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:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hello Dali!

After a night in Kunming, my goal was the get out as fast as I could. I donned all my shirts against the cold and walked to the nearest bus stop, gaping in amazement at the silent motorbikes ghosting by. The bus cost one Yuan (about fifteen cents).

Getting off the bus, I walked to the station. The information kiosk was equipped with a very unusual turnstile. It consisted of a horizontal set of bars that looked something like an hourglass. Stepping into it, only one person could approach the window at a time. Very weird. I obtained the information I needed about getting the night train to Dali and walked to the ticket counter.

No one was in line at the window I needed. I walked right up and leaned against the counter right in front of the money/ticket slot cut in the window and waited for the attendant to complete whatever task she was doing. She glanced up and I said "Da-LEE." She nodded and turned to her computer. Just then, a guy sidled up next to me, shoved some money into the slot, leaned over and started speaking into the grill. The guy was cutting in line while I was being served! Now I knew why the hourglass turnstile was needed. The ticket agent waved the guy away and then informed me that the train was full.

Back on the street, I checked the bus stations. There are a few of them around the train station and I found a bus heading to Dali in only an hour. I bought my ticket, put my backpack in the hold and dropped my little bag on the seat. I was hungry. I looked around inside but found only snack food. Back on the street, I found myself longing for Thailand or Myanmar as those streets are full of vendors selling tasty meals on nearly every corner. Around this part of Kunming, there was nothing. (I later discovered there are some vendors, but the food offered was not particularly appealing.) I managed to find a shop with instant noodles and had them prepare the little bucket shaped cup for me. It was spicy, but palatable. I picked up some gummy candy snacks in the bus station just in case; these I later gave away as they were much too horrible to consume.

My seat was near the front so I had a good view of the modern China. Kunming looked very modern, even if it had a Chinese style to the buildings. The bus ride was uneventful, but I did see some interesting rice paddies and villages along the way. The bus stopped at a town that was just south of old Dali. I knew I needed to get a ride to the old town.

I noticed a Chinese guy who looked a bit lost. Pijaing was Chinese but educated in the US and was heading to Dali! Between my guidebook and his communicative skills, we quickly found a pickup bus to the old city. Along the road, he told me about his experience in the US and the changes he's since since returning to China last year.

The bus dropped us off at the main entrance to the old city. It looked like something out of a Hong Kong movie. A great wall extended east and west of the magnificent gate. We walked in and spent the next hour looking for a reasonably priced guest house.

Just West of the city, a road runs past the wall. We managed to find a cheap guest house there (fifteen bucks a night) and headed back into the old town for supper. The restaurants put all their produce and meat products right out in front so you can inspect their quality. It's also useful for non-Chinese to point to the items they want.
Pijaing and I picked out some ham, mushrooms, cashews
(mok-mu-himmo-pawn in Thai) and greens. We sat with our Dali beer and
feasted on a meal that cost less then ten bucks for the two of us.

Around the corner, we discovered the pedestrian only portion of the city. It was described to me as being something out of Disneyland, but it was much more entertaining.
The old city is square and was originally surrounded by a massive wall, most of which has been lost. It was home to an empire that flourished over a thousand years ago. Today, it has been cleaned up, updated, refurbished and mostly modernized, but still maintains an ancient feel. The most interesting part of the city, for my money, are the numerous streams running through the streets. These may have served to bring fresh water down from the mountain, but today they serve a more decorative purpose - and the locals have certainly done an outstanding job with this remarkable waterworks. The main pedestrian area has a sort of stone lined trench, in which it is very easy to fall, but one of the side streets has a delightful series of cascades with numerous stepping stones.
There were a respectable number of tourists in the city that first night, but the next day the place was swarming with holiday goers. It was the first time I really felt like I was in China.
The city is on the edge of a huge lake. I could see the fertile valley floor from the bottom of the hillside on which the city is located. Huge ferry vessels traveled across the lake to the various towns. Pijang and I took a ride to the wharf so we could have a look at the goings on there. The wharf was inundated with souvenir vendors and tourists. "Where're the fishermen?" I asked. We tried to get out onto the dock, but to do so required paying about fifteen bucks to ride the tourist boats. It turns out that the wharf is really the government tourist boat dock. We could see through the gate a number of opulent tour boats ready to ferry us to the other side and back. The officials assured us that this was the wharf and denied the existence of any other boat launch. We decided to skip the official tour.

