11.04.2008 - 11.05.2008 80 °F
My first day in Lijiang was about as picture perfect as can be. The sky was blue, I awoke to the laughter of children next door at the elementary school, and everyone said it was unseasonably warm that day. My plan for the day was to get lost.
I wandered out early in the morning to find the Naxi women (the local minority group) already in the streets making Baba (thick pancakes, filled with meat sometimes) and eggs. In the morning the streets are lined with vendors opening shop, old ladies cooking and the cutest stray dogs you have ever seen. And no one here tries to sell to you on the street, they simply might look up, give you a smile, perhaps a "Ni hao" and continue on with their day, interested in you for the moment, but ultimately unconcerned if you continue walking. It's nice.
The Old Town square was starting to wake up too, with a few tour groups and a group of Naxi women in the traditional blue and white slowing moving in a circle, singing and dancing. I stopped to watch the simple dance and was transfixed. I don't know how long I stood there--but a little Chinese girl of maybe 3 or 4, dressed in the clothes of another minority group, brought me out of the trance when she started trying to emulate the old women.
A Chinese tourist group finally spotted me and the photo-ops began. Once I managed to escape, I wandered towards the water wheels. They are like the symbol of old town. I emerged from the winding cobblestone streets into a massive courtyard. Still very much a part of the Old Town but with a large video screen on a tower in the middle--a little jarring to see and quite out of place.
Next to the water wheel there was a long structure hung with all sorts of bells and wooden clappers. It is the Dongba Aspirational Wall. You purchase a wooden clapper for a few dollars, write your wish on it, then hang it on this structure. There are so many that at points you have to crouch down just to walk. I bought one, liking the idea that there will always be a part of me there, and filled it out. At the very end I added, "And please let Obama win". So basically, you have me to thank for that whole president thing.
I continued walking, with no map or idea where I was going or when I would get there, until I was at the entrance to Black Dragon Pool. It's more like a lake and a park all in one. I paid the entrance fee and couldn't tear myself away until my stomach was not only growling it was screaming four hours later. It is, without doubt, the most peaceful and most beautiful place I have ever seen. Except for a man in the lake in his underwear splashing around and screaming. It seems they're filming a movie in Lijiang--they were at the airport when I left too. I also stopped at a temple and was blessed by a Dongba man in a quite involved ceremony. There was incense and bell ringing, water rituals, a wooden bracelet and a jade necklace (oh yeah, and a donation!). I etched a prayer on a padlock and attached it to a metal chain in front of the temple. There are no keyholes or keys for the locks and they hang forever. Many are covered in rust from years and years.
Lunch was the Well Bistro. I'd been hoping to find it and stumbled upon it when I'd completely lost my way. A favorite of internationals, the place is filled with notebooks that are absolutely stuffed with drawings and notes from people who have eaten there over the last ten years or so. I had some pizza (they're famous for it--and rightfully so) and Naxi Baba and was so stuffed I couldn't eat the rest of the day.
That night I went to see the Naxi Orchestra play. Many of the members are in their 80's and they play traditional music (some songs are over a thousand years old) on original instruments (most were destroyed long ago but many members of this group from generations past buried their instruments to keep them safe during the revolutions and thus they have survived). It was a good concert when they were playing, I was really interested in the traditional music. However, when this man who called himself 'The Master' came out to introduce the pieces he was quite long-winded. He spoke about Chinese foot-binding, Chinese soccer, how he had a stroke...
Day two. I woke up very early to walk to the bus stop in the new part of Lijiang. It's not so much a bus stop as a place where locals instinctively know to congregate and catch a 'bus'. I use the term 'bus' loosely as it means any moving vehicle with a city issued number in the window. So don't go looking for any consistency or helpful clues like CTA on the sides of these suckers. Oh no!
After catching a bus, where my knees didn't fit because the seats were so close together we rode 40 minutes up to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain where we were let out on the side of the road, sort of near a parking lot. They're not really all about the easy directions here. Long story short, I finally figure out where I am going and buy a ticket for Yak Meadow, the mid level of the mountain at 3700 metres up. I jumped on the bus to the cable car and from then on, apparently had been adopted by the group of Chinese Government Officials from Guangdong Province that populated the rest of my bus. It was nice at first, because the guide took care of stuff for me. But then I realized I was the mascot. I took well over 50 photos with Chinese businessmen who literally fought each other and shoved each other to get a shot. I barely got to look at the mountain scenery for all the photo taking and the broken English they spouted at me. However, the mountain was very beautiful, though a snowstorm did move in as we were coming down.
On the way up in the cable cars no one wanted to sit with me (I was fine with that). On the way down, there were arguments over who would get to. Eventually the group and I split up--I ran away--and I had to get a bus back to the main tourist center.
(Enter Mr. Hyde)
There were three buses, equally large, going to the SAME place, all lined up one after the other. But every Chinese tourist has to be the best, has to get on the first bus. I was in the front of the 'line'...but not for long. The crowd surged forward, my feet were literally picked up off the ground by the force and a man took his hand and smashed my head into the bus wall. I screamed, and they laughed. Then the crowd surged forward again--really, all this for a BUS--and they squeezed all the air out of me. This was it, I had HAD it and something in me snapped. I found the strength to unpin my arms and started throwing elbows and cursing like a sailor. When I finally got on the bus, they all thought I was very funny and took my picture (they thought I didn't see them) for the next 30 minutes and pointed at me. Needless to say, I am DONE with Chinese buses.
I was dropped off in some random parking lot and had to wander for an hour and a half until I found where the first bus had dropped me off. It was 40 degrees and raining and no one would help me or do anything but point, laugh, and take pictures when I asked if they spoke English. I sat on the side of the road and hoped the bus would come. When it DID come, it was someone's van with the Number 7 in the window. Whatever, I thought and just got in. At least when I got home I went online and saw Obama won. I screamed out loud in my hostel and the people there gave me a half-hearted 'Congratulations'. No one in Lijiang really cared.
The next day I left for Yangshuo, all too happy to be leaving. I had two flights and a 2 hour layover in Kunming. I was followed through the airport by more Chinese with cameras and even a few with telephoto lens who tried to hide and take my picture. Really, if this is even a fraction of what it's like to be a star, I have the greatest sympathy. I eventually had to sit in a corner seat far away from my gate with nothing across from it, just to get some peace.
THE HAPPY ENDING
Now I'm in Yangshuo (south of Guilin) and from the moment I arrived I've felt so welcome. The hostel is not a hostel at all really but a homestay. Mr. Wei, the owner gave me slippers to wear around the house when I arrived (by expensive taxi from the airport) and sat me down for some tea. Then he said, "Well, go get settled and dinner is in half an hour." The house came alive! Everyone came out from their rooms and we all sat together, about 15-20 of us, around a big round table. There was a huge pot of rice, and a lazy Susan like I've never seen, just packed with all sorts of dumplings and chicken and beans....it was the best meal I've had in China and it's included in my 10 dollar a night room. It's a big family here and everyone spends the evenings just chatting and sharing stories. Everyone hangs out with everyone else and makes sure to include eveyone else when they go out. There are people from all over the world, all ages--even a family with two kids from Quebec that are home schooling their children during an 8 month round the world trip. It's finally looking up again. And this afternoon, we're all going to a cave together to play in the mud baths. It doesn't get much better than mud baths.