The weather was rainy. We decided to head immediately for the “hills”, to Lijiang. To save time, we took the night bus. It was our first encounter with this kind of transport. Take a normal long-distance bus, remove all the seats, and install metal bunks: three rows of double-decker bunks run the length of the vehicle, barely wide enough for our shoulders and not nearly long enough to stretch out. In the back of the bus is a “crash-pad” that packs passengers like sardines five or six across with no separation. Best not to be stuck there! When we got on, we were given a plastic bag for our shoes. Each bed has a seatbelt so that we could strap ourselves in. The other passengers on the bus, now full, smoke, hawk and spit on the floor, making us wish that we had not already put our shoes in the bag. Despite earplugs, the loud music videos and kung-fu movies made sleeping difficult. At first we scoffed at our seatbelts. Who wants to be strapped to an undersized metal bunk while sleeping? A large section of the road from Kunming to Lijiang was unpaved. The bus bumped, rocked and rolled through the night. Sleep is impossible when you have to hold on to your bunk to stay in it!
As we stumbled out of the bus into the early morning light, a woman from a local guesthouse approached us. Her place looked good, so we followed her through the cobblestone streets to her place, a house in the less touristy part of the old Lijiang. The place was clean and there was an interior courtyard where we could sit and chat with the guesthouse staff and other tourists.
Lijiang is flooded with Chinese tourists. The city seems to have been completely restored and kept a Disneyland state of squeaky clean for their sake. Rows of shops in the old town all sell identical trinkets: jade figurines, combs, knick-knacks, wooden carvings and other kitschy tourist souvenirs. Despite the noisy crowds of tourists, Lijiang retains a quaint charm. There are cobblestone streets and wooden buildings, canals and pretty bridges. The atmosphere is not unlike the medieval towns in Europe, restored for the benefit of tourists. One night, while trying to find our way back to the guesthouse, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves in a part of town where they are building an entirely new “old” extension of Lijiang. There were brand-new traditional wooden buildings, built to look exactly like the ancient ones in the historic center of town. Piles of gray cobblestones lay next to the excavated dirt streets. A few days later we discovered another 10km out of town is another carbon-copy of Lijiang, built from scratch, wooden houses, canals, water-wheels and all!
Right around the corner from our guesthouse was the market. One look at the incredible variety of exotic produce on sale was enough to convince us that we had finally arrived in South-East Asia. Different areas of the market sold different products. We were fine in the fruit and vegetable section, but other areas, like the meat section, were more difficult to stomach. There were tanks with live fish, eels, frogs and turtles. Further on were goats, chickens, ducks and even dogs in cages. A pig was slaughtered before our eyes while a dog carcass, lying on its back, had its fur singed off by a man with a blowtorch. After seeing that we kept away from the meat section.
The surrounding countryside is picturesque. Renting bikes, we pedaled up the valley to visit some of the nearby Naxi towns. Pretty soon we had a flat tire, and had to push our bikes to the nearest village. Luckily there was a bicycle repairman on hand who patched the tire in no time flat while we ate a bowl of hot, greasy noodles. Although it rained intermittently, there was enough sunshine in between squalls to warm up. At the end of the valley we could just glimpse the snow-covered mountains. On either side was a thickly-forested ridge. Despite the fact that we were at 1800m, we eventually stopped using our ponchos and accepted getting wet, knowing that we could dry off later. Naxi houses are built from bricks and wood. In the courtyards are giant racks for drying bunches of grain. The Naxi wear colorful clothes of blue and red while working in the surrounding vegetable and grain fields.
On our last night in Lijiang, we decided to see a concert. A renowned group of musicians played “Naxi music” - actually classical Chinese music that would have been common centuries ago. Because Yunnan lies on the fringes of China, its musical styles survived the whims of fashion of the courts of the far-away Emperor, as well as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when some of the players had buried their precious instruments to save them from destruction. The group today, reassembled from aging, white-haired musicians, is slowly dying. After paying a rather hefty sum for a ticket, we filed into the auditorium and sat down on the hard wooden chairs in the upper balcony. With a view on the stage, we watched as the group filed in, followed by their leader and spokesman. He started off with a long-winded speech in Chinese, making dramatic pauses and cracking jokes. After many minutes of dialogue, he spoke a few words in English, making a half-hearted attempt to translate the Chinese jokes into awkward, incoherent language. Glad that the talking part was over, we eagerly looked forward to hearing some music. The group wheezed into action. Frail old men with long, white “Fu man chu” beards sawed away on their instruments. After what seemed like sixty seconds of playing, the music died away and the MC took to the stage again. He launched into another speech, clearly delighting his Chinese audience with more gestures and clever jokes. After another five minutes of dialogue, he briefly stuttered in English, “That was 'Snow Blowing over the Water.' Now we will play 'Cedars Growing on the Mountain'” or some such nonsense. We sat, fuming, through another two minutes of music, then more speeches, then more brief musical interludes. Obviously, the players didn't have much stamina! But this was ridiculous. There was more talking than music and no pieces were played to completion. After about an hour, the show was over. We went forward to express our dissatisfaction.