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Naxi sandwiches and Jade Dragon Mountain

April 1999, April 2002

First Visit, April 1999

Lijiang was once a rough five-hour bus ride from Dali, but like so many other areas of China, there’s a new road to dramatically reduce the travel time. The Dali to Lijiang route can now be covered in about two and a half to three hours. And if the bus ride doesn’t do it for you, there are also direct flights from Kunming.

The same express bus service that covers the Kunming to Dali route also runs buses to Lijiang as well. A regular bus costs Y40 and an express bus costs but Y50 so I easily opted for the express bus. But at nine a.m. on the morning of the 25th a regular medium sized 24-seat bus arrived. There were some angry customers. While I was certainly curious as to the whereabouts of the nice big comfortable bus I paid for, several women were absolutely livid. They took to yelling and screaming and waving their hands around while the bus operator yelled back and waved his hands around, too. Me, I just shrugged my shoulders as if to say “where”? Someone who spoke a few words of English informed me that “bus full” so they sent this one. Whatever. But I paid Y50 and was given a Y40 bus. I pointed out this discrepancy and was refunded the Y10 difference. Curiously, I didn’t see anyone else get a refund and most certainly not the three women who did all that yelling and screaming.

Despite the less than comfortable appointments, the ride was a relatively painless one over a smooth new road. Once we got beyond the north end of Erhai Lake and began climbing up into the mountains, the air cleared right up, providing wonderful views of high peaks and mountain meadows.

The bus reached Lijiang about noon. Lijiang is divided into two parts, an old city and a new city. The new city really is new, as much of it was leveled in an earthquake in February 1996. The old city, however, survived relatively intact. The bus station is in the new part and according to the map in my Lonely Planet, it appeared the old city was within walking distance. It is in the old city where all the guesthouses, cafés, and most everything else worth seeing are, so that’s where I wanted to go.

However, the LP map had the bus station on the wrong street sending me walking in the wrong direction. Once I realized I had no idea where I was going, I had no choice but to get a taxi. The taxi of course, knew exactly where I was and that where I wanted to go was only a few hundred meters away. To give me my money’s worth he drove around in circles a little bit, stopping at two hotels to see if it was what I wanted, stretching the few hundred meter ride to more like a mile or so. Realize I didn’t know any of this at the time and didn’t realize it until I better orientated myself the following day. But whatever, his circuitous route probably cost me all of about two kuai (25 cents).

The dominant minority group in Lijiang is the Naxi. The dress of the Naxi is simple. Plain blue. Blue trousers, blue blouses, blue aprons, and blue hats. It may not be beautiful but it is interesting. Historically, the Naxi were a matriarchal society. Children belonged to the women, inheritances followed the female line, and female elders settled differences. Around Lijiang there are many women in the traditional costume. There are also many opportunities to sample some of the local delicacies.

The Naxi Sandwich quickly became a favorite of mine, though a simple sandwich: tomato, egg, and goat cheese on bread similar to pita bread (baba bread I think it was called), it was a tasty one. Along some of the side streets, rice dishes are cooked in storefront windows in individual sized clay pots and served up for a bargain (I think one set me back all of ten kuai and I'm sure that price was a foreigner 100%+ mark-up). For whatever it's priced, it was a combination of rice, some vegetables, some seasonings, and some kind of meat (pork, I think). Aside from Naxi food, there is also Naxi music. The Naxi Orchestra, an authentic band of mostly elderly performers gives a nightly recital of traditional Naxi music. Unfortunately they were on a one week break when I was there so I didn’t get to see them but the reviews have been very positive.

I stayed in the heart of the old town at the First Bend Inn. It’s one of several popular places for cheap accommodations, but not real cheap for the solo traveler as a single room still set me back 80 yuan a night. But Lijiang prices were on the whole, higher than Dali. The hotel was quite clean and the facilities were clean as well, at least to the eyes as the communal bathroom smelled horrid. The building is a traditional Naxi structure with two floors of rooms surrounding a central courtyard with small tables making an ideal setting for sipping tea and getting in a little reading.

