Our Arrival And Finding Accommodation
We took a 3 hour bus ride from Dali to Lijiang. This route would take us up another several hundred meters in elevation. It was a scenic bus ride passing through mountains and valleys. We arrived in the new part of Lijiang. The city has 3 bus stations. The bus station we ended up at was not the one we were expecting. The guy who sold us the ticket had told us the wrong one. Now we had no idea where we were. We managed to find out where we were by pointing to Chinese characters in our pocket dictionary asking “where are we” and showing our map to someone.
We took a taxi into the old town of Lijiang for 7 yuan. (about $1 Canadian) We carried our bags to the main square. I sat with the bags while Jack went to check out a few guest houses we had in mind. He came back about 20 minutes later and said he could not find any of them. We went into the tourist reception center and found one girl who spoke a bit of English. She recommended one of the guest houses we had been thinking of and pointed to the street on our map. Jack managed to find a few guest houses on the 2nd trip, but still couldn’t even find the street the girl had pointed to him.
We decided to go to a place called the East River Hotel. It was 200 yuan, which works out to about $30 Canadian dollars, more than you need to pay in Lijiang, but we were tired of looking. The other ones Jack looked at were really dumpy. We were happy we stayed here, the staff spoke only a few words of English, but were pleasant. The room was very nice. We felt very comfortable and “walcome” as the sign at the front entrance says! We ended up staying 8 nights. We managed to pick up a free wireless signal in our room for our entire stay.
The Ethnic Groups Of Lijiang
The population 320,000 population of Lijiang, is made up of Naxi, Bai, Lisu, Pumi, Yi, Tibetan Miao, Hui, and Han people. The Naxi constitute almost 60% of the total population. The Naxi descend from Tibetan Qiang Tribes. We could tell right away that we are getting closer to the Tibetan Plateau. The people have very different facial features from what we have been seeing in the rest of China. Many people have lighter brown eyes and different hair, some of it wavy or curly.
The Dongba religion, a primitive religion, is the common belief of the Naxi people. It is believed to be at least 1000 years old. It mainly consists of scriptures, paintings, music, dances, ritual implements and religious services.
The Dongba script of the Naxi, a kind of pictograph, possesses more than 1,400 characters. It is believed to be the only well preserved living pictographic language in the world. It is a precious cultural heritage of mankind. About 40,000 volumes of Dongba scriptures have been found to date, all written in Dongba pictographic characters. The scriptures are kept in many libraries and museums around the world.
There are another group of people called the Mosuos. They are a branch of the Naxi nationality with a population of about 15,000. They are the main ethnic group scattered in the lakeside villages. The Mosuo people have their own ways and customs. They are the last practicing matriarchal society in the world. Kinship, clan names, and social and political positions are passed on through the female line. Men and Women are not bound by marriage, each living at their mother’s home. They do not co-inhabit. Men work at home during the day and spend their night with the women they love in their homes. They may choose to unite or separate at will. The woman are free to choose as many lovers as they please. The remote area where these people live has turned into a tourist attraction since the 1980’s. It has made the Mosuo the richest ethnic minority group in all of Yunnan province. Unfortunately there have been some disguised brothels opened due to Chinese men coming and looking for one night stands with the women.
Lijiang’s backdrop is the 5500 meter high snow-capped Jade Dragon Mountain. The elevation of the town itself is 2400 meters. The town was built in the late Song dynasty and early Yuan dynasty. Since then it has been an important political, cultural and educational center for this area.
The streets in the town all radiate from Sifang street (square street) to form a network connecting every corner of the city. Houses have been built on the mountain slopes tier upon tier. It is very easy to get lost here. Everyone does it at least once during their stay. In fact the main tourist reception in town has to continually help travelers who can’t find their way back to their guest house.
Creeks weave their way throughout the city, they are contained in channels along side the cobble stoned streets. Wooden bridges criss cross over the water to allow access to shops and restaurants. The water is full of colourful goldfish. At night red lanterns can be seen hanging from the outside of the buildings and in the trees.
In 1996 an earthquake of over 7 on the Richter scale hit the Lijiang area, killing more than 300 people and injuring 16,000. Much of the newer Lijiang city was leveled, but the traditional Naxi architecture of the old town held up quite well. The UN was so impressed with the survival of Lijiang that it placed it on its world heritage site list in 1999. The old and new town that Lijiang are separated into are very different. Again as many towns like this in China, you want to stay in the old town section, it would be pointless to visit here and stay in the new area.
Decided Not To Do The Tiger Leaping Gorge
Another major attraction of this area is the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The start of it is about 2 1/2 hours away from Lijiang. It is one of the deepest gorges in the world. It is about 16km long and it 3900m from the water to the snow capped mountains above. There is a lower road along the river, it does not offer the spectacular views that the higher trail does. The high trail is a two day hike taking in spectacular views. Parts of the hike are quite strenuous and the high altitude can make it difficult.
