Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lijiang City

Eight hundred years ago, Lijiang was a major stop on a tea trading route. Now it's a major stop on the tourist trail ... and for good reason. Walking into the northern part of the old town, I was struck with the thought "Man, there are a lot of tourists here." Flags and umbrellas waved by tour operators led small throngs of Chinese tourists like a mother duck doting on her brood. The main entrance into the old city has two enormous, and much out-of-place, waterwheels slowly turning in a stream running beneath the road at the top of the town. The water in the stream looks quite clear and has numerous goldfish.

I could see a number of wooden oriental buildings off to the left as I walked up to the convenient tourism booth. The attendant spoke excellent English. I was looking for an inexpensive hotel and pointed to the names in my guide book. He suggested that he call the guest house and ask one of their staff to meet me. I thought this was an excellent idea, but suggested he first call to find out if they had rooms and to find out how much those rooms cost. This idea was totally foreign to him and he kept offering to call whatever hotel I wanted and have them send someone over. "I'll just take a look around" I suggested.

I knew there were some hotels along the east side of the hill. I walked into the first one I saw to inquire as to the price of a room. The entrance led into a central courtyard surrounded by two floors of rooms. The rooms faced into the central common square.

Most of the hotels I examined had a very tasteful square, but a few really went all out and included a pool in the center of the complex.
After rejecting a few places for their relatively high prices (about fifty bucks a night) and a few for decrepitude, I settled on one with a curious feature. The better part of the extended family were occupying the courtyard having their supper.
Once it was established that I would be staying in the hotel, I was encouraged to join them for supper. I was quite eager to see what they were eating. As I examined the table, one of the girls handed me what can only be described as a giant rice cracker. With a giggle, another handed me what I thought was a deep fried chicken leg. I balanced the meat on the cracker until I could find a seat. It wasn't until I was able to squeeze in at one of the tables did I have a good look at the chicken leg; it was, in fact, a deep fried duck head. I had no idea what to do with it. Had I a clue as to how to eat it, I might have, but didn't really want to. Fortunately one of the elders took pity on me, grabbed the food from my hand and gave me a bowl of rice and greens.

I picked from numerous dishes on the table. It was simple fare, but generally good. The owner/manager of the hotel delighted in dropping things into my bowl. I could identify only a few things but far too many consisted of fish with numerous bones. I had nowhere to put the bones so my bowl was half food and half discards on top of rice. It was then that someone decided I needed to try the soup and just poured it over the whole mess in my bowl.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the entrance. A bunch of people were entering ... including a guy waving a small flag. A tour group? The family with whom I'd been eating and attempting conversation, dashed off with their dinner bowls and headed for various parts of the courtyard. Doors and shutters were thrown open and lights turned on. I could see silver in glass cases.

It turns out that I'm staying in a hotel of some historic significance and that the family had leveraged this happenstance into a business opportunity: they gave tours of the hotel and sold silver handicrafts to the tourists. During my stay there, I was unable to learn why the hotel was tourist destination. It was not particularly unusual and certainly not beautiful.

Finding myself abandoned by my hosts, I decided to explore the city. One of the nephews, a guy in his early twenties, had no particular duties during the tour group assault and offered to wander the city with me. Unfortunately, he knew only a few words in English, but he was a pleasant enough fellow. We exited the hotel and made our way down the crowded backstreet.

Although I saw a bit of a stream when I entered the city, I had no idea how extensive the system was until I started to explore. Just past the hotel, the narrow street opened up upon what should have been a broad boulevard ... except for the stream running through the center of it. While there was a bit of a wall on one side, the other had a few benches to keep people from falling in. I liked it!
When we returned to the hotel, the tourists - or another group of tourists - were still there. My young guide, Mr. Lee, and I sat down for tea. I took the liberty of retrieving my bottle of single malt whiskey to see what he thought of it. In my room I discovered that I'd not properly sealed the bottle and half the precious liquid had leaked out in my backpack. My Chinese friends were not impressed with the liquor in any event.

In the morning, I woke early to visit the Black Dragon Pool. It's one of the most famous sights in China, appearing on the paper currency. It took me a little while to find my way to the garden. In fact, when I arrived at the entrance at 7AM, I was convinced I wandered into the bus terminal there were so many large buses present. No, it was not the bus station, the tour buses just started really early in the morning.

It was tough getting a good shot of the scene with the mountain in the background. I was able, however, to get a few good shots of locals at play.
Back in old Lijiang, I wandered around to see what what happening. There were plenty of touristic sights to see.
While some things exists to attract tourists, some interesting things are naturally attractive.

The center of Lijiang is a hilltop. The royal residence extends up the side of the hill and provides a fabulous view of the sun rise. There's a modern pagoda and restaurant at the very top, but the view of the old city and its preserved ancient tile roofs makes interesting patterns while the view of the snow mountain is quite nice.

One of the big trade items in the city is yak products. You see yak horns being used everywhere, from carved combs to the ringer inside the cow bells.

I looked everywhere to find a yak hide to take home, but to no avail. I settled on a cowbell. Actually, I made that decision after leaving the market and its very reasonable priced products. I wandered into a shop, one of many, with cowbells. As fate would have it, I picked the one with the crazy looking proprietor. I rang a couple of the brass bells and noticed something peculiar; they sounded beautiful. The owner saw my puzzled look and, in broken English, explained that he made the bells himself ... out of silver. They looked perfectly ordinary, but the tone when struck was downright inspiring. I had my first Lijiang souvenir!

After a couple of extra chilly mornings, I thought it high time to buy something to make me warm. Despite the number of shops in the city, not a one of them sold sweaters. I did find a place that made yak vests, but none fit me.

The local market had plenty of jackets to choose from, but most were either much too small or much too ugly. I had an option to pick up a Patagonia parka at a huge discount, but I really didn't need something so insulating (especially given the fact that I have a closet full of cold weather gear). What I really wanted was a down vest, something to take the chill off. I had to settle on a light jacket that cost me around twenty dollars. I hated buying it, but must admit that my mood improved considerably once I put it on and warmed up. I still didn't like the cold, though.

You can see more images here:

1 comment:

keith said...

Great blog and photos.
What was the name of hotel you stayed at?

There's more info about Lijiang at