[written while sitting by the old stone bridge after lunch in the markets, an environment in which I would be more than happy to work everyday]
After a few days in Kunming, I headed to Lijiang. Along with Dali, it seems to be one of the compulsory ‘old towns’ to visit in Yunnan province. Yunnan is home to much of the ethnic diversity in China, and Lijiang is one of the places where there is still a large percentage of people in traditional dress, speaking their old languages and now, becoming major tourist attractions. I actually find it incredible that any of this survived the cultural revolution, where anything remotely artistic, religious, or scholastic was systematically destroyed. Prior to that, China’s diversity must have been at least equal to that of India.
The first evening spent wandering the old town, which is an incredibly twisted and convuluted network of cobbled streets, surrounded by murmuring streams that have been diverted throughout the town. Surrounding you always are wonderfully curved, tiled roofs filled with souvenir shops, restaurants and…thumping bars.
That last line illustrates the contrast. Mostly, Lijiang is absolutely beautiful, incredible, and heart-warming in the way the form of the place oozes character and community. But, tourism equals money, and the powers-that-be are seeing to it that ‘old’ Lijiang is rapidly expanding. The new paths and buildings are almost impossible to tell from the new, but there is a real sense of design about the place, rather than the centuries of evolution that preceeded it.
More on that thread later, but first back to the bars. I was so fixated by the thumping music, girls in traditional dress and fun vibe that I actually went and decided to have a beer in one of the traditional/modern bars. It has sort of been so long since I engaged in some sort of normal, over the counter transaction, and sat in a pub (I haven’t drunk since leaving the UK – you can’t in most of the places I visited).
Anyway, these bars have girls in traditional dress standing outside to welcome people in to an environment where traditional dances are set to a thumping soundtrack while laser cannons shoot green light through the smoke of hipster youth sipping expensive beers and thumping clackety-clack hand clappers on the tables. Oh, and the whole place is covered in Christmas decorations. The cheapest beers were 35RMB for 330ml – that’s $8.50AUD. That is, compared to costs the rest of my trip, so far incomprehensibly expensive.
The whole thing reminded my of Whistler in Canada – the towns popularity is well-deserved, the reconstruction of traditional-style buildings has been done tastefully, and that the ultrawealthy are able to co-exist with the poor locals. The cigar and wine bars sit next to old ladies in traditional dress washing clothes in the stream. Wealthy tourists gawk at old Naxi ladies doing traditional dances in the square, while 500m south down some twisting lanes everyone is in the same traditional dress gutting fish and carrying home vegetables like they have for centuries. And, on occasion, some of the same ladies in traditional dress are digging through and emptying the town’s rubbish bins for food and recyclables.
Similarly, the stall holders painstakingly hand-crafting woodprints, paintings and emroidery while watching DVDs on their laptops. Or, playing with their mobiles while sitting in traditional dress amongst a pile of wood-shavings. They do, in that respect, continue the observed pattern in China that when you are not busy, you do something. People skip rope, knit, do their homework, all sorts off things rather than just sit there (as they tend to do in India).
Some more snapshots from my time in Lijiang:
- Jia Xiao Yu the 28 year old divorced mum from Sichuan province, a multiple-time visitor to Lijiang who sat next to me in the noisy bar. Her English was about zero, but we somehow communicated. Turns out she is going to work in Kunming for a while, and her mum is looking after her little son. After a beer, we met the next morning for a walk around and tour of the old Naxi house. Then, we went to KFC for breakfast – it’s her favourite. After KFC we parted as ‘Piang you’ – friends – and she (with the help of the KFC staffer who spoke Mandarin and English) impressed upon me that I should stay safe in my travels…
- The tour through the old Naxi house filled with the old pictographic writing and Naxi pinyin existing alongside the Mandarin. The youngsters have just started to learn it again so they can at least communicate with their grandparents. This home , and the grandparents must have seen an incredible amount of change in their lives. From sleeping and cooking in one room, seeing the English, Americans, French, Japanese, Red Army and others sweep through the SW of China. Surviving the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and now suddenly having grandchildren with playstations and foreign and chinese tourists paying lots of money to see what has otherwise been suppressed for half a century.
- The Nature Conservancy’s office, and their amazing programme which has a heavy focus on NW Yunnan. Really, really inspiring and supporting this thread of integrated cultural and biological diveristy conservation. Seeing this really reinforced the thread through my soul and mind that is intertwining cultural, biological and agricultural conservation. It got me thinking more and more about the type of new culture must be created that re-integrates our lives with the earth.
- Goldfish in their [assumed] natural habitat. Amazing. Throughout the village the streams are actually filled with goldfish. Most about 4 or 5 inches long, swimming against the tide and gracefully darting back and forth. Sometimes resting in the shelter of some structures on the riverbank. They look so happy, natural, and I am overjoyed to be writing this in their presence. [Please, someone, don’t spoil this by emailing me to say they are actually replenished by the authorities every night purely for tourists viewing pleasure]
- Markets filled with tofu, spicy beans and vegetables, pigs, crickets, fish, goji berries and dogs. I peered long enough into the animal slaughterhouse next to the (vegetarian) noodle stall to see a little piglet dragged off squealing, held-down and its through slit until the sound died with a gurgle. Faaaarrrrk.
- More photos (below, and here).