Wikipedia describes “threats” to Lijiang old town like this:
“The influx of tourists that followed the inscription of the Ancient town of Lijiang onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list has had dramatic effects. Many of the former inhabitants of the ancient city have had to move away due to rising costs of housing and food items, only to be replaced by tourist establishments. The growth of these tourism businesses is largely uncontrolled.”
Yup. That about covers it. The Ancient town is the name for the tourist center of Lijiang. It is gorgeous. The 800 year old town has been restored to a fairy tale chinese village. Narrow cobblestone streets lead to dozens of bridges arching over streams from the nearby river rerouted through the town. Locals still use the little streams for washing (although, fortunately no longer for sanitation.) Buy a map upon entry to the town, but it won’t do any good. Streets wind and criss-cross everywhere. The only way to navigate is to wander. And absolutely every turn is worth a photograph.
It’s one of those places that just can’t be missed and it really is a pleasant place to stay for a few days in spite of the pressing tourism, but let’s face it, if you’ve been reading this blog for even a little while, you know I am no Paul-Theroux-adventure-traveller—I really am just a tourist, even going to lengths to defend the tourist’s plight—but today’s Lijiang may be going too far.
The town owes its success to being on the cross roads of the tea trade known as the tea horse road. Today, identical looking tea shops make up nearly every fourth store front in town. In between them are other tourist shops, clothing, souvenirs, and restaurants, most of which equally similar. Whatever you do, don’t use a tea shop, or souvenir bell store, as a landmark to guide yourself around town. The architecture and layout of the town make it a jewel, but it just as easily could all have been made by a talented set designer. Entrepreneurial Chinese have pushed out every other authenticity to make way for their tea shops and the narrow streets are no match of the throngs of tour groups disgorged by the constant flow of busses outside the pedestrian-only center.
Walking through town is a shoulder to shoulder affair and even early morning can be tough as the Chinese, and their expensive cameras and tripods, take shots of other photographers all trying to get the best morning light.
I could never really decide if I liked Lijiang. It is beautiful. It is easy–with nearby sights, simple tourist infrastructure, and plentiful restaurants. I definitely enjoyed renting a bicycle again and riding around the high plain on the edge of the mountainous Yunnan provence. Still, reading that towns such as as Dali and Zhongdian (re-named Shangr-la by the Chinese authorities….) could possibly be worse, made it very easy to relax and enjoy the nearby scenery and not bother to press on further. “I get it,” I thought, “I definitely don’t have to rush off to another movie set.” Those cities are probably equally gorgeous but, after listening to the reports of other tourists, equally fake and ridiculous too. China is full of contradictions. Lijiang is just one of the prettier ones.
At the airport: Yoghurt, 5 RMB, cookies 4 RMB, crackers 3 RMB
Taxi from train to Kunming airport, 10 RMB
Bus to Lijiang, 15 RMB
Map of Lijiang, 6 RMB
Nice dinner, 52 RMB
Hotel, 100 RMB/night
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It’s a little silly, but almost every time I want to refer to my fellow citizens, or the country of the United States of America in this blog, I use something like “U.S. Americans,” or “the States.” What I rarely do is just say “Americans.” America is a continent, two of them, actually, and in spite of the, now fairly accepted slang for the States as “America,” I’ve heard now and again that other Americans, like Mexicans and Canadians find that annoying. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve probably not even noticed and I am probably just wasting my time and having my writing come out even more awkward.
Americans, ahem, U.S. Americans, often have a similar question mark in their brains when they see the, sometimes large Canadian flags on the backpacks of fellow North American travelers. No one that I know has any grudge against our friendly neighbor to the north, but what’s with the giant maple leaf?
We met our new traveling companions in our train compartment on our way to Kunming. Their backpacks were already stowed, so only after we asked each other where everyone was from did we learn that these two very charming ladies were Canadian. It was a wonderful conversation for hours and hours. They shared food and alcohol with us (remember we came empty handed) and we all shared stories of what we’d already seen in China and what our thoughts were so far.
One of the best things about traveling isn’t the locals that you meet, it’s the fellow tourists. Nearly always, if you meet a couple of folks with backpacks staying in the same cheap hotels as you are, you have something in common. We’re all people who value seeing the world even though we may barely have enough money to afford it (otherwise, wouldn’t we be traveling a bit more luxuriously?) We’re all people who don’t mind a little hardship and getting a bit dirty, but let’s face it, we’re also well educated enough and rich enough to have even this much time on our hands.