Like Dali, Lijiang is also a very popular place on the domestic travel circuit, but fortunately the type of guesthouse that attracts foreigners and the type of hotel that attracts the Chinese are not one and the same. While a trip to any foreign country should include considerable time mingling with the locals, when it comes to accommodations I often prefer to herd with my own. There’s just something about loud karaoke, blaring televisions, spit stained carpets, and the permanent smell of stale cigarettes that just doesn’t excite me.

I went for a Naxi sandwich lunch at one of the many ‘foreigner’ cafés, choosing one with outdoor tables alongside a small stream that flowed through the center of town. On this particular day I happened to be wearing a shirt written entirely in Thai script advertising some Bangkok bar. I’m sitting at a table where I see at the next table two young women who looked Thai, so I bent my ear to listen in, and sure enough, to each other they were speaking in Thai. They were alternatively speaking in English to a Japanese man they had befriended. Though I had now determined who they were, they too, were periodically looking my way eyeing my Thai scripted t-shirt. Finally, I ask in Thai the obvious question: “Maa jak muan Thai mai na khrap?” (Do you come from Thailand?).

So I joined them for lunch. Their English was better than my Thai but as they came from northern Thailand (Chiang Mai), conversing in Thai was easy. In the north of Thailand, people generally speak slowly and clearly while in southern Thailand speech is rapid, so rapid that even Bangkokians sometimes have trouble understanding them.

I was surprised to see two young single Thai women traveling unaccompanied. While solo traveling females or pairs of females are very common from western countries, with the notable exception of Japan, it’s very rare to meet women from other Asian countries. Unaccompanied Japanese female backpackers are common around Asia, but from places like Thailand it’s still tour groups or travel with mother and father. Though the girls were leaving that afternoon it was still nice to get a chance to keep my Thai fresh while I’m on the road and to meet two Thai women with the guts to travel solo through China.

After lunch I took a walk to the north end of town to Black Dragon Pool Park. This time I made a rare concession and forked over twenty kuai or whatever the admission fee was to get into the place. The main attraction of the park is the view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from across the small lake. Jade Dragon Mountain (the ‘Snow’ moniker is an add-on that seems to be given to most any mountain high enough to maintain regular snow cover at its peak) is the region’s most popular attraction and a mountain I would really see up close and personal a few days later when I hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s a 5,500-meter (about 18,000 feet) peak that from a southerly direction stands alone, dominating the view from anywhere. There are other mountains in the area that approach 5,000 meters but none so close as to distract from the view of Jade Dragon which sits about twenty miles across a valley from Lijiang. The mountain is a series of gradually rising jagged peaks, and though the mountain has been scaled a couple of times, it’s not a peak mere mortals can walk up.

It was a warm clear day and the mountain was mostly free from cloud cover, save a few clouds clinging to the uppermost peaks. Apparently this is not a common occurrence so I was lucky. I walked around the small lake, then walked along the bottom of the adjacent Elephant Hill until I found a quiet place to enjoy the view, where I stayed for about an hour before returning to the center of Lijiang.

Like Dali, Lijiang’s old town is an attractive one, perhaps more so. The two main blocks are mostly souvenir shops with the odd café, guesthouse, or convenience store thrown in. Many of the buildings are almost in too good of condition, if you know what I mean. But walk a couple of blocks in any direction and it’s all authentic. Everywhere are small shops and residences, old women in blue aprons and old men dressed in blue as well walk the streets paying the throngs of tourists little mind. Despite the near saturation of souvenir shops the vendors weren’t pushy at all. Only once did anyone ever try to get me into his store and even then it was only a relaxed wave and “come in, please”; far better than Dali’s mantra of “You buy? You buy?” Also, the entire old town area is off-limits to vehicular traffic though most of the roads are too narrow to accommodate vehicles anyway.

