KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We arranged our air tickets so that we could fly from Jiuzhaigou to Chengdu with a connecting flight on to Lijiang. We had a long layover but it turned out to be a good thing. It took so long to change traveller's cheques that we needed almost all the time we had. We have found that ATMs are the way to access money in Asia, but we always carry some traveller's cheques for emergency purposes. This year, we bought Euro cheques instead of US dollars because of the craziness that was happening with the CDN vs US dollar - the CDN dollar surpassed the value of the greenback for the first time in over thirty years and went on to hit a high of $1.10 before settling back to a more realistic level. For some reason, the Chinese banks are very hesitant to change traveller's cheques and only the Bank of China will touch them at all. Then it takes several forms to be completed, the cheques are all photocopied front and back and it seems dozens of signatures are required before any yuan is handed over. A man in front of me wanted to change a $50 CDN bill and was turned away. Thank goodness we weren't relying on TCs and cash completely.
We arrived at the Lijiang airport around 8:00 pm and when we went to hail a taxi, we were surprised to see all the drivers milling around were sturdy-looking women. As David and Anil started to load the luggage, the driver grabbed the suitcases from them and swung them effortlessly into the trunk. This was our introduction to the Naxi ethnic minority; we would come to admire them more and more as we got to know several women while we were in Lijiang. Once again, we were pleased to see that the driver used the meter without any fuss, something we have come to expect when using taxis in China. There never seems to be any attempt to cheat foreigners and we were taken directly to the beautiful Super 8 hotel just outside the Old Town.
I should tell you a little about the city of Lijiang. The Old Town has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site out of respect for its charming cobbled streets, stone bridges, crystal-clear canals and hundreds of grey tiled rooftops. The city is one of the most visited sites in northern Yunnan province. There is a down side to this popularity however, as it has turned into a bit of a Disneyland with the Han Chinese souvenir shops squeezing out the Naxi handicraft stalls. If you only take a superficial look at the old quarter, you will probably be disappointed with your stay. However, linger awhile and wander off the main lanes into the maze of narrow alleyways and you are sure to be as enchanted as I was. True to form, I purchased a lovely hand drawn map of the labyrinth streets to supplement the small map in the Lonely Planet. I have this crazy need to know where I am and how to get back to a particularly lovely spot should the fancy strike me. David has the same strange inborn GSP that I have, but before long he was completely undone by the winding streets and several times, he turned to me and the map to find his way around.
Editor's note: As for my GPS... It came with a factory defect, so I stick close to 'Vicki the Navigator'!
The city of Lijiang is situated on a plateau about 2000m above sea level and towering above the tile roofs to the northwest, is the colossal Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain). It rises to 5500m and was first climbed in 1963 by a research team from Beijing. It is this mountain that causes the Yangtze river to make a sharp turn northwards as it descends from the Tibetan plateau on its way to the East China Sea at Shanghai. Once around this range, it makes another hairpin turn before flowing southwards. Lijiang is nestled in between these two turns, safe at the foot of the snow-capped peaks. The air is fresh and crisp at this time of year; however, the summer months are blazingly hot and humid. The Yu river runs through Lijiang and branches into several small streams, which have given the old town a reliable water source for its entire 800-year history. The streams are surprisingly clear as the water's force sweeps along any debris and the large schools of koi fighting the current's strength. The water is still used for cooking and washing clothes and we saw several people taking buckets of water to their homes once we were away from the main tourist lanes. I am told there are over 300 bridges crossing the canals in the old town itself.
David awoke to bright sunshine in his room and when he drew the curtain he was taken aback at the sight of the huge mountain and its snow-covered crags. After the cold of Jiuzhaigou, he had been looking forward to warmer weather and was worried that the altitude here would keep us chilled even longer. Anil had an upset stomach that morning so David and I bundled up and set out to get our bearings. Jeong Ae had given me a small compass and armed with our guidebook map, we set off into the town. We boarded a local bus for one yuan each and rode in its circular loop till we arrived back at our starting point. It was only then that we figured out our hotel was north of the Old Town and not south; the bus ride saved us a great deal of walking in the wrong direction. The biggest surprise was the lovely mild weather and the intensity of the sun in the clear blue sky. As we walked, we kept taking off some of our layers and by noon, it almost felt like a moderate Canadian summer day. Then and there, we decided we should stay at least a week and unwind.
