I arrived in Lijiang with fatigue and an upset stomach. After spending the previous week, battling a horrendous stomach that probably came about from consuming unfiltered water, I was still a bit queezy and sleep deprived.
I stepped off the crowded bus onto the streets of the prolific Yunnan city and took a deep breath. Armed with Mapsme and forty pounds of stuff on my back, I began walking north.
It seemed to be a city that was a far cry from Shanghai, Beijing or even Kunming.
At near 8000ft in elevation, Lijiang defiantly appeared to be a perfect poster city for Yunnan Province in Southwest China. Sitting on the steps of the Himalaya and near the world heritage site, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, I had read that many Chinese tourists flock to Lijiang.
The old town of Lijiang, which is a historical residence of the Naxi people and UNESCO world heritage site, had been turned into a tourist extravaganza. In fact, after spending more than a good few hours wandering hopelessly lost, I began to get the sense that Lijiang was like an Epcot or Disney World of some sorts. Obviously there are many distinct differences between the two but for some reason, as I was wading in and out of crowds and through gates and high walls, I could sense the superficial quality in the atmosphere.
Most of this wasn’t real Naxi culture in the flesh, this was more like going to a Japanese restaurant back in the states only to find out all the waiters and cooks were Mexican with a few Chinese or Koreans thrown in there.
Despite the city being a cultural capital for the Naxi people, I learned quickly that many of the buildings were built souley for tourism.
I had a reservation at The October Inn hostel but attempting to find it was far from a straightforward endeveur. I walked up old stone cobbled streets and through a maze of alleyways, tall brick walls, restaurants and other buildings that made seeing far ahead or glimpsing what was around corners, near impossible.
Eventually after walking miles around western Lijiang, I found the October Inn that was guarded by locked gated doors. The guesthouse sat high up on hill in a neighborhood in the northwestern part of the city and it’s vantage point offered a pleasant view of the surrounding foothills. After knocking for well over ten minutes. A Chinese man, who introduced himself as Tom and the owner of the hostel, opened the door. Tom was fluent in English but had probably, the thickest Chinese accent I had ever heard. Adding to his accent, was his tendency to talk really fast and frantically loud (Chinese stereotype unfortunately). This produced a lot of confusion in communication, on my part, especially when he rather immediately, after I checked in, began announcing, “Hilli-uaah!!” followed by a sentence that required earnest focus to comprehend.
I looked at him questioningly and then looked around the room.
I wasn’t sure if he was speaking mandarin, calling to a house maid, talking to the dog, exclaiming frustration, or having a nervous tick, I had no idea. Thankfully I was able to save both of us further confusion when I finally put the obvious together. In speaking to me, he was trying to say William.
Even though I go by my middle name Bryce, my first name is William and it is obviously listed as William on my passport. Tom after all, was talking to me.
I must have been really tired.
The primary reason for coming to Lijiang, was to trek the iconic Tiger Leaping Gorge and after checking in, I spoke to Tom about my intentions.
“Yes I will set up trip for you.” He told me.
“Very good price.” He added.
‘Better be’, I thought and paid him the desired yuan. A bus would pick me up in two days from today.
After settling into my dorm, I met a Frenchman at the OctoberInn, Francois, and we teamed up the next two days exploring the city and the outskirts of it. Francois was currently taking a break from gradschool in France. He was studying Physics.
Tall, lanky, short light hair with the dress of what one would imagine of a well educated and well travelled European adventurer, Francois was thoughtful, soft spoken and quite frank (of course). He had the demeanor of a scientist that was quite brilliant but didn’t always pick up on social cues.
The night I arrived in Lijiang, we ventured into old Town with a fellow Japanese traveler. We went to a local restaurant for some signature Lijiang cuisuine.
While eating, Francois asked our Japanese friend on why he was traveling in China. The poor Japanese fellow had less than good English and after attempting to explain why he was traveling, Francois calmly, without any trace of annoyance or with a condescending attitude, said, “Ok, well I have no idea what you just said.”
He turned to me, “Bryce where are you heading next?”
It took quite a bit to hold my laughter in.
We planned a trip to a small village on the outskirts of Lijiang and Francois wrote down the entire plan at length on paper. Starting at waking in the morning, to the directions to the bus stop. The amount time we would spend on the bus. The places to visit in the village and what time. How long we would stay at each, to the time that we would arrive back at the October Inn. Frankly I thought it was a tad bit overkill and was more into the ‘figure it out as we go’ approach but I understood his reasoning.
Francois was attempting to be a vegetarian but was finding it quite hard to commit to in China. We went to one restaurant for breakfast the morning of our trip out to the village and obviously since croissants and other western staples were out of the question, we ordered a stew that was supposed to be a favorite among locals.
When a huge pot was brought out with a large chunk of pork making up the bulk of it, we looked at eachother a bit apprehensively.
“Well, I guess I’m not a vegetarian today.” He said quietly with a shrug and a slight grin.
‘So much for the China study,’ I thought in recalling the extensive scientific study and best selling book conducted by American doctors that concluded populations in China were healthier because they consumed a mostly plant based diet.
The stew was delicious but quite hearty and did nothing to assist my already overworked gut.
I was sweating the rest of the day as we made our way out to a town to a small village that offered a terrific view of Jade Snow dragon Mountain. I pulled out my Nikon d3300 camera with its stock lens and attempted to snag a picture. The quality was forgettable. Francois pulled out a Canon with what looked like a lens that cost a grand. He snapped a picture, then showed me the results on the led screen. I was starting to feel like such an amateur.
We explored the village that was full of Han Chinese tourists and I made several rendezvous with the squat toilets. The smell of these particular facilities, would only be rivaled by the outhouses atop Camp Muir on the side of Mt Rainier, that I would have the pleasure of experiencing the next year.
After the village, we went back to Lijiang. Francois’ itinerary for the day had turned out to be pretty accurate until we were back in the city and having difficulty finding the right bus to take us close to our hostel. We waited and waited and walked and walked. We finally decided that we would stoop ourselves at one particular bus stop and take the bus that wasn’t the one we planned on but would take us closest to where we needed to go.
Sitting on the street, waiting silently, we noticed that we were drawing quite the amount of attention. Children would see us and suddenly their facial expressions would light up. They would grab their peers, signal to their family members or whoever was accompanying them, to direct their attention at us. They would wave and then pull out their cameras to snap a photo of two dirty and possibly lost white men.
It never ceased to amaze me how westerners were so often treated like rock stars in China, or at least in Yunnan.
When we finally made it back to The October Inn, we were welcomed with Dinner on the House by Tom. A couple other Australian travelers had shown up and I conversed with them for awhile before checking in early to prepare for the next day. Tomorrow and the day after, I would be hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.