Imagine your typical county fair. Amidst the endless snack stalls, walking along the trash-strewn aisles, throngs of overweight Americans chow down overpriced greasy fried things on sticks. Now replace the big-bellied, t-shirt wearing Americans with 80-pound, ultra-fashionable young Chinese women. Are the sausages thicker than the stick-thin thighs of the people eating them? You’re in Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage outdoor shopping mall in Yunnan Province.
But after a week in some somewhat less festive areas, and one last bumpy county bus ride–this one notable for the thrill of sharing a winding, cratered road with careening coal trucks driven by teenage boys–descending into Lijiang was a real treat. Many treats, actually. Because you just have to try them all–from the Yak jerky to the taffy, to the fried baby chickens on sticks (picture below, of course).
According to local lore, ancient Lijiang was once the center of an independent Naxi kingdom, a key node on the old Tea-Horse Road linking China to Tibet and India, and a laid-back hangout for Western backpackers in the 90’s. The 21st Century has brought change. As one of our Naxi cab drivers explained, after Lijiang “commercialized” (都是商业化了), a new class of Chinese tourists discovered that they liked the place, too (很多中国人开始跑到这里). Then of course the foreigners, or at least the cool ones, stopped coming（自从最近十年以来你们来到这的外国人特别少). A decade on, the result is pure, concentrated Chinese tourism awesomeness (with a touch of banana pancakes). It did seem some of the locals sensed that we foreigners are way too snobby about what constitutes cool/exotic tourism to appreciate all the good snack stalls. The same cab driver: “You foreigners are always biking, hiking, working hard when you travel! When foreigners come here, they just want to walk or bike really far out of town. You’ll see. Outside of town, it’s all foreigners riding bikes. Inside, it’s all Chinese having a good time.”
But back to Lijiang’s pre-snacks significance, try as we might (not really), we didn’t really learn a single darn thing about Naxi culture or history. Except maybe that in traditional Naxi culture, the street sweepers all wear very colorfull costumes while picking up those littered sausage sticks and paper noodle bowls. Another one of our Naxi cab drivers complained that Bai people, from farther south in Dali, actually do most of the business here. How is that? We asked. “We Naxi people are kind of stupid” (我们纳西族有一点笨). Ha ha ha? But although we didn’t learn much, that’s kind of the whole point to Lijiang. And along with everybody else who came here to eat things and take pictures (including shots of those costumed street sweepers), we had a pretty great time.
For accomodation, we eschewed the trouble of doing our own finding, and phoned ahead to the Lonely Planet writer’s top pick. Three words: coffee, laundry, and free. The place also supplied scampering puppies for Owen to chase. Win-win-win. With a mix of Westerners and Chinese (Lonely Planet’s in Mandarin now, too), the guests in the courtyard made an odd mix. While we chatted with a pair of sextagenarian ladies from Australia (whose travel stories included a 3-month traipse across Central Asia and Iran in the 1990’s), a Chinese woman emerged from her room dressed for the day as a full-blown geisha. She joined the others playing video games on their cellphones, and the little courtyard was filled with sounds of puppies, a happy one-year-old, and points being scored.
Our second day, hoping to find some country adventures, we went to Baisha, a nearby village where one can walk through chicken-filled alleys (Owen’s favorite) and up a hill to a monastery. It started to really pour rain on the ascent, and we were envious of all the bikers who were out that zipped past en route to shelter. Also, they were all Chinese. A few minutes into the downpour, we were lucky to score a ride from a local couple passing by in their Jeep. “You foreigners love to walk!” They said as we got in. “Always walking or riding bikes.” They were actually really laid-back and friendly, and chilled-out music wafted from the car’s speakers. Yunnanese stoners, it would seem. Then near the top of the hill, the car sputtered and died. The couple giggled and exchanged an amused glance: “Meile.” Translation: it’s gone. They weren’t paying enough attention to the fuel gauge as they toodled around the countryside. Despite our profuse offers to help, they insisted they would be fine. “We’re just out here for fun, you guys go on.” Somehow accepting that our own purpose out here was indeed more important, we hopped down, thanked them, and apologized for being so heavy as to waste all their gas. We could hear their giggles fade behind us as we walked…and then walked, and walked. Finally, we arrived, soaked, at the ticket booth. We were the only ones there. The posted price was 25RMB, so we forked over 50. The lady informed us gruffly that we had to also pay an additional 80RMB each for the Lijiang scenic area in order to enter this monastery. What? First Nick pointed out that this additional cost wasn’t posted anywhere, but that made no difference to her. Seeing that pouring-rain-with-baby sympathy also wasn’t going to work, he then tried escalating. You must be asking for a bribe, he said, since you seem to be making up this charge. I understand there are steep penalties for corruption, right? Immediately another clerk, apparently of higher rank, emerged and directed him to a little sign downhill from the booth. Sure enough, there it was: a posted regulation stating that any ticket entrance fee anywhere in the county had to include an 80RMB surcharge–for “historical preservation” of the outdoor shopping mall we’d just come from. There was certainly a crime being committed here, but not by the ticket lady. Since there was no way we were going to spend $35 to poke around in the rain at a tiny temple, we headed back down the hill, laughing ourselves now.
And it was our lucky day, because not two minutes later, we were offered a ride back into town. There were already 4 young adults in the small sedan, but people are skinny in China, so we all fit comfortably. They were students from Hangzhou, of all places, and they remarked to us, “Oh, you foreigners love to walk!”
Back at the guesthouse, we set Owen loose for his daily puppy-chasing. The ostensible owner of the dogs was a 20-something girl who took it upon herself to traumatize the little dogs as much as possible in their waking hours. She painted their toenails and dyed their hair; she hit and kicked and taunted them at every opportunity; when they were troublesome, she placed them on the top shelf of a tall bookcase, where they whimpered until they fell asleep. She even took it upon herself to try to teach Owen how to whack the dogs with a stick. Thankfully, Owen was mostly delighted just to have them lick his outstretched hands.
That night, the geisha changed out of her costume into a formal Chinese qipao dress. We laid out our hiking clothes. Having snacked ourselves to contentedness over the last couple days, it was time to head out and do some of our famous walking.