Chinese place names are magic. Everywhere else in the world, place names are prosaic descriptions – black pool, slough – or refer to some dull person: Snowdon, Brighton – with occasional ventures into the ridiculous: Pratt’s Bottom, Giggleswick. In China, however, places are seen through a veil of pure poetry, it seems, with tigers, moons, pearls and more dragons than you could shake a stick at. So we have seen the reflection of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Black Dragon pool, and visited Tiger Leaping Gorge and Blue Moon Valley, and seen views called “Tortoise crawling up a hill” and “Nine Horses painting” – and the places are all the better for it, I think. Calling them all ‘Scunthorpe” would somehow make them a bit more miserable.
Lijiang delighted us. Our expectations had been low, expecting a touristy gaudy town like Yangshuo, maybe with some miniscule old areas covered in souvenir shops, like Xingping, mixed with a big city grimness like Kunming. Instead, the old town area is just beautiful – covered in flowers, gleaming stone pavements, tiny clear streams running throughout with equally tiny bridges, and endless beautiful wooden buildings. I guess some of it was reconstructed – a nasty earthquake in 96 killed over 300 people and destroyed 350 thousand buildings, some of which must have been in the old town – though, apparently the traditional wooden architecture withstood the quake better than most modern concrete buildings. But if so, it’s been done well. We had a delightful time, just wandering around for hours on end. Very few western tourists – we saw maybe a couple each day – and very little catering for English speakers; restaurants were a guessing game, and even our hotel’s staff didn’t speak any English. It’s popular with Chinese tourists, for sure, but town seemed reasonably quiet in the morning and afternoon – the crowds seemed to mostly come out only in the evening.
Many things to love here
- They make ‘flower cakes’ everywhere here – pastry with a rose petal paste: delicious. Also: flowers, everywhere.
- Tea, too, is major business – pu’er tea, which is post-fermented, is delicious and always served with ceremony. Though as our guide Rachel put it, in Japan, the tea ceremony is all about ceremony: in China, it’s all about tea.
- Silverware dominates the shops – both of us left with a new piece of jewellery that we loved.
- Serious mushrooms – dozens of types I’ve never seen before in many shops and restaurants, delighting my mushroom-adoring heart
- People dance. Yes, there’s the touristy dance in the town square – but outside that, we kept finding small groups of random people dancing, to no obvious tourists or for anything other than the enjoyment of dancing.
- Old people have a lovely life. Lots of the dancers were elderly folks, who also do tai chi, and work out – slowly – in the park outdoor gyms, or just hang around in groups nattering and drinking tea. While walking through the parks, as well as the big groups of tai chi exercisers, you’d also just see random old people picking a beautiful spot and doing slow, graceful movements. Or, in the outdoor gyms, they have some devices just for massage – the back massage, where you rub your back up and down a vertical massage roll, seemed particularly popular.
- Traditional costumes are worn as normal wear, not just for tourist show.
The main local people are the Naxi, a rather matriarchal culture. According to Rachel, who is Naxi, up to the 50s, men still spent a large part of the year travelling on the tea route to Tibet – so women did everything: ran businesses, farmed, managed the accounts – and the tradition still continues, quite visibly. In the market stalls, shops and restaurants, women are still very much running the show; we barely saw any men working.
The Naxi also have the last living pictograph language, which is beautiful. Many of the shop signs in the town were in three languages – Mandarin, Naxi and English – so we had a lot of fun working out how the pictographs corresponded to English. Some are obvious; some much less so – for example, happiness is represented by a steaming pot of food. Though, given how much people here love food, maybe it is fairly obvious. Rachel taught us some essential phrases: a foreigner is referred to as ‘big nose, blue eyes’ – Meeoh-hah nee mash-a.
Black Dragon pool in Jade Spring Park is particularly beautiful. It’s a short walk out of town, and is relatively empty of tourists – seemed mostly used by locals. The snow capped mountains above – Jade Dragon Snow mountain among others – are reflected in the waters of the various lakes; there are many temples and pagodas, ancient trees, huge shoals of golden fish. And lots of random people doing random things: a group of traditional musicians in a pagoda in the centre of one lake; a uniformed group of people dancing to what sounded like Chinese clubbing music on the side of another; a separate group doing tai chi with rackets and balls (just discovered this is a thing: roliball), old folks gently working out or doing old style Tai Chi. Just lovely.
We had arranged for a guide for a few days, as we both loathe tour groups and can’t rent cars. Rachel was wonderful, and patiently answered all the inane questions I’d been building up, while driving us around all the following places and helping us have a wonderful time. It was depressingly good to have someone else sorting out everything – from little things like what direction to go, to the surprisingly complex things like buying tickets (Snow Mountain cable car had sold out when we arrived – it couldn’t be booked in advance for foreigners – so she spent half an hour ringing around her contacts to force a way through).
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain was first. It is a beautiful snowy mountain, and the 3k-long cable car ride up there is spectacular. However, in retrospect, it could have been skipped – the queues are horrific, even at 9am, midweek, off peak season. And the walkway to the upper area was closed – so all you can do at the top is wander around the small, very crowded platform for a few minutes, then queue to get the cable car back down. It took well over two hours between the various queues for those few minutes – so, nah. On the other hand, it’s also the highest we’ve been, at 4500 meters, so was interesting to see how light headed we both felt – not dreadful, but just off. Most other people there seemed to be with tour groups, all of whom had rented long waterproof down jackets to them, along with canisters of oxygen – we felt somewhat underprepared by comparison.
Blue Moon Valley was beautiful too – intense clear turquoise waters, either due to the paint of a raft of the gods’, or copper ions in the water, depending on who you believe. Even on a cloudy day, the blue was intense and beautiful. But, again, the crowds were unbelievable – it’s a popular place for wedding photos, so there were dozens of couples with photographers. Chinese wedding photos are big business. The shoot is done before the wedding, and it is a massively serious affair. Those who can afford to, fly abroad with their team of photographers, wardrobe managers and make up assistants; the poorest will have to settle for a photographer’s backdrop of exotic locations; all will spend far more than sensible – it’s statement of hope for the future, of status and wealth, of the fantasy life. Chinese weddings cost on average a year and a quarter’s salary. The most popular spot for the photos was fake – the government had put up a concrete dam, but a very pretty one that looks like rock; there were several couples at that alone. Apparently the government is very fond of enhancing nature in this way.
Rachel took us to a few old villages nearby too. They were lovely, – ancient temples, cobbled streets, clear streams running throughout, lined with gnarled ancient cypresses and fresh green willows. The first, Shaxi, was particularly enjoyed as we had delicious coffee and cake – my first coffee in a week: I’m trying to give up as it’s hard to find and going through withdrawal headaches every couple of days is just annoying. It was far more Western friendly than Lijiang, with lots of cafes and English translations. But pleasantly laid back at the same time, few tourists from East or West. The second one, Shuhe, was much larger and busier (weddings!), but had a lovely way of alternating garden and farm land with town. If – when? – we come back, they’d make a nice base instead of Lijiang.
Oddly, they seemed to cater better to English speakers there than in Lijiang with several lovely cafes and cakes having English menus and signs. We ate some delightful foods throughout – yak meat stir fry and a giant platter of mushrooms at Rachel’s restaurant; plus a hot pot of many mushrooms in a specialist mushroom restaurant.We kept it modest: just pointed at a few of the cheapest names on the very extensive mushroom list and still wound up with about a kilo bubbling away.
All in all: a wonderful place to spend a few days. China is more beautiful than I’d dared hope.