I had a chance to look at a number of hotels in the old city. They look more like temples than guest houses. The more modern structures looked more at home in the California hills than in Southern China. This place is modernizing very quickly ... too quickly. There are still plenty of traditions though. One curious thing about the Bai people is the women's penchant for boots.
Another local flavor is the colorful headdress. Although the photo here shows a child, it is worn by many of the local women (and not just for special occasions as near as I could tell).
One of the big specialties of the area is Pu-erh tea. I don't know much about it, but it is supposedly highly valued. I say supposedly because I could buy it for a bit of money or a whole lot of money. I had an opportunity to have some of the better quality tea with the merchant below. I assume Pu-erh tea is something of an acquired taste.
"For all the tea in China"? You have no idea how much tea China has. In addition to the copious quantities they drink at all hours of the day (seriously, they go through a lot of tea), they turn the tea leaves into works of art. I saw whole wall panels made of compressed tea leaves, but medallions and plaques were more common.
One of the more curious things in the city was a shop dedicated to selling matches. It actually took me a few minutes to figure this out, but it sells nothing but matches. If that is not an indicator that the Chinese smoke too much, Dali has three of these shops dedicated matches.
On my second day, in need of some exercise, I decided to take the thirteen kilometer hike across the mountain range to the West of Dali.
I used the cable car to get to the top since I had only a few hours of daylight. I had my hiking boots, some extra shirts in case the temperature went down further, and a small supply of fruit to keep me going. I realized all my preparations for an arduous walk were in vain as I encountered a couple of tourists coming the other way on the neatly paved stone path. It was a gentleman in a suit and a woman sporting high heels. I ran into a good number of be-suited Chinese men and women dressed for a night out. It was a bit unnerving, but the walk was quite pleasant.

Dali was still cold, but a lot more tolerable than Kunming. I was tempted to spend one or two more nights in the city, but also really wanted to see as much of the area as I could. I was told that the city of Lijang was really impressive, but I couldn't see how it could top Dali. Oh, how wrong I was.

See more photos from Dali here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tiger Leaping Gorge

"What was the most memorable part of your trip?" I asked the Australian who spent the last five months wandering around Asia. When he told me it was Tiger Leaping Gorge, I decided I had to see it. The gorge is said to be the deepest in the world and plenty of folks hike through it. My guide book suggested it could be a day trip along the river or an overnight trip if you wanted to go up along the mountain. I could take a bus to one end of the gorge and hike to the other end where I could pick up another bus back to Lijang. I decided to be lazy and hire a tour service. The trip out and back, an experience guide and a room in a guest house, came to about sixty bucks. It was relatively pricey, but worth it.

I dislike using tour services. I much prefer to set my own agenda and go where I want when I want. Furthermore, most tours offer side trips for shopping (where the tour company gets a cut of whatever overpriced goods the sheep purchase). I was assured there'd be no shopping trips so I booked the service for the next morning. I would meet the guide at a landmark at 8AM sharp.

I awoke much too early and spent a half hour watching the old town come alive. The tour operator met me at the prearranged location, explaining that I was the only one doing the overnight trip. I would travel to the site with a group of day-trippers and my guide would take me along the high route alone. Terrific! the operator introduced me to a young college student who spoke sufficient English.

After waiting around for a good half hour for the other tourists, my guide led me across the square where we looked for a specific taxi driver. We got into his mini-bus made a few stops to pick up other Chinese passengers before heading off to the gorge. Total time from meeting at the arranged location to leaving for the trip? One hour. This is why I don't like organized tours: they're organized for slow people.

On the trip to the gorge, we stopped at a sort of temple to see the mountains and the Yangtze river below. It was, I'm sorry to say, not a particularly inspiring view - I'd hope the gorge would be well worth it. We made another stop to see the "first bend" in the Yangtze river. Another uninspiring view. Some time later, we pulled into a town then pulled into a restaurant. "We have lunch here" my guide said. I didn't want lunch and certainly didn't want lunch at a tour bus stop. There were already a couple of other tour buses stopped there and I could see that others would soon arrive. My guidebook suggested that the high road was a day's climb and we'd just frittered away the morning. "We have time" he assured me. I guess he didn't know how slow I could be when climbing.

I decided I'd have a good meal to gird myself for the day's journey. I was discouraged by the lack of an English menu, but was simply flummoxed by the fact there was no menu whatsoever! "Just point to what you want," my guide assured me. Well, that's easy enough. I pointed to beef, garlic, two types of mushrooms and some fresh snow peas. The order taker held up one finger. I smiled and pointed to myself; yes, just enough for me. I looked forward to a delicious meal.

Ten minutes later my plate arrived. It was a plate of fried beef in sauce with onions and some sort of greens I could not identify; no mushrooms and no peas. As I looked at the plate, I shrugged. Then another plate appeared: two types of mushrooms in another thick sauce. Then the snow peas arrived on another large plate. Then a bucket of rice was placed before me. I kid you not, it was a wooden bucket holding at least five liters of steamed white rice. I had enough to feed a family!