At one point in our long meandering conversations I asked about the whole maple leafs-everywhere thing. My operating theory: are you so concerned that people might think you’re a U.S. American from your accent that you want to nip that in the bud? I never got a very straight answer. They smiled and laughed and said that really it is something older people did more than younger ones. It’s not that they’re opposed to the U.S. but rather proud of being Canadians and want people to know (which, is a nice way of saying exactly what I said.) “I don’t do that!” they both explained quickly. One laughed at her older brother and his backpack flag. The other was living in Taiwan and just didn’t feel so patriotic regardless.
They accused U.S. Americans of being equally patriotic, but I insisted that I had just about never seen a U.S. flag on someone’s back pack (I ought to get one!) and that sure, there are those who bleed red, white, and blue, have red-neck accents and well, basically stay home. I personally know a few of these–they see no reason to leave their great country in the first place. Fact is, though, everywhere I’ve ever been I’ve met these people–in their own country!
All very fascinating but eventually we had to get some sleep if we were going to be fresh and make it to our flight to LiJiang the next morning after arriving in Kunming. We were flying Deer Airlines. It was an easy choice, as one of the airlines was called “Lucky Airlines” which probably sounds great in Chinese, but gives me pause.
The next morning we were packing our things as we were getting to read to leave the train. Across from me, one of our new Canadian friends bent over at the waist to retrieve her pack from underneath the seat. There was no flag on her pack; it’s true. As she bent down though, her shirt rode up a bit and revealed a sexy tattoo just below her waistline in the small of her back. A red Canadian maple leaf. Yeah, younger Canadians don’t do the patch on the backpack anymore…
Train Ticket, Guilin to Kunming over night, “soft sleeper”: 433 RMB
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When we purchased our trip to from Guilin to Yangshuo it included a return. We just needed to contact the agent whom we were last passed off to and arrange it. In practice, we don’t have a phone and even with the kind help of the hotel in which we were staying, actually getting in touch with her is another challenge, unless you plan on lounging around the hostel lobby all day. They charter a bus which leaves when enough tourists can fill it. We eventually just found and took the regular bus. Cheap–about 30 RMB.
Something I ate in Yangshuo was certainly catching up with me by the time we arrived in Guilin. Alright, something was half a plate of river snails, probably dug out of one of the muddier shores of the river. My temperature was rising and my stomach was in knots. I stayed in for the night and hoped not to ruin much of the trip as I had almost done the last trip to China. “I rarely get sick from travel” is becoming more of a memory for me than a reality.
The Guilin Backstreet International Youth Hostel is great. They offer a shuttle (actually, your own personal taxi) to take you around to multiple sites all included in the already cheap price of the room. So, tomorrow morning, after our breakfast of toast and juice, we prepared to catch all the obvious sites of Guilin. I was, remarkably, almost better, but it was still going to be a slow day filled with way too much to do.
First stop: Solitary Mountain. This fortress and mountainous lump in the middle of the city offers history (if you speak Chinese) and views (if the weather is clear in this small town of well over a million people.) We looked at the lovely old buildings like the museum which was devoid of English although the Chinese seemed very impressed by the exhibits. We hiked to the top of the little mountain for the views. Chinese tourists tied blue bows on the chain leading up to the peak and touched a statue of a turtle like they were consumed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, presumably for good luck.
Next, Reed Caves. The Guilin region is decorated with limestone cliffs and where there is limestone there are often dramatic caves. The Reed Caves were discovered near a patch of reeds, and are just on the outskirts of town. Dignitaries from around the world visit the caves and the tourists were packed in like a ride at Disneyland.
Caves everywhere have such fantastic shapes and formations in them that they conjure all sorts of creative names. The Chinese, already famous for seeing dragons and fairies, horses and rabbits, princess as princesses in every odd shape, are in heaven in a cave. The dripping stalactites and mighty stalagmites are a bountiful cornucopia of silly names. That’s not enough though. Instead the caves are lit with gelled lights in every saturated color and even sometimes accented with extra water pools or lasers. Disneyland is more apt here than I realized. Perhaps it’s a little sad, considering these were, at least once long ago, organic caves, beautiful by nature, and without the unneeded clown makeup.