By evening Anil was beginning to feel better and he ventured out to have a light supper. Too bad he missed the beautiful afternoon, because we awoke the next morning to leaden skies and pouring rain. We ate a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel dining room, shivering in the unheated air. We soon retreated back to our warm rooms and whiled away the day watching the one English language channel and reading books. David slept all afternoon and we could see him relax completely for the first time since arriving in China. The weather was a little better the following day and we ventured out of town to the small village of Baisha to see the frescoes in a temple there. The next morning, the sunshine returned for our planned trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge and pretty much stayed with us for the balance of our time in Lijiang. The evenings were cool and we found refuge in a lovely wooden building, Lamu's Tibetan Café. There we sat by the burning charcoal braziers and made friends with the young waitresses and their pet dog. The menu was a refreshing blend of Chinese and Western dishes and they served cold beer and piping hot Yunnan coffee. What more could the travel-worn want in life?
Each day we wandered around the Old Town and caught glimpses of the traditional Naxi minority lifestyle. I had read a little about this matriarchal society in the Lonely Planet, but I was still surprised to see so many fathers and grandfathers tending to young babies and children. Many of the men carried the babies on their backs using baby carriers. I was interested enough in this unusual culture, that I purchased a book called Forgotten Kingdom, by Peter Guollart, a White Russian who had lived in Lijiang from 1940 to 1949. He fell in love with the city and its people and described the Naxi society in fascinating detail. It was here I learned that until recently they lived in matrilineal families and the women virtually ran the show. The women maintained their hold over the men with what came to be known as "walking marriages". This system allowed for a couple to become lovers without cohabiting. The men continued to reside and work at their mother's house during the day. Any children born of the union belonged to the woman, and she was responsible for bringing them up. No special effort was made to establish paternity as the girls inherited the property from their mothers and female elders settled all disputes. The men contributed their strength when needed, but were left completely out of all business affairs and were expected to nurture the children as needed.
The Naxi are descended from ethnically Tibetan tribes and Lijiang has been their main base for at least the last 1400 years. They are known for their fun-loving nature and their love of music and dance. The women wear blue or black trousers, blouses, aprons and caps but it is their distinctive T-shaped sheepskin capes that make them stand out from the hordes of Chinese tourists. The cape is worn to protect the women's back from the chafing caused by the woven baskets used to carry heavy loads. The fur is worn to the inside and the soft white skin is decorated with seven multi-coloured embroidered circles meant to represent the stars. The large Market Square at the south end of the Old Town is where many Naxi women gather each day to perform traditional dances for the camera crazy tourists. I couldn't resist capturing some of their wonderful lined faces as they circled around the centre of the square. There were a few men on hand to play the music and one or two joined the line to dance.
The Naxi created a written language over 1000 years ago using an extraordinary system of pictographs; it may be the only hieroglyphic language still in use. Near the huge water wheels at the entrance to the main street in the old town, there is a large wooden arbour where people tie mobiles decorated with Naxi pictographs and handwritten prayers for good fortune. Tiny wicker conical hats at the top and small bells at the bottom complete the mobile. Thousands of these wooden mobiles cover the wooden structure and tourists love having their photo taken running under the arbour, while ringing the bells. The Chinese are fond of seeking good fortune and many purchase tiny koi from stands along the town's streams. The koi are released into the streams for good luck too, better than tossing coins into the streams and clogging their depths.
Our week in Lijiang passed all too quickly but the weather seemed to be getting colder each day despite the afternoon sunshine and we decided to hire a Naxi woman we'd met as an English speaking guide to travel with us and her brother as the driver, to the southernmost part of China to where we had learned there are palm trees growing and rice paddies flourishing in the tropical climate. The roads south to the Xishuangbana region appeared to be in good condition, with an expressway that would make the return journey northward to Kunming quick and comfortable. Perhaps we will come back to Lijiang one day to spend more time relaxing in its old lanes and eateries, but if we do, we will come in September or October when there is less chill in the air and the braziers are not needed in the evenings. We know the good food at Lamu's will be waiting along with chilled Dali beer.