After swinging by the tourist office in Guilin to (thankfully!) pick up our passports with their extended visas, we flew in to Lijiang’s airport and arrived late at night in Shuhe.
We knew to expect a colder climate in northern Yunnan. We’d read in the guidebook how many hotels in that part of the province provide electric blankets since they typically don’t have heat. I was super excited to crank ours up and get cozy in bed shortly after we arrived at The Bruce Chalet in Shuhe – it was definitely a necessary luxury as far as I was concerned!
We’d read good reviews about Bruce’s online and we were happy with it. The rooms were small but cute and cozy, the bed was great – one of the nicest and most comfortable ones we found in China (land of notoriously hard beds) – and Bruce, the owner, was helpful in coordinating transport and providing information for our hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Lijiang’s old town: pretty plastic and glimpses of Naxi traditions
Because of our limited time, we spent our first full day checking out Lijiang, leaving exploration of Shuhe for when we returned from our little trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhongdian. Bruce arranged transport for us to get in to Lijiang – by taxi the ride wasn’t too long and was cheap enough.
Lijiang is a convenient gateway for mountains of Northwest Yunnan. The old town is meant to be very picturesque and I was imagining a gnarly, well-worn, overgrown mountain town – maybe like a Chinese version of a somewhat developed Mcleod Ganj or something.
The old section of town was awarded status as a UN World Heritage Site in 1999, and it seems like the locals, or some board of tourism somewhere in China anyhow, decided to capitalize on this fact.
While the buildings, canals and alleyways of the old town today ARE beautiful, there’s little real life happening outside of the tourist trade (of which there is PLENTY – literally every building is either a hotel, a restaurant catering for tourists or a shop targeting tourists with “local” mass produced goods and plenty of generic and often pointless China-themed souvenirs) and the whole scene feels pretty sterile and Disney-fied.
Plus, while you can maybe see the start of mountains from certain vantage points, the town itself is pretty flat. Mcleod Ganj it certainly is not!
Here’s a snapshot of one of the squares in the center of the old town. Yes it’s busy, but all those people are Chinese tourists, most of them parts of lumbering tour groups, rather than locals. Please note that this is MUCH less crowded than the main square, which seemed to be THE favorite congregation and coordination point for all those tour groups…
If you can handle the crowds, Lijiang does have certain charms, but I’m glad we erred on the side of caution and stayed outside of the city in a smaller, less developed town not too far away. Not that Shuhe hasn’t been affected by tourism too, but it didn’t feel quite so plastic as Lijiang’s old town.
Lijiang has traditionally been home to the ethnic group the Naxis, who were traditionally a matriarchal society and who developed a beautiful pictographic script which is apparently the only hieroglyphic language still being used today. For all my feminist linguists out there, according to Lonely Planet:
There are strong matriarchal influences in the Naxi language. Nouns enlarge their meaning when the word for ‘female’ is added; conversely, the addition of the word for ‘male’ will decrease the meaning. For example, ‘stone’ plus ‘female’ conveys the idea of a boulder; ‘stone’ plus ‘male’ conveys the idea of a pebble.
Which of course I think is awesome.
This writing was on a wall outside the more touristy section of the old town. The text on the left is Chinese, but the larger characters on the right are Naxi pictographs. No idea what it all says…
The Naxis, as many of the ethnic minorities in China, have a beautiful and distinctive traditional way of dressing. We saw some people wearing traditional outfits while we were in Yunnan; in Lijiang’s Old Town the women in traditional garb were inevitably in the tourist business but outside of the Old Town it was great seeing folks in this traditional clothing just doing normal, every-day stuff. (Some content and pictures about minority garb from my favorite Chinese fashion blog here, here and here)
Water is an important part of traditional life in and around Lijiang. The Old Town is laced with beautiful little canals that were – and sometimes, although less frequently, still are – used by locals in daily life for things like washing clothing.
Of course tourist towns do offer some advantages; we were happy to find the Well Bistro in the thick of the old town’s winding streets whose friendly staff served up Lavazza coffee – give me a decent latte and I am a happy girl!
On the flip side, there were some other for-tourist-delicacies that I found somewhat less appealing. Apparently yak is a thing in Yunnan. There was loads of different kinds of yak meats for sale all over town. Here are some cured yak ribs:
And I’m not sure if I really want to know what part of a yak these things are:
On that appetizing note, I think I’ll finish up on Lijiang for the night. Back in the present/Australia, we had a beautiful day here on the Great Ocean Road but now night’s turned really cold and it’s time for me to try and warm up in our camper bed. Goodnight folks!