Which isn’t to say that crazy lit caves aren’t worth a look. Tourists are ushered from one room to the next on stone stairs and even walkways with barely enough time in each spot to take pictures, while they hear stories about the white rabbit or the wizard throwing coins into the ponds. Lights are turned off in one spot and on in the next to make sure nobody stays behind. The views are spectacular and full of shapes and colors that would make Hunter S. Thompson feel quite at home.
We made it to the Seven Star Scenic Park on the other side of town which is home to a rather large park and another cave. This cave is much like the first, better in some ways, (better rooms) worse in others (no lasers) but the park is a lovely place to spend an afternoon. Charming bridges crossing little creeks and shady, fragrant osmanthus trees from which the delicious local tea is made. There is much more there as well. Flower gardens, camel shaped rock formations, and even a couple more caves. We could have spent more time in any of todays sights, but, we have a train to catch to Kunming.
We strolled back to the hostel, enjoying a few last views of cormorant fisherman on bamboo rafts and a muddy angle on the Elephant Trunk Hill on the Li river. We thought we even had enough time to grab some lunch as we had been fighting off the taxi drivers earlier that morning. Not so fast. Weighed down with our packs we began looking for a cab to take us to the station. Nothing. We venture further to the main street. Nothing. An occasional cab speeds by. We wave. Nothing. Finally, a cab stops and we try to explain where we’re going but he shakes his head no and drives off. Getting frantic, we wave at more and more cabs and a few more slow, only to drive off without stopping. Others stop and don’t like where we’re going! I finally ask at a finer hotel if they can help me get a cab and with great effort a very kind hotel receptionist comes out on the street to get us a cab. He is, indeed, successful, but now the traffic is so bad we are beginning to have serious doubts we’ll make it.
Guilin is nice, you say, so what if we have to stay another day. Unfortunately–to save time–we’ve already booked a flight from un-touristy Kunming to Li Jiang and this little late-to-the-train fiasco could cost us some real money. The cab driver is confident even as we’re sweating, but, inching along through the traffic, he does, eventually, deliver us before the train departs. We run into the station hoping we can find our platform in time and finally arrive at our compartment, sweaty and empty handed with little water or food for our 12 hour train journey. Two friendly Canadians are already in our compartment waiting for us. We wonder if they put the Westerners together on purpose.
Guilin park 35 RMB
Reed Cave 60 RMB
Dinner 9.5 RMB
Taxi to train station 10 RMB
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Keeping fit while traveling is only a problem if “fit” means a regular schedule of cycling, running, swimming, or whatever it is that you do to stay trim. Budget travelers don’t usually stay in hotels with fitness equipment, and I wouldn’t have enough space in my diminutive pack for an extra pair of running shoes, let alone any specialized gear for other activities. Diet, too, can be a bit of a challenge to maintain while backpacking across a foreign country. Eating is a big part of what I experience, but doing so, but even that often takes second place to sightseeing and experiencing what the destination has to show me.
None of this means that you’ll have to grow fat and lazy during travel to China. After yesterday’s ten or fifteen kilometers, of cycling on heavy, single speed lady bikes, we decided we were ready for greater distances and vaster views. Getting away from the cluster of tourist sites along the main road, we took our trusty lady bikes on a thirty or more kilometer tour and ended up having the best day of the whole trip, while seeing almost no “sights” to speak of.
We weaved along roads and through towns, somewhere between lost and found the whole ride. We stopped at a souvenir vendor’s stand outside of town and looked over hundreds of dusty fake antiques; easily able to resist buying more than a few because we had to carry everything in our small day packs. We made it through village traffic (remember, in China, even a village may not be small at all. Yangshuo itself is called a village and it’s home to over 300,000 people) and past rice patties and persimmon trees. Looking lost, or not, it doesn’t matter either way, we were approached by a few hawkers trying to guide us along the way or encourage us to board a bamboo raft for a quiet float down the river.
We joined some cattle as we crossed over the Golden Dragon bridge built over 1000 years ago, it is one of the oldest single arch stone bridges in Guangxi, but there was no sign and no busloads of tourists to let us know that this was it. Beautiful, but grown over with vines, it was little different than less distinguished bridges along the river. Coasting and bouncing along the narrow dirt farm roads we saw where the tour busses must drop off their Chinese tourists for a short cruise down the river. The floating traffic jam on one inconspicuous part of the river was a draw for locals and tourists alike.