We decided not to do the hike, as we were already experiencing some effects from the altitude and the weather was being very unpredictable with heavy rain. Parts of the trail are subject to landslides and we did not want to take the risk of getting stuck somewhere along the route. It’s too bad because the gorge may be ruined soon, as there are plans to dam it. We talked with a young girl from North America that had done the trail a few weeks ago. She got bit by a dog while on it. They had to quickly rush her to the closest big city where she had to go through the sets of painful rabies shots.
We Found Some Good Restaurants
I think one of the reasons we were not in a rush to leave was the great food here. These places need no mention to gain business as they are both in the Lonely Planet already, but they were excellent. We ate at the Prague Cafe everyday for breakfast and many other meals as well. Every dish we had there was delicious and the staff are so friendly. The Well Cafe had a great vegetable ratatouille and some tasty homemade chilled fruit tea. It is like a Sangria without the alcohol. We tried one of the local specialties, Naxi Baba. It is a thick bread, almost like a pita bread. You can have it filled with many different things, like vegetables or even sweet flavors. It was very tasty.
We had an interesting evening during one of our meals. At first we thought the restaurant we were sitting in was receiving stock. Lots of boxes and bags were being piled up in the back. Then we realized the whole back storage room was being emptied. This can’t be a good sign. There were many of the waitresses just hanging around the boxes while a few of the men went into the storage room. Then we heard a bunch of screams and even the men were yelling and running out of the room. They shut the door behind them. It was obviously a rat.
Everyone calmed down after a bit and then two of the men went back into the room. We could hear all kinds of banging. Finally one of the men came out with a huge dead rat. He proceeded to take it into the kitchen. Uggggh, we were really glad we got our food already. He later brought it out in a container and left the restaurant with it. In all the chaos our food must have got neglected, it was awful. Too bad, because we had eaten here once before and everything was very good. We are getting used to having to go elsewhere to get a second meal in China, what else can you do. We have enough problems trying to communicate, I don’t think that would work out well to try and say our food was no good.
A Great Place To Get Lost In
Lijiang was a very relaxing place to hang out, despite the hoards of Chinese tourist buses that come in. We seem to have lucked out with our travels in China so far. Every place we have come to has been relatively quiet. The majority of the shop keepers here are very laid back. It could be because there are so many tourists that come here they don’t have to worry about sales as much.
We spent many days just wandering the narrow cobblestone streets and having fun getting lost. We made sure to get out of the areas where the tour groups go. We went into parts where the locals lived. They seemed to get a kick out of seeing us walk by. The great ice breaker is if someone has a small baby. They immediately bring the baby over to us. They pick the babies hand up and wave it and tell them to say hello. They were so cute. We found the people here had curiosity about us like other places in China, but they seemed to be more polite about it. Instead of staring at us or trying to take pictures of us, they would try to say hello, or wave and smile.
As with anywhere we travel, we like to get out of the main tourist area and just wander. We spent several hours meandering through the back streets of the residential areas outside of the main town area. We walked passed many doorways that revealed the courtyards to people’s homes. Some of the entry doors were very elaborate. The courtyards inside were done up with plants and flowers.
We passed by a few areas of town where there is a public set of wells. The water is separated into 3 pools in the ground. One is for drinking, the next for washing vegetables and the last one for washing clothes in. There are many other old drinking wells throughout areas of the town. People still bring the water up with a wooden bucket.
This part of the old town was very interesting. There were high brick walls and very old buildings. We stumbled across a market. There were many vendors selling copper pots and kettles. We were surprised to see a huge variety of vegetables at this market. Why are we not seeing any of them in the dishes at the restaurants?
In many of the rural areas of China we have seen women doing very hard labour. This is one of many ladies we saw transporting heavy loads of bricks at a construction site.
We saw the most funny site while walking around the main square of town. A man was walking around with a ball of yarn, trailing about 5 feet behind him was his wife knitting up a storm. They walked along as if they do this all the time. Can you imagine seeing this site at home!
Black Dragon Pool Park or Jade Spring Park
We went to the Black Dragon Pool Park and walked around for half of the day. It was very tranquil. There were a few groups of art students drawing and painting the surroundings. Other than the students we saw very few people while walking around the huge park. Again we virtually had the place to ourselves. The park has many temples and a small museum displaying Dongba writing scrolls and artifacts. The main attraction of the park is the Five Phoenix Pavilion. It was originally built on a mountain far from the town during the Ming Dynasty. It was moved to the park for the convenience of visitors. If you are lucky enough the weather will allow you to see the beautiful Jade Snow Mountain in the background of the pavilion. On our visit it was covered in clouds.
On our way back to where we had entered the park we were treated with seeing two different groups of people dancing. One large group of Naxi had many women and a few men dancing. They appeared to be making some kind of video. They were being instructed by a few people with a movie camera.
The other small group of women dancing were the Bai ethnic minority. They were over in a different area and appeared to be dancing for no other reason than their own enjoyment. We sat for quite sometime watching the two groups. We only saw one other person walk past. It was like we had our own personal entertainment.
