Christmas in Lijiang

Trip Start Aug 29, 2006
Trip End Aug 31, 2007

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Christmas in Lijiang
I had the great pleasure of spending my birthday, Christmas Eve and Christmas day, with Sandi in the beautiful old town of Lijiang, Dayan in the Yunnan province. Lijiang is the spiritual base for the Naxi minority (numbering approx. 278,000) and located at the first bend of the Changjiang River. The Naxi are descended from Tibetan nomads and feature many of these physical and cultural characteristics. They are prominent inside and outside the old town environs and very distinctive in their traditional clothing of blue, white, red and black.

The old town is delightful and has a timeless feel as you walk along the narrow, cobbled alleyways, walls of mud brick and wooden doors. All the shops along the walkways use wooden shutters to front their premises; these are all removed and stacked along the alleyways during the day.  If you get up early in the morning the alleyways are deserted and all along, either side are walls of wooden doors, ornately carved in traditional patterns. It is quiet and you can easily imagine the town as it was 800 years ago. The only sounds you hear are the rushing waters of the canals running throughout the old town, and a soft mist rising from the marble cobblestones.

It is cold in December, freezing in the mornings and evenings but it warmed up considerably during the day all the way to just a t-shirt weather. The sky is crystal clear and I saw blue skies and stars for the first time in 4 months. The rugged, staggering peak of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain overlooks Lijiang. Looking out over the ancient, sloping, tiled roofs to the mountain peak takes your breath away and transports you back to old China.

To quote the tourist map from Lijiang; 'Life should not be in haste and people should not be swayed by considerations of gain and loss, tread as on eggs and be insatiable forever, because the outlooks to life of the Naxi people may make your rushing steps slow down.'
And in Lijiang 'this is true' to quote yet another wonderful character our tour guide Li.
The guide also lists the great eight dishes of Lijiang;
Fried sheet jelly with cold ham and salty ducks egg on top
Fried chestnut and dried fruit
Crisp fish braised in soy sauce with lotus root slices and pickles Stewed meatballs and spareribs with lily
Stewed agarics and bean curd with egg
Crisp meat stewed with greengrocery
Vermicelli stewed with meat slices
Meat pieces braised in soy sauce  
Sandi did the research and booking for the holiday. We decided on what turned out to be the perfect choice of accommodation at the:
Hostel: Brookside Guesthouse
Address: No.11 Bayi (81) Upper Street, Qiyi (71) Street, Dayangu Town ,Lijiang Yunnan 674100, China
Telephone: 0086 13170788700
Directions:  Please contact hostel directly for directions.
We had a delightful room each, with en-suite, comfortable single beds, electric blankets and picturesque surroundings. They have built a small covered area atop the building with a view over the roof tops right to the mountain, a wonderful place to have a coffee first thing in the morning, all for 100Yuan a night. The brook or canal ran right outside my window and lulled me to sleep at night. You are right in the centre of the old town, as soon as you walk out the front door you are in the cobbled alleyways and the shopping district.
And if you are a shopper this is a little paradise of ethnic art and handicrafts. I enjoyed shopping everyday and had great delight in buying wonderful gifts and treasures to take home. It is also a photographer's opportunity with the bright accents of the Naxi traditional costumes, wonderful faces, shop fronts hung with colorful handicrafts, small horses and mountain men trekking through the streets.

The old town has myriad waterways and canals of freezing rushing water, crossed by ancient stone bridges linking the town together. There are no vehicles allowed in the old town, as the lanes are too narrow which is great for pedestrians. The whole of the old town is lit up at night, transforming into a kaleidoscope of fairy lights draping the trees and building outlines distinguished by thousands of small white lights. The whole town glows with light as the canals and walkways are strung with red lanterns. There is traditional dancing being performed in the main shopping square through out the day and evening with many delightful multistoried cafes lining the square where you can enjoy a meal or coffee and watch the market square activity. Prices are never high in China compared to western costs but we found the prices right in the old town rather high for food and drinks.

