring us a pitcher of hot water, with nothing to turn it into tea. Just hot water. Mark, of course, has been studying Chinese and can ask for tea. Usually they don’t understand what he’s asking for and will just point at the hot water. Occasionally we’ll see tea on the menu, and then it’s often more than many or even most of the dishes. I can accept that you don’t get cold water at a restaurant here, ever; it’s just not what they do. But tea? Never did I imagine it would be one of our most challenging issues.
Next stop, two days hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world and a key reason I’ve wanted to come to Yunnan for years now. We’re hoping the weather forecast proves accurate.