A Hike To The Highest Point Of The City
We walked up to the highest part of the old city, we were going to a spot called Looking at the Past Pavilion. It has a large pavilion that overlooks the old town. The price in our book said 15 yuan each, but when we got there the lady wanted 55 yuan each. We thought this was a bit steep to look at a view. She was insisting we had to buy two tickets, one was 15 yuan like it was supposed to be and had a picture of the pavilion on it. The other ticket was a white square with red stamp on it and some other writing.
We later bumped into two fellows and were chatting about the situation. They said they were shown this white ticket when they paid for their hotel and were made to pay the 40 yuan, being told it was a tax to be paid by all visitors to Lijiang. Funny we didn’t ever pay any such thing with our hotel. Sounds like something fishy is going on. They said they were made to pay it with another entrance fee as well. That’s the thing about China, it’s not like we can try and look up what the ticket says in a language book. They can make up whatever they want and we would never be the wiser!
Just a few meters back down the hill from the Pavilion there are some small cafes along the hillside. We could see through them and realized they got the same great view as we would have at the pavilion. We sat down at one and had watermelon shakes on the balcony. We enjoyed the great view and took some photos. It only cost us 15 yuan each for the drinks.
There are many talented artists in Lijiang. Woodcarvers are everywhere, some of the work is exquisite and was well out of our budget to buy. There are also some very good oil and water colour painters too. One very popular thing to buy is burnt city pictures. They are done in all sizes on flat pieces of wood. The artist draws various scenes of old town Lijiang by burning into the wood with a hot metal tool. They are mostly scenes of the skinny cobble stoned streets and buildings. Some of them are very nice.
Everywhere you go in town you will see signs advertising Yak, in any form you can dream up. Dried yak meat, yak meat candies, yak horn combs for you hair, yak fur, yak butter tea, yak cheese, yak everywhere. There are many leather goods available and shops with all kinds of furs that used to be cute little animals.
A Back Alley Tour To Find A Roof Cat
We wanted to bring something home from China that was unique and authentic. Most of the stuff we had been seeing in the shops looked like the typical items you can buy at any Chinatown in North America. We had noticed these cat like figures on almost every person’s house while wandering around the residential areas. We were told the are a figure that is supposed to act as a protector for the home. We decided this would be the perfect souvenir if we could find one.
We didn’t have any luck finding the cats in the endless amounts of shops we searched through. We had been given the proper Chinese name for the cats. We decided to see if we could get someone to help us locate one of them. Several shop owners can speak at least some English in Lijiang. We went into a few shops and tried to explain that we were looking for a clay roof cat and tried to pronounce the Chinese name for it. No one seemed to know what we were asking for. Unfortunately there were no cats on the store rooftops around us to point out. While talking to a girl in one of the shops I pointed at the roof anyways and said the name again. Finally someone knew what I was talking about. She spoke to a middle aged man in the store in Chinese and soon motioned for us to follow him.
We were taken through mazes of streets and about 15 minutes later arrived at a home. The man went inside and came back out with and elderly lady with a big smile on her face. She motioned for us to come inside. She pointed to a couple dozen cats on a shelf. We were thrilled and quickly picked out our favorite one. I think it ended up being about 70 yuan $10 Canadian dollars.
We thanked the lady, and said goodbye. Then we realized the man had left us there. We had no idea where we were or how to get back. We were able to get our bearings somewhat by looking at where the mountains were. Thank goodness Jack is a good navigator. We kept weaving in and out of streets in the general direction we needed to go. Eventually we made our way back to the main part of the old town.
An Evening Of Traditional Naxi Music
We got the privilege of seeing a performance of music considered to be a national treasure in China. The ancient Naxi people created their own music and preserved part of the Han classical music that had already been lost in the rest of China. This music combination is called Lijiang Daoist Music, and also known as Ancient Naxi Music. It is believed to be from the Yuan dynasty.
Ancient Naxi Music started to reemerge in 1986. The Dayuan Ancient Naxi Music Association started to hold public concerts in 1988. They have been invited to perform in many countries around the world. Many of the members have original instruments. Most instruments like this did not survive the cultural revolution in China. (otherwise known as the Red Army) Several members of the group hid theirs by burying them underground. Many members of the group are well into their 80’s.
The evening of entertainment also included some solo singers. A male from a remote village had just recently joined the group. He sang a traditional song, his voice had an amazing range. A Naxi girl sang in a manner almost similar to Swiss yodeling.
Entertainment At Night
There is an area of town that has a long road lined with restaurants. It is quite lively at night and has lots of entertainment. We saw a few different singing and dancing performances. One group of singers had outfits on that looked similar to the puffy pants you see the male Russian dancers wear. The dancing was somewhat similar to the Russian style as well. The singing was really different than anything we have heard before. There were a few young guys who were putting a modern twist on their traditional Naxi singing, almost Naxi Pop music!
The city is really charming to walk around at night. The buildings that go up the hillside from the main squares are all lit up. On Saturday evening there is a bonfire in the Sifang Square and traditional Naxi dancers can be seen performing. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay here. It was especially rewarding to be in a place where people have held onto their customs and traditions so well.