Lijiang Old Town walks, Yunnan, South-West China
- Travelling to Yunnan
- Finding somewhere to stay
- Walking around the town
- Breakfast and the presence of the Naxi people
- Early reflections on being a visitor to China
- Hiring Bikes, excursions from Lijiang, buying a rucsack
- Brief introduction to Old Lijiang from a tourist leaflet
It was June 1st. Owen and I had spent a few days in Beijing, managing to get around the big city, but now we had to get down to the province of Yunnan in South-West China. The flight to the capital city of Kunming took three and a half hours - as long as flying to Crete from England - illustrating just how big this country is. Beijing Domestic Airport was very busy, with a hectic, chaotic check-in hall with long queues for all Air China departures and several people pushing in or arguing with each other.
However, we didn't have much trouble with our flight - the main problem for me was my stomach, which reacted badly either to the meal in the French restaurant at our hotel the evening before or the Chinese breakfast at the airport. I felt awful on the flight, but my spirits picked up when we met Catriona without difficulty at Kunming airport. We hadn't seen her since she went out to China to teach English to schoolkids, 10 months earlier.
After sorting out onward flights to Lijiang, and leaving our rucksacks, we were able to call in to the centre of Kunming for a couple of hours. It was only 15 minutes by taxi.
The modern centre still retained traditional gateways around the main square in the centre, overshadowed by tall modern buildings. We walked around and found a restaurant where Owen and Catriona could get some lunch - I sat and watched the passers-by.
We were on the veranda of the restaurant looking out onto the street, and an old woman came along asking for money. She looked as if she had come in from the countryside. A policeman moved her on - begging in the streets of the cities is discouraged, and it was one of very few examples we saw. In most tourist locations there are plenty of hawkers selling everything from kites made from a streamer of butterflies, to bottles of water, slices of melon, and baseball caps, but only the occasional begger, usually suffering a severe physical handicap.
Kunming city centre was brightened up with lots of flowers, colourful banners and parasols, and so was the airport, which we returned to for our afternoon flight to Lijiang. I was still feeling fragile as we entered the aircraft, and looked out at a big black storm cloud over the airport building. However, the flight got under way and we were soon soaring over misty hills somewhere in south central Asia, not far from Tibet. It all felt rather unbelievable.
After an hour or so the plane began descending and we could see the patterns of the terraced fields below, unlike any landscape I had seen before (see photo). We flew over the city of Lijiang and touched down at the airport further along the broad plain between the mountains. Although it stands in a broad plain between the mountains, Lijiang is about 2400 metres (nearly 7900 ft) above sea level.
We took a taxi into Lijiang, and the driver was a young woman; we were to find out that women play at least an equal role with men in this part of China. She was surprised to find that Catriona understood Mandarin Chinese, and asked about our visit to Yunnan. We had been rather worried about finding a hotel in Lijiang at 6 p.m., but she asked what sort of place we were looking for and said she could help us.
It was about a 20-minute drive into Lijiang, at first past fields with farm workers still busy, and then took a while to drive through to the old town. Our driver pulled in at the end of a narrow street and led us along it to a doorway. Catriona went in with her, and after some negotiation we had a room for the night! It was worth an extra tip for the taxi ride.
The hotel was in traditional style, on 3 levels with tiled roofs supported by timber posts and walls, built squarely around a small courtyard. Our room was a bit cramped for the three of us and all our gear, but it had a shower room and only cost 100 yuan (about £7) per night. As with all the hotels we stayed at, there were large flasks of hot water to make tea, so we were able to relax and recover for half an hour before exploring further afield.
By then it was evening, and beginning to get dark. Just a short distance - maybe 30 metres - along the alleyway from our hotel we reached the main street through the Old Town. Immediately we were surrounded by other visitors wandering along looking in at the open fronts of the shops, or deciding which restaurant to eat at.
Catriona and Owen were pretty hungry by then, although I was still feeling under the weather. We walked along the street past shops on both sides selling souvenirs, tea, and general merchandise (see photo) then reached a small square with a restaurant in front of us. It looked OK, and we sat upstairs with a view out through an open window over the street. Afterwards, we walked further and I had to find a toilet - there was one available for a small charge at the Youth Hostel, once we found it.
We also tried to find somewhere with information on Tiger Leaping Gorge, how to get there, what the conditions were like, etc. Although the Lonely Planet Guide said there were lots of places with information, we had trouble finding any. One place advertised guided walks and tours, and they organised groups to the Gorge, but that was all. We decided to head back to the hotel for some sleep.
This was our first experience of Lijiang Old Town, which we would continue to explore over the next few days.
On Thursday 2nd June, after night disturbed by the periodic noise of some sort of plumbing mechanism close to our room, we set out to find some breakfast. Back to the streets of the Old Town, we turned to the right first, and for a while walked around the large open space which seemed to be at the entrance to this tourist area. A white stone provided some information for visitors. Houses rose up the hill behind, on the other side of the stream which ran through the centre of the Old Town.