below left: "Old" Lijiang
below right: "New" Lijiang

Lijiang sits at about 2400 meters (8000 feet). This is the point where altitude adjustment may be necessary for some. Well, it had been seventeen years since I had even been over 7,000 feet, so I needed some adjustment. My original plan was to arrive in Lijiang on the 25th, then take a late bus north to Qiatou the next afternoon and start hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge at dawn on the 27th. But by late morning on the 26th it was obvious I needed an adjustment day. I was feeling a bit light headed and confused, so I spent the rest of the day taking short walks in old town Lijiang, sitting in cafés, and lying down in my hotel room. Having a reaction to altitude at only 8,000 feet wasn’t giving me a whole lot of confidence for some of my later plans that could see me going as high as 14,000 to 15,000 feet. However, by dinner time my head cleared and I never had a problem again.

Before succumbing to that mild case of altitude sickness I spent part of the morning atop Lion Hill Park which provides panoramic views of the city. To the west is the new city, dominated by a few modern high-rise hotels and a lot of sprawl. To the east, well set off from the new city, is the old city, an endless brown sea of roofs atop traditional buildings.

Like most backpacker magnets, there are plenty of good cafés with English speaking staff, magazines and books to read, and even guest books to write in. Many of the cafés have notebooks filled with people’s regional travel experiences, obligatory praise or occasional complaints about whatever establishment one happens to be in, America bashing, stream of consciousness free writing, whatever. Outside the major cities (Lijiang is not a major city), getting current English language news can be an exercise of near futility, but at one café I was able to pick up a copy of the China Daily (China’s English language newspaper) and confirm, as if I needed to, that China was still complaining about NATO’s involvement in Kosovo and decrying American arrogance for involving themselves with a ‘domestic problem’.

I didn’t spend much time in Lijiang, about 48 hours prior to going to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and then just one night upon my return, but I certainly liked it better than Dali and could have easily occupied myself for another day or two by perhaps taking some bicycle trips through the flat valley between the city and Jade Dragon Mountain. It’s still a reasonably clean city, both on the ground and above, and remarkably hassle free. Accessibility is improving as they have a new airport but it serves only Kunming and Jinghong, a town in the far south of Yunnan province. Although the new road makes ground transport to Dali easy, going any other direction is still by decrepit buses on unimproved roads, but I’m sure in a few years or less that may all change too. While I only conditionally recommend visiting Dali, I most certainly recommend Lijiang.

Second Visit, April 2002

April 17
When I exited the train station at Panzhihua around 7:30 a.m., I was still a day's bus ride from Lijiang. I knew only that somewhere I could connect with a bus to Lijiang, which according to information provided to me in Chengdu, buses run throughout the day. Lonely Planet, while correctly identifying Panzhihua as the transit point between Chengdu and Lijiang, offers no advice as to what is involved in making the switch between the train and the bus.

In the train station parking lot scores of buses line up with eager touts shouting one thing or another and holding signs displaying Chinese characters that read who knows what. I really had no idea what was going on. I blurted out "Lijiang" and several bus touts commenced dragging me simultaneously on to various buses. Not wishing to divide my body parts on to several buses, I chose one likely bus, though the aisles were already packed. I found a small space on the floor not too far behind driver where I could sit wondering if I was going to be squashed in like this all the way to Lijiang.

Several young foreigners appeared minutes later, also wishing to go to Lijiang and under the false impression that Lijiang was about a four-hour bus ride away. They looked at this crammed bus, made noise about not wishing to ride like that all the way to Lijiang and wandered off to find another bus that I suspect would be no less crammed.

The bus pulled out of the station heading down the highway to who knows where. I had determined that the characters on the sign the woman showed me were in fact the characters for Lijiang, but with so many people packed in the aisle and sitting on the floor something didn't seem right. Then they came to collect the money. Y4 they collected. So using a little logic I figured that this was only a bus to another bus.