Luckily, two other couples in need of a table asked to sit with me. I put some of the mushrooms and peas on my plate of beef and insisted they help themselves to the other dishes. They, in turn, offered me some of their food. The bill came to 70CNY, around ten bucks, and a lot more expensive then it should have been.

I looked around and noticed that none of the people from my bus were in the restaurant. The mini-bus was outside but I could not find my guide. I started looking around and soon located him. The others had gone on to the gorge. Hmmm, I'd have preferred to have left as well, but there you go. We moved my backpack to another vehicle so it could be dropped off at the guest house; this was the main advantage to using a tour operator. I was a bit nervous about being separated from my bag; all my battery rechargers and all my images were in there.

The mini-bus hugged the edge of the road as we entered the gorge. It was huge. The Yangtze river looked like a stream at the bottom.

Note the size of the mini bus.

The driver let us off and my guide directed me to a dusty gravel road that zigzagged
up the slope. The climb up was an ordeal for my out-of-shape physique. I took it really slow and stopped for photo breaks whenever I could. My guide, Lee-oh, was as encouraging as he could be, but it was no help. During our breaks I worked on his English language skills to improve his pronunciation. He didn't get a lot of opportunity to practice English.

We encountered a few villages as we ascended. Although the land is desert-like, the local Naxi people are able to grow a variety of crops with careful irrigation and contoured plots.

Tending the crops.

Eventually, we left the road and cut across the hillside on what could best be described as a goat path. It just so happened that we encountered a goat who had given birth to a kid only hours before. We also ran into a few goat herders sitting on the path and keeping an eye on their livestock.

The very definition of a goat path.
After a couple of hours, we made it to the "Half Way" guest house. I enjoyed a cool beer and a hot tea while admiring the vista.

The view from the "Half Way" guest house bar.
The path we now followed was level and I was able to cruise at a good speed. I frequently took breaks to gaze at the landscape and marvel at this particular waterfall that ran right across our trail.

Eventually, we made our way down the slope and stopped at Tina's guest house ... which should really be called a hotel seeing as how it's three stories of rooms. Curiously enough, the windows in the rooms look out not on the spectacular view of the gorge, but on the road and other slope. Lee-oh got us checked in and took my bag to my room.
The dining area of the hotel looks out on the gorge, but I decided to eat outdoors for the best view. A young English guy joined me for a drink afterward. He was spending a year teaching English in China and gave me some insight into the employment possibilities. Licensed teachers could do quite well (relative to other Chinese, though).

A few days earlier I discovered something unusual about many of the hotel beds: they have electric heaters. Instead of an electric blanket, which I despise, they have an electric mattress pad. I made extensive use of this device every evening. The nights were miserably cold and the blankets were as thin as a pauper's wallet.

In the morning, after a leisurely breakfast in the shadow of the mountain, Lee-oh told me we would begin our hike after lunch. I told him I wanted to start early so I could take my time and shoot some photos. I knew he needed to wait for the day-hikers to arrive from Lijang. I assured him that I was quite capable of hiking down the gorge alone. He reluctantly agreed but asked that I wait a bit for a couple of hikers who were, as I understood it, staying at the hotel. After another hour of puttering around, we departed with two middle-age Chinese women dressed for a walk in the park.

From the hotel, we walked down the road to another guest house run by a family responsible for cutting a trail down to the gorge. They charged a nominal fee for passage, but my guide had looked after that. Lee-oh insisted that we wait for another group of hikers before descending, but. I explained again that I would go it alone so I could stop for photos. Organized tours are too often in the "hurry up and wait" state.

I started down the gorge just as the sunlight was crawling down my side of the slope. I tried to time it so the light was about a hundred meters above me. I observed the indistinct demarcation between light and shadow as the sun rose above the mountains.

The family that built the trail did an awesome job. The switchbacks were well designed and they put chains and pegs anywhere a handhold was needed. They also installed a number of wicker baskets along the trail to act as garbage cans. These were emptied by the vendors who set up drink stands at the bottom of the gorge.

I rounded a corner and stopped in sheer amazement. The family had carved a passage right through the rock to enable us hikers to get by. to the left and above, solid rock; to the right, a sheer drop to the riverbed a good 75m below. Walking through that rather unnerving.
The path runs directly through a cut in the solid rock wall.
By the time I made it to the bottom of the gorge, it was still in deep shadow.

The contrast between sunlight and shadow wrecks havoc on my camera.
Looking back up, I saw the bridge on which I stood the day before.I saw a postcard with this photo and assumed it was some decorative footbridge. No, it's a full size bridge, at least 50m across, over which passes cars and tour buses.

Look up. Look way up.
Legend tells of a a rock where a tiger crossed the river to escape a hunter. From the bridge, I was able to see the "Tiger Leaping" stone; it looked like a rock. When I arrived at the bottom, however, I was able to witness the scale of the thing.

