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Andy’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 01 Mar 2007

Location: Lijiang, China

MapLIJIANG - VENICE OF THE EAST
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After so many months enjoying the constant warmth of Southeast
Asia, i now had to acclimatise to the cold of South China in Winter. People in this region don't seem overly bothered by the temperature. None of the guesthouses i stayed in had heating, nor did any of the shops, and a fair few cafes and restaurants. When they did have heating some wise soul left a door or window open which let all the heat escape. I should not have been surprised therefore that the bus to Lijiang on a freezing cold morning was as chilly inside as it was out. The journey was made worse by the cramped seats; buses in much of China are not designed with 6ft 2 men in mind. So i spent the next few hours cold, unable to stare out of the window - the fabric lining vehicle interiors can get really boring after a while - and then finally coughing because everyone began to light up cigarettes and ignore the 'No Smoking' signs. This mattered not when i reached my destination.

Lijiang consists of a grey, bland, funtional new town and a wonderful old town dating back more than eight hundred years, which was declared a World Heritage site in 1999.

Full of charcter and stretching over an uneven landscape of small hills, the old town is a dense network of cobbled, cramped alleys, rickety wooden buildings, decorative bridges and bustling squares. Crisscrossing the quaint streets is a complex yet orderly web of gurgling canals and streams overhung with willows and filled with goldfish; an ancient water supply that still functions to this day and earned Lijiang the nickname the 'Venice of the East'.

Lijiang, like Dali, is also a town of cultural importance, due to the ten ethnic minorities which call it home. Chief among these are the Naxi, the traditional residents of Lijiang who have based themselves in the old town for nearly one and a half millenia. The Naxi have shaped the old town architecturally and culturally.

Walking around town much of the local population were in some form of traditional dress; usually involving a blue blouse and black apron, though others displayed more colourful outfits with fur hats and collars. Stalls sold dried yak meat and other Naxi delicacies such as fried cheese or stacks of baba flatbread, all of which were delicious and cheap. The Naxi written language was also evident on walls around town. It was developed over one thousand years ago, uses pictographs and is the only hieroglyphic language still in use. Interestingly, nouns enlarge their meaning when the word for female is added. For example, 'stone' plus 'female' conveys the image of a boulder. Add 'male' and it suggests a pebble. Language and culture are intimately linked; the reason for this linguistic rule is that the Naxi were, until recently, a matrilineal society. The Naxi thus highlighted one of the great things about travel - the ready availability of societies and social norms which so easily problematise culturally determined ideas and values.

(As a side note - a few hours away in a place called Lugu Lu, live the Mosu, the last practising matriarchal society in the world. Kinship, clan names, social and political positions are all passed through the female line. More interestingly the women never marry nor cohabit. Instead they take as many lovers as they like. Coming of age at 13 they move out of the communal living area and are given their own bedroom. Lovers visit at night and leave to their mothers in the morning, a practice known as a 'walking marriage'. I know quite a few women who are probably kicking themselves right now - i told you not to get married.)

Though a town of historic and cultural importance, development, though faithful architecturally, has undermined some of the towns authenticity. The centre of the old town could justifiably be part of the China Epcot exhibition. Lijiang is flooded with tourists (me included!) and many of the old houses have been turned into shops selling everything needed to get the 'ethnic chic' look which is increasingly popular in China. However, the town is spotlessly clean, wealthy and well presented. In the evenings i spent much of my time walking the streets and enjoying the street performances of Naxi song and dance. The main square in particular was full of people enjoying large bonfires and joining with Naxi men and women who danced around them in concentric circles.

Additional 'old city' sections have been built (and i understand more are planned) to cater to the growing tourist numbers. Hopefully this will stop the encroachment of entrepeneurs who wish to turn atuthentic houses and small restaurants into tourist shops and bars.

Most of my days were spent wandering the old town, enjoying the wonderfully warm and cosy cafes, and planning my trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge - including getting kitted out with a small backpack, trekking boots and suitable clothes. However i did spend one day sightseeing. The location of Lijiang is stunning, at the bottom of a valley floor surrounded by rolling mountains. On the northern edge of town lies Black Dragon Pool, a secluded park with a large jade coloured lake of crystal clear water, white marble bridge, peaceful pavillions and the Ming Dynasty Five-Phoenix Temple. I spent a happy afternoon under the shade of the willow trees, admiring the spectacular peak of Jade Dragon Snow mountain reflected in the lake, writing my journal and reading a book. Afterwards I wanted to walk up Elephant Hill, which is just a short trek off to one side of the lake, but two tourists were mugged a few years back and i was preveted from venturing on the path alone. Groups of four, or no entry. "Nanny state!" i wanted to cry, but it probably would have done little good. It was probably best. Lijiang lies approximately 3000 metres above sea level and i was unused to the thin air. Even walking up a slightly inclining alley to my guesthouse (called MCA) made me out of breath.