Sure enough, thirty minutes after leaving the train station, we pull into the bus station and there I get a ticket to Lijiang for Y64. I never really knew I was going to the bus station, I had simply done as I had done so many times before in China, I trusted fate to lead me where I wanted to go, knowing that one way or another things would work themselves out in the end - and they did. Still, perhaps LP will someday write the following in their China guidebooks, "The bus and train stations in Panzhihua are thirty minutes apart from each other. Shuttle buses run between the two and cost Y4. Buses are parked outside the train station in the lot. They will find you before you find them." It would have saved myself, and from what I've heard, quite a number of travelers a bit of confusion.

I was the last person to board the bus and predictably the only seat left was all the way in the back. Most buses have five seats across the back. On one side the window seat was taken by a young man and three women were taking the seats on the other side - but using three and a half of them. Not speaking Chinese, I could only stand and look at the one woman who is half on my seat and give her a look as if to say, "excuse me, you need to move over so I can sit down, please". She doesn't move. So I stare a little longer and this time she shakes her body as if to make the effort to move over but her effort results in freeing up all of maybe an inch. Now I'm getting annoyed. The bus operator, wondering why I'm not sitting down comes to the back and says something to the woman. And she still doesn't move. Figuring there's no English spoken here I'd likely be free to say whatever I want and get away with it. With that thought in mind, I look the woman dead in the eye and loud enough for the entire bus to hear, I snap, "Would you get the f#$k out of my seat!!" Well, she may not have known what the words meant but she got the drift and moved far enough over for me to sit down. Once down I used my body weight to push her the rest of the way off my seat. For the entire trip not once did she or her friends look at me. And they kept to their own seats.

The ride to Lijiang from Panzhihua takes about nine and a half hours including a lunch stop, in our case, around two pm. Bumpy in spots, one of the fun things about being in the back of a bus is getting bounced off your seat on every large bump in the road. Once or twice we bounced so high we hit our heads on the roof of the bus.

Lijiang has changed a bit since I was last here in 1999, not cosmetically, but in terms of visitors. Popular in 1999, this place has since exploded with tourists - and they are all Chinese. There were mobs of domestic tour groups wandering about making some of Lijiang's narrow alleys so crowded you can barely get through.

No matter, I only planned to stay the one night, heading up to Tiger Leaping Gorge the following day. As in 1999, I stayed at the First Bend Inn, still paying Y80 for a room with shared bath. And the toilets still stink to high hell.

Internet access in town is reasonably fast and costs Y5 an hour.

I wandered over to Mama Fu's for a dinner of fried dried Yak, which I quite like and ate a lot of while I was in northwest Yunnan.

The following day I set off after lunch to Qiaotou and the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Remembering what destruction the Gorge did to my knees in 1999 I thought to see if I couldn't find a knee brace somewhere in Lijiang. I checked a number of pharmacy/medical stuff places (I say 'stuff' because I really have no idea what constitutes medical supplies and drugs in China), and came up empty handed. As it should be, I noticed that most of these stores were well-stocked with condoms. Still, I was rather surprised and I'll admit rather intrigued, that one pharmacy, while having the usual supply of Chinese medicine and condoms, complemented their stock with a generous array of sex toys.

[Story continues on a drizzly cloudy day heading to Qiaotou and the Tiger Leaping Gorge.]

When I returned to Lijiang on the 28th of April it was only to pick up my bag from the First Bend Inn and then continue onward to Xiaguan. While in the bus station I discovered what is possibly the best use ever for a Lonely Planet guidebook - Standing in line, I'm holding the book in my hand in case it's necessary to point to the Chinese characters for Xiaguan. Just as it's about to be my turn to approach the counter, some guy tries to cut the line and jump in front of me. Thwack! I put my arm out and thumped him in the chest with the LP guidebook and took my proper place at the window. Thank you, LP, I always knew there'd be something useful about your books.

One last thing, if traveling in-town taxis will not turn on the meter. The flag fall rate is Y6 and no ride in town is long enough to exceed this fare, so don't worry about it. If you're taking a taxi, get in, state your destination, and hand over Y6 when you get there. I had no problems with taxi drivers trying to take advantage of this situation.


Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian

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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.