China and South East Asia 2001-2002 travel blog

Canals are Lijiang

Dali Pagodas

Lijiang Old Town

Lijiang Old-Timer Band

Really Cool Guys

Unhappy and Proud

Copyright 2004

David Rich 1100 Words

H e l l o D a l i b u t L i j i a n g ' s o n a R o l l

Two of the most bewitching burgs in all of China are way out in the boonies of Yunnan Province near the Myanmar border, a paltry three-hour bus ride apart. The problem is deciding which is more enchanting, whether the grand award should go to Dali or to Lijiang, to spend your precious limited time.

They're off and running with Dali arguing it's pedigree: "I'm the terminus of the Burma Road, the capitol of North Burma a few years back, and I sit right on gorgeously clear and clean Erhai Lake."

Admittedly a clean clear lake is unique to much of China but Lijiang can't help whispering, "Gee, Louise. Dali was capitol of North Burma way back in the ninth century, ancient history, and she's got nothing left to show for it."

Not having heard the Lijiang heresy Dali continues simpering, "And Erhai Lake is the cutest little dickens, not that it's little, twenty-five miles long, but it's shaped like a stretched-out ear."

"And about as scenic as an ear," lies Lijiang, sotto voce.

"And the Lake is bordered with lovely exotic temples framing color frescos of enraged black Buddhas," flounces Dali, lengthening its lead on the first turn, "and, oh, you must see how I've been rebuilt, stacked you might say," with an extra flounce. "Check out my excellent reconstructed city wall and the three most classic skyscraper pagodas in all of China. So there. The tallest one, 230 feet above ground, sits next to my "Reflection Park" for taking super pictures." Dali figures she's got it knocked, that the race is hers.

But Lijiang scoots up fast, giving us a come-on eye. "Little ole me," she says, "I am the centerpiece where that writer fellow, James Hilton, set his Shangri-La, an equally ancient city with World Heritage designation, sprawled along crystal-clear canals, also nearly unique to China, chockablock with quaint shops, and restaurants displaying ten-page menus in English."

Dali sneers and refuses to be passed because she has the same lengthy menus plus small fishing boats rigged with lopsided lateen sails dotting the dining shoreline on Lake Erhai, and she says so. Dali jumps a speck further ahead, "My magnificence resides in this," she throws a descriptive hand at her back, "13,000 feet high Canshan Mountains with a spellbinding eleven-mile "Cloud Trail" winding above waterfalls and precipices overlooking the lake-jammed valley." That is true. Dali lends easy access by cheap chairlift or pricey cable car to the Canshan Mountain Ridge that glowers over her back.

But Lijiang forges back and for the first time jumps in front, sticking her thumbs in the loops of her designer jeans and smirking: "I sit at the base of Jade Dragon Mountain, an always snowcapped monolith of spiky granite towering over 18,000 feet, accessible by two lovely cable cars up to 11,000 and 14,000 feet." Lijiang forgot to mention they're expensive, those cable cars, and not particularly lovely and at the top stop of 14,000 feet sits a singular karaoke bar croaking through extremely thin oxygen where Lijiang looks like a toy town far below.

Lijiang smiles at the omission, bolstering her lead: "My nights shimmer with Christmassy neon lights reflected off Lilliputian canals." She knows the lights in Dali push it further behind, pale eerie green mirrored off Internet screens in every little café.

But Dali says, "Hey, my restaurants feature pizza, burritos, tiramisu, and cappuccinos too." She screeches back even with Lijiang; they're neck and neck.

Lijiang is practically spitting, "Ah, I have the same cuisine but better, all with the Internet." So there she seems to say, extending the tip of a provocative tongue.

Dali counters, "See my ethnic adventures. See my fishermen without boats. See their cormorants with rings around their throats for fishing." Oh, the omissions. The rings force the musty black cormorants to burp up the fish from halfway down. Fresh fish, anyone?

Dali regroups, "See my daily ethnic markets selling everything from pigs to handy sidewalk extractions of troublesome teeth sans anesthetic." Lijiang only smiles, enjoying a boost from Dali's feeble effort.

Lijiang seizes the opportunity to surge ahead, "Ah, come see my quaint Naxi orchestra fiddling on ancient ethnic instruments buried in local gardens during the Cultural Revolution" You are impressed that musical culture may survive in Shangri-La and indeed it does if culture consists of twangy single-stringed cellos and screechy soprano soloists introduced by the longest-winded master of ceremonies in all of China. The orchestra is gasping its last because thirty-eight of the forty-four members are over age seventy, which evens out the so-called cultural advantage and gives Dali a temporary edge. Maybe the instruments should have stayed buried.

Dali's contribution to culture is its aggressive hawkers who jump in your face when you're chowing down on pizza and lattes at outdoor restaurants, dropping it behind Lijiang's rear end. The simple Dali solution is to keep a camera handy to shove in hawkers' faces when they shove theirs into thine. You cop great open-eyed shots of quaintly dressed locals backing hastily away.

"Ahem," says Lijiang, "At my old market the hawkers cut you some slack." Lijiang cops an inconsequential lead.

Dali says, "But I am famous for my marble." Indeed, Dali marble boasts startling patterns that look like craggy mountains and is for sale in every other shop; Dali is the Chinese word for marble, which kicks it even with Lijiang.

They're neck and neck down the stretch. Dali gasps, "I give you the herbal alternative to cheap Chinese beer. You can pick it from the side of the road. Or you can buy it for two dollars and fifty cents a pound already cured by the little old ladies selling knickknacks along foreigner's street."

Lijiang counters, "I am famous for earthquakes." She's grasping for the adventure-travel vote, which puts Dali into the lead. Lijiang stutters a second and says, "My quaint cobblestone streets..." True, which no luggage carrier has yet been built to negotiate, dropping Lijiang back another few yards but with Herculean effort she says, "Hey, big boy. I'm the easiest in China..." You listen with cocked ear. "...for getting your visa renewed and the jumping-off place for the 11,000-foot-deep Yangtze River Gorge called Tiger Leaping that cuts the backside off Jade Dragon Mountain."

It's a photo finish so take your choice or do what we did once you realize there's no choosing between them. Spend a week in Dali and another week in Lijiang. Don't miss Tiger Leaping Gorge, an easy day trip from Lijiang, and be sure to see a local market near Dali.

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