I visited the town of Lijiang in Yunnan, China for a short Christmas break in 2017. To be more precise, it was one day of a four-day trip. I also spent some time in Dali, visited the nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge and hopped through Kunming for my flights to/from Hong Kong. My time in Dali and the nearby Xizhou was nice, but I found the historical towns to be filled with souvenir shops. Dali’s houses had seemed artificially uniform, as though the housing association of unimaginative Dalians had decided that all buildings had to fit the same mold. I hoped Lijiang would be better.
Lijiang blew away everything I saw in Dali and Xizhou. Things looked real. The guesthouses were tastefully decorated in the style of old local residences. The houses were mostly made of stone and wood. Vines hung from banisters. Walls had paintings on them. The streets were laid with rectangular stones made of sedimentary rock. Stone bridges stood over drainage channels. Within fifteen minutes I had decided that it was one of the most romatic towns that I had seen.
Toward the northern end of the old town was a big square with two giant water wheels on display, one of them perhaps 8 metres in diameter. I chanced upon the sound of music and walked into a series of performances by a group for preserving Naxi culture, Naxi being one of the major ethnic groups of the area. Naxi hieroglyphic writing was proudly on display all over the area, more as a cultural and aesthetic item rather than to actually inform local Naxis.
Lijiang is not flat. The old town is built very much on hills, adding significantly to the aesthetic. I stopped at a restaurant on a hill and sat at the balcony to enjoy the view. A woman started coming toward me but had a look of shock on her face when she saw me – and went back inside. I guessed the problem right; she had to come back a few minutes later when another couple arrived; she admitted that there was “no English” (menu). I ordered a Coke.
I hung around, wanting to see the town after nightfall. I sought rooftop bars and restaurants and checked out places with ambience as I slowly figured out my way back out of the old city toward the guest house. Many restaurants and pubs had live music, providing a chilled-out ambience to the place. With the exception of some topical Christmas music, all the music was in Chinese. I picked a restaurant with a live singer and ordered a tofu that I’d seen on display countless times. Local Naxi delicacies included bamboo bugs and some sort of crickets or earwigs. I was keen to try but did not wish to commit to an entire plate.
I had judged Lijiang to be among the most romantic places I’d seen within fifteen minutes of arrival. I had also then cautioned myself that it was too soon and I could get bored of it. Sure enough, eventually I found that the stores sold the same things. As I had seen in Dali and Xizhou, the same gimmicks were applied everywhere. Women sat in drum shops playing drums to the same music; men made silverware; the same old local delicacies, the same yak meat, the same pottery, the same stone polishing was on display in a number of shops. Originality was one item that was not on display. Occasionally there would even be a store that sold exactly the same stuff as its neighbour. Even the food courts had stalls selling identical food. If there was one stall selling bamboo worms, you could be assured that there would be another. Despite all this I liked Lijiang somewhat. It had a charm. A few hours in the place was enough. I did not see myself hanging around for two days here. It must have been fantastic a decade prior before the tourism really took off.
I spent the next day visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was some amount of strenuous trekking and while the scenery was nice, I was not blown away. I had seen a more beautiful gorge the year before in Taiwan (Taroko Gorge) and I had seen similar hills in Korea (Seoraksan). After a long day, I went downstairs to my guest house lounge. The man of the house invited me to join him and his friends for some drinks. He poured me some of his plum wine while he and his mates drank baijiu. The wine was pretty sweet. It turned out that he was a Naxi and his wife was Yi Shu. Both ethnicities had their own languages and hieroglyphic scripts. None of the bunch could read their native hieroglyphics. They said that the majority of people who now stayed in the old town were no longer local Naxis; the Han Chinese had flooded in and bought over everything. His friends and family had left, so he too had moved out to their current place where I was a guest. The big waterwheel, which is a major attraction at the old town had been recently built by the government. This last night’s conversation had put everything in perspective with regards to Dali and Lijiang. The old towns of both were now inauthentic money-grabbing ventures.
Despite almost all the attractions ultimately underwhelming, I was generally happy with the trip. One thing I had not been happy with was the food. I had eaten too much bland, inauthentic, MSG-filled, oily or otherwise unappetising food throughout the trip. The Chinese had also tried to appropriate the food of various ethnicities and done a very shabby job of it. On the day of my departure, I had the most pathetic steamed buns at Lijiang’s airport, at a restaurant that did not even have a menu in English. The buns were so lacking stuffing, flavour and texture that I left a quarter of each bun untouched, eating the parts that had touched the meat. I had exactly one meal in the entire trip on Chinese soil that was reasonably good – a beef hotpot in a Muslim restaurant opposite Lijiang’s bus station. It was exceeded by the baked fish and potatoes that my airline provided me on my return flight to Hong Kong.