Beyond, past a big (recently-built?) wooden water wheel in the stream, was a massive brown wall carved with local images and a motif to mark the designation of Lijiang Old Town as a World Heritage Site. Walking past that, and you were transported from a neat, well-preserved living museum maintained for tourists into the shops and busy streets and noise and general bustle of a modern Chinese town. We crossed the divide later that morning with our bikes - but first we had to have breakfast.
We saw women in the traditional Naxi blue costumes in the open space, which seemed to be a place to gather tour parties and meet friends, or just relax and watch the world go by. The Naxi people formed two thirds of Old Lijiang's population of about 25,000 people, so this was an important meeting place for them. There were a few ponies dressed up for visitors. The open areas and streets were also paved in stone, with plenty of greenery to complement the architecture of the old buildings.
We were beginning to get our bearings, and turned back towards the old streets and shops. One building was a large hotel behind a traditional facade, and it looked as though the prices were several times higher than we were paying at ours. We were asked by a couple of people - both women - if we wanted to hire a taxi to explore the area. Later, reading the Lonely Planet guide, we found out about the matriarchal traditions of the Naxi.
Continuing along beside the stream, we found a couple of restaurants offering breakfast. Just what we needed. I was getting my appetite back, and wth the security of a tablet to settle my stomach I was ready to sample some of the fried bread that seemed to be a local speciality. One of the peculiarities of China is that baked bread is a rarity. We had seen a French-style bakery in a modern shopping centre in Beijing, but this was entirely different (see photo). These were thick sweet spiced breads cooked on a hotplate. And they were filling! There was enough left to wrap up for lunch.
It was an idyllic spot to relax beside the stream, with the walls of the old houses on the other side, but we decided to get moving and find some bikes. We had decided not to try to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge on our first day at Lijiang, given my dodgy stomach and the need to adjust to the altitude.
I was already thinking how my preconceptions of being a tourist in China had been quite wrong. I had had visions of lots of form filling, lots of police and soldiers around, difficulties getting access to certain places, people being very cautious about foreigners, and many items being in short supply, all influenced by a visit to Romania 30 years before and lasting images of Communist China from student days.
It was turning out to be nothing like that. It was open and friendly, very accepting of foreigners (more so than Japan), and as easy to get tickets and travel around as in the UK (provided you could get over the language barrier). We didn't encounter any restrictions anyway, and although we'd seen armed guards at important buildings in Beijing there was little police or military presence to be seen out here in Lijiang. Later, in Dali, I was warned not to take a photo of the army facility in the town, but otherwise there was no-one to stop us taking pictures or talking to people. And there were at least as many shops as you'd find anywhere in Europe, well stocked with goods from daily necessities to luxury items.
This is dealt with in detail in the separate Baisha story - we found a guest house in the middle of the Old Town offering bikes for hire, and set off for the day in warm sunshine. On the way, we stopped off at a shop selling outdoor gear, trying to get a map of the area, and at a typical little food shop on a busy street in the new town for picnic items. We also saw areas of new development on our way out of Lijiang. Read more in the Baisha story>
Back in the evening, Catriona had decided she could do with a small rucksack for hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge, and we returned to the outdoor shop where there was a good choice available for under £10. We once again explored the streets, and found other attractive restaurants beside another section of the stream (the Guide says that in fact there are several canals criss-crossing the Old Town, and it was once the water supply).
At our hotel, we had to move to a different room upstairs to get away from the noisy plumbing, and had a better sleep, but next morning we had to get up at about 6 a.m. to get the bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge. The hotel agreed to store our large rucksacks, fortunately, and when we returned the following day we were able to stay on for another night.
The bus station was further away than we thought, turning left out of the Old Town then with a long walk (about a mile, or 1.6 km) along a busy street in the newer part of town. We passed shops and banks and finally a row of street cafes running along to the bus station itself. But that's the Tiger Leaping Gorge story...Part 2 covers further walks around the Old Town after our return from Tiger Leaping Gorge >
Contributed by: Andrew Llanwarne
(From a tourist leaflet we picked up on our final day - for once, it had an English translation in it.)
The old town of Lijiang is located in the middle of Lijiang dam, it is about 2400 meters above the sea level, also 26'52' north latitude and 100'14' east longitude. Nowadays total area is 3.8 square kilometer with 6269 households and 25379 residents, the 66.7 percent is Naxi nationality, that is 16999 people as a whole.
The old town has been a key commercial town connected Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet. The Jade River runs through the town with three main branches and there are 300 bridges over teh river, which makes the plateau town full of southern China water town flavor. The streets covered with stones and hundred years aged Naxi style buildings add the town's historic feeling. With the great effort of Naxi ancestors, the streets and lanes of the town are filled with cultural atmosphere. The Mu Clan Mansion, the Sifang Square, the Great Stone Bridge, Ancient Music, Dongba Culture, etc, make you feel the great harmony between man and nature, harmony between modern life and ancient civilization.
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