Look at the people standing on the rock near the bottom of the image.
See those tiny figures at the top of the rock? Those are people. The Tiger Leaping stone is the size of a small office building.

Lee-oh caught up with me as I was shooting and told me we had ten minutes before going back up. I was prepared to spend the better part of the day watching the sun work its way down the slope, but I also knew I'd be really slow going back up. We would not return by the trail, I learned, but by a set of ladders the family had installed downstream. I met my guide at the appointed time and he explained we were waiting for a few more hikers. Hmmm. I told him I'd start now because I'd be going slow. He wasn't happy about this, but off I went.

Guided by arrows painted onto the rock, I made my way up the slope. I was slow going and I was hot (for once). Eventually, the larger tour group caught up with me, right before we arrived at the first ladder. We sat in the shelter of a vendor's shop. Some of the Chinese tourists were purchasing water, oranges and peeled cucumber to snack on. Most of them were dressed in street clothes with ordinary shoes. Astonishing.

One of the other guides started taking people up and over the shelter to the ladder. I decided to get going, not knowing how far we had to go (it's impossible to tell how high up the gorge you are). There were a few people ahead of me as we came to the ladder. They grabbed the rail and started up.

From the bottom, the ladder looks almost inviting!
The ladder is a contraption of rebar steel welded together and held with wire attached to posts driven into the rock. I could see redundant supports and solid welds so I had no concerns for its ability to support my weight (and surely I was not the first oversize westerner to climb the ladder). I packed my camera and, holding my tripod in my right hand, started up once the people ahead of me were well ahead.

It wasn't practical to take the steps properly. I had to step up both feet on each rung. It was slow, but required less energy. I should have figured out a better place for my tripod. I was holding it with my thumb and forefinger, leaving only three fingers to hold the ladder.

The ladder was ascending through heavy vegetation; it was almost like crawling up a tree. After a few minutes, the ladder sort of ended and another one began. I wished I could have put the tripod somewhere, but my hands were busy holding on.

The new ladder crawled out of the brush and was exposed to the sun and breeze. The feeling of climbing a tree was gone and it felt more like climbing up a sheer rock face ... which is exactly what I was doing. Left hand up, left foot up, step up both feet together, raise right hand with tripod and use three fingers to hold the rail. I was painfully aware of how exposed I was and how small I was compared to the mountain I was scaling. The ladder just kept going and going. Left hand up, left foot up, step up, grab rail with three fingers, look closely at the welds and how the ladder is fastened to the rock with wire. I started giving myself the heebie-jeebies. I wished I'd backtracked the trail to the top instead of this accursed ladder, this hodgepodge of metal clinging precariously to the rock face. I thought of the Chinese moms who'd gone up the ladder ahead of me. I focused on the steps and kept going ... surely there was no going down at this point.

Suddenly, there was no more rungs. I reached out to grab the metal post and pull myself up and over the edge, fearful that I'd slip up at this point. I walked well away from the ladder, and the edge, and sat down on a rock. I was shaken, not stirred. I thought about my camera and how I should get a photo of the ladder looking down, but I just didn't have the nerve to walk over to it.

I watched as the girl behind me came up the ladder and continued up the trail. The climb hadn't fazed her at all. Lee-oh walked over and asked me if I was OK. "Yeah," I said, "How many more of those ladders are there?" He said there was only one, but it was short. "That's a relief!" I paused for a moment. "Lee-oh, how did you get up here?" I was ahead of him at the bottom of the ladder and only two girls had come up since I arrived.

"I take the trail" he answered pointed to the path behind him. I walked over to see a trail snaking down the slope. At the junction with the trail going up, two signs were posted. The one leading to the descending switchbacks was posted as the "easy way" while the one I just came up was marked as "dangerous way." Thanks.

I continued up and managed to the next ladder with little difficulties, having secured my tripod. I was able to take a few shots going up, but nothing as impressive as the climb itself. This shot gives you an idea as to how steep the slope is. If not for the switchbacks, there'd be an awful lot of ladders.
When I finally made it to the guest house on top of the trail, I took a much needed rest and finished my water. Lee-oh was trying to hurry me to the bus so we could go. We had to pick up my bag first, so I suggested we walk over to Tina's and have the bus meet us there; I really wanted a few more minutes of admiring the view. We walked across the bridge (the one in the earlier photo), collected my bag and walked all the way back. So much for being a hurry to leave, eh?

The bus took us back to the town ... where it stopped for dinner! Fortunately, Lee-oh managed to get us on a different bus heading back to Lijang right away.

I can't say that Tiger Leaping Gorge was the highlight of my trip, but there's no way I'll forget that accursed ladder.