The New Old Lijiang

Sunday, July 13, 2008

In Asia, taking the first price is often taking the worst price. You try to haggle, you shop around, and then you buy. In China, this sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Most Chinese want something simple and can’t be bothered haggling with calculators or speaking numbers slowly enough to be understood. Some would rather just avoid attempting to communicate with foreigners altogether and will tell you things like the bus is full. This, unfortunately, was not the case as I priced out tickets from Dali to Lijiang. The first bus with availability was at 1:00, 45 Yuan non-negotiable. OK, thanks, I’ll be back. The next place had no bus until 1:30, same price. 1:00, it appeared was sold out. Back to the first place to get a 1:00, and they now had nothing before 2:00. I ran back to the other (friendly) place to find nothing until 2:30 and finally just booked a ticket. So it was that I arrived in China’s prettiest town at China’s best guesthouse just in time for dinner.

I literally walked in the door of Mama’s Naxi Guesthouse and was told to have a seat as plate after plate of food was brought to our table. This veritable feast cost 10 quai or about $1.50. After dinner and some chit chat around the table I claimed the bed that Eric (my friend from Montreal), Charlotte and Geraldine (both Belgian) had saved me as a result of my ticket plight. It was quite conceivable that my first night would be passed in the guesthouse chatting with nothing seen of Lijiang except the bus station from which Mama picked me up, but I wanted to get a feel for the place so, camera in hand, I hit the cobblestone streets and meandered. The town is sectioned by three main canals (and many smaller ones) that once served as Lijiang’s water supply. Today, you’d have to be a xeno-biologist to draw water from the wells and canals, but regardless of these new inhabitants, the town exudes an undeniable charm that immediately whisked me away from Mama’s.

I came first upon a small square selling various snacks. One side of the square is bordered by a canal, the first one I came across with a small bridge leading to a restaurant and a chef sitting on a bench watching the waters disappear around a bend. There was a hubbub of activity here, almost all Chinese tourists, which I found rather entertaining. Further into the streets things quieted again and crossing another bridge I looked into the water myself to see a string of lily-shaped candles floating along the canal like stars in the midnight sky. I watched as a few more candles straggled along and then looked up to see that I was on a smaller canal lined with shops and each shop had a plank crossing the canal; its tenuous connection with the rest of the world. Chinese lanterns lent a red hue to the scene and inside one of the shops, a man demonstrated a traditional Chinese flute with a melody that floated through the streets like the canals that give Lijiang its charm. And charmed I was, to an almost hypnotic state by this quaint town.

Perhaps visited in a different order, my impression would’ve been different. Further along the flute faded and was replaced by clashing music from various nightclubs all vying for the hordes of Chinese customers. ‘Traditional’ bands, entertainers, DJs (they still have that annoying “I’m a DJ, drinks are $2.99 at the bar, I love the sound of my voice” voice), karaoke, and loud music. And I’m not sure whether a horde or throng is a larger unit of measurement, but there were both. Rather than being revulsed however, I was thoroughly amused at the Chinese partying, dancing, and having a great time. Sure, they’re tourists, but they’re still Chinese, and I’m here to learn as much as I can about Chinese culture. Surely the way that they let loose is a part of that? Still, any with a fear of crowds, touching, or furtive photography had best stay well clear. I made my way between the competing sides to a stall where a young couple was buying two of those flower candles I’d seen floating earlier in the hope of a good and long life together and watched them walk down to the canal and kneel before the waters, at last placing them in the mild current and releasing their destinies to the whims of fate.

I walked along some more to the end of the strip of bars and saw the smoke from one bar dropping from above and giving the water below a bridge a mystical appearance and snapped what is one of my favourite photos of China. Here, in this touristed and loud quarter of the old town, I think I captured the essence of why I love it here. And, I hope, I managed to make my point to those who might find themselves here yet. After some more exploration of stone bridges, twisting side streets, and hilly backdrops, I returned to the bar strip and saw Charlotte and Geraldine waving me in. They were sitting with a Chinese couple who were quite plastered but having a great time. There were no less than a dozen beer on the table for the four of them, most of which were untouched, and the Chinese woman pushed one in front of me then raised her cocktail in a wobbly but enthusiastic “campay!” The battle was joined. We had a great night, myself and the Belgians, and paid not a cent for it. The Chinese were quite happy to supply drinks for the honour of sitting with us (or more accurately, I suspect, two good-looking – and blonde - Belgian girls). And we were quite happy to party with them. I did pull my weight as best as possible with my disappearing popcorn trick(s). Hot blondes of the world, watch out!

The next morning merited a sleep in and some overdue time on the internet. Eric had invited me to the small village they were going to bicycle to, but I just couldn’t be bothered. It also allowed me to wander the old town a bit more by day, in some of the smaller streets I’d missed at night. For dinner, I was joined by Charlotte and Gerri and then Ori, our Israeli friend from Dali, arrived. The three of us went for drinks at Cherry Lane (next door) and were later joined by Eric and a couple pretty cool German guys, whose names I can’t remember. It was one of their birthdays and we closed out the Cherry Lane taking a few beer for the road and then found a nice spot to sit on the steps and visit some more (as well as a place to pick up yet more beer). The night was capped by a serenade from some wandering Chinese guys, one with a shirt with built-in VU-meter and one with a guitar and a karaoke voice. It was a great group and I was sad to be leaving them in the morning (which came far too early, by the way) to go with Eric to Tiger Leaping Gorge. But the gorge would provide its own adventures and surprises, including two old friends.

Lijiang Photos

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