We pedaled through fields of vegetables and rice and spied on harvesting farmers doing all the work without the help of tractors or really, any thing power beyond their own muscles. The weather was white and overcast, but these were still the views of limestone cliffs that sells this part of the world to tourists far and wide. Finally, we pedaled back to town, well over 30 km on our pink and blue bikes, we were proud of our efforts.
Unlike many seasoned travelers, I enjoy tours. I feel sure I’ve missed something important or fascinating when I tried to guide myself. I would have enjoyed hearing silly stories about the Ming dynasty nobles who built that bridge, or being actually introduced to one of the farmer families we spied working for 15 quiet minutes. (A friend who went on a packaged tour enjoyed just that in the same area.) And yet, this day, with all it’s effort and so little actually achieved, was the best day of the entire journey. Quiet, lonely, and beautiful, a part of China one expects before ever visiting and forgets it could even exist upon arrival; the farmland outside of Yangshuo is fruitful enough that poor farmers don’t seem so desperate, but still rural enough that busses and hawkers have failed to spoil it. This is why you’ve come to this part of the world. Get a bike and just go.
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I’m not raising any children so I don’t know what I am talking about.
It was chilly, but nice, for Moscow in March. My first time there, so there is no way I am going to miss the Kremlin complex. In an effort to protect the treasures of the land and perhaps to cling to their bureaucratic past, two Russian guards are taking their sweet time carefully inspecting every bag and every person before entry. I’ll find out later that backpacks, that is, bags with two straps, no matter how small, aren’t allowed, while bags with one strap, no matter how large, are, seemingly, permitted. I have to check my backpack/camera bag back at the garderobe, which, naturally, is mere 500 m back to the ticket office.
No matter, the line barely moved while I was gone. I’ve had a little exercise, but missed little. There is still plenty of time to watch the spring frost in the shadows of trees melting under the bright blue spring sky. There’s also the compare and contrast of tourists from around the world. This morning it’s mostly Dutch and Russians. There are some Italians and French, and a few Chinese, but I don’t notice any other Americans. The line is long and I am near the front; perhaps they simply woke up later this morning.
The Russians have brought their children to see the great wealth of their nation. Right in front of me is a young boy and young girl, probably seven and nine years old respectively. For a little while they play among the trees until their parents call them back to the line in anticipation of eventually entering the fortress. Now they are standing in line facing forward, talking quietly to one another. It’s almost bizarre. I don’t remember the last time I saw such well-behaved children.
My parents like to tell proud stories the family going out to dinner in a fine restaurant and other guests stopping on their way out to thank them. Apparently the romantic diners were terrified at the sight of two young boys in a fine restaurant and how surprised they were when the expected racket never materialized to ruin dinner. It’s not just a story, I have a faint memory of it actually happening. I also remember the bulging eyes my father would flash at me if I did act up. I almost her him him saying “we need to go to the bathroom!” “no, I don’t, thanks,” “Yes. You. Do.” eyes bulging. I got the picture.
Nowadays I find myself wishing I could thank parents for their well behaved children. My parents made it clear that, regardless of what is right, or wrong, or what I wanted, my behavior was embarrassing them. That was enough to get me to stop. Parents today more often seem to be so effective at patently ignoring their children they don’t have a chance to consider embarrassment. No matter how many times little Johnny kicks the seat, gets up to greet the entire restaurant with sticky hands, (isn’t he cute?) or stands on the chair whining about food, these amazing parents are unmoved.
Meanwhile, back in mother Russia children weren’t being dragged kicking and screaming through museums they were visiting this weekend. They weren’t grabbing chocolates off the shelves in candy stores. (Hundreds of sorts of chocolate in one store…I don’t know how I was able to resist.) I didn’t hear any begging or whining about being hungry or not wanting to eat. Perhaps they weren’t having as much fun. Maybe they aren’t free to discover their inner selves. Perhaps the poor children will grow up like I did, completely tortured by having to quietly entertain myself when the adults were talking. O, how surprised am I have been unable to suppress the memory, except I don’t remember any of it being that bad.
In many ways Russia is still backwards. People are very traditional, fur is incredibly popular and the banking system has barely discovered credit cards. Their government hasn’t even figured out your supposed to hide corruption. Maybe they’ll catch up in raising children too. If what I saw really was representative though, let’s hope not.
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