The new town is much like any other Chinese city of comparable size. But the outlying areas are rural with traditional farming practices and in December fields of harvested corn and freshly plowed earth create patchworks of gold and brown. We had the great experience of going on a tour with a wonderful character named Li. A colorful personality with excellent knowledge of the area, Sandi and I were whisked off 70 kilometers out of Lijiang to a traditional Naxi market day. The journey there was a kidney crushing, bladder-bouncing ride in a small van with a driver and Li. The scenery was fascinating and ever changing. The mountains are never out of view, their presence lending grandeur to the landscape.

Li is amenable to photo stops but if you have a deadline to be somewhere choose your shots. We had to get to the markets that finished at 3 so we had to keep the tempo of travel up. Arriving at the markets we were assaulted with sights, sounds and smells. It was a market with a difference as it was the once yearly buy and butcher a pig day. The markets were an unforgettable experience of traditional ritual and contemporary purchasing. As you entered the area where the markets are held the traffic is backed up for kilometers either side, trucks, vans, cars, bicycles and pedestrians all vying for access in and out. The open trucks are filled with people, mainly women and children and this day, pigs.

There were pigs in barrows, baskets, boxes and bags tucked under arms and carried across backs.

The faces were distinguished by their brownness and age.

Both men and women in traditional clothing filled the communal areas with rich blues and the women's delightful headdresses.  As at all markets everything you can imagine was for sale with the inclusion of farming implements, and livestock. Serious bargaining and debate was taking place, as small pigs were being bought and sold. Fresh vegetables and massive bags of chilies spilling over onto the ground and the ubiquitous set of hand scales measure all.
The market was unique as the surrounding inhabitants buy their once a year pigs. These are butchered on the day and made into sausages, hocks, salted and smoked. Every single piece of the animal is used, there is no waste and a specialist travels from farm to farm to make the special pork sausages that will be consumed for the family feast throughout the New Year celebrations.
We had the opportunity to visit local villages and spend time with families, having tea and looking around their homes. The harvests were in and each house had an abundance of corncobs, meat, grain and chilies hanging from the rafters.

All the dried corn stalks are stacked and will be used as fuel for cooking. We were at one home for what I call, 'the first pork piece" it is traditional that any guest be served fresh from the pig, thrown on the coals of the fire the first piece from the kill. Lovely, tender and hot, you just have to take your chances kind of experience!!!
We also were at one home when the specialist sausage maker came to make the families sausages. Special (secret) recipe and the sausages are all stuffed using the intestine as the casing, and a small funnel to feed the meat mixture into the casing. These will be hung to dry for many weeks and are spicy and delicious as I found come New Year.
Many of the Naxi people have been located to these villages and there certainly is an aura of hardship, no electricity, sometimes no water and the work is hard. All the essentials for day to day living must be worked for, no easy task when the water can be a mile or two away and you are carting it home on your back. There can be a reasonable living made within the old town but most of the people in these outlying areas are poor farmers. It was an insightful and delightful day and I felt I had had the opportunity to see and experience something real, not put on for tourism. The village people were generous, friendly and hospitable. It was the most unique birthday I have ever had.
We spent three delightful days wandering the streets and back alley areas, finding so much as its always been. Walking up to the top of the hill to 'Lion Hill Park' overlooking the old town has the Wangu Lou pavillion, built in 1999, beautifully finished and looks like it has always been there. The views were wonderful and the old town lies below, with its gray slated roofs like a undulating sea, shimmering in the sunlight.
The town has a long history and plays a crucial part in the cultural and spiritual fabric of the Naxi people. The Naxi society has always been a matriarchal family based community. One of the most delightful aspects of this colorful and distinct culture is the retention of the 'Dongba script' the oldest active or living hieroglyphic language still in use in the world. It consists of 1400 pictograms and these are actively used as a written language today. I purchased a dictionary of the pictograms and each one tells a story.
Much of the art work utilizes the script and a pictogram painting is a unique souvenir to take home from this timeless town.

An interesting piece of side information relates to Joseph Rock an Austrian botanist who lived in Lijiang between 1922 and 1949. He gathered over 80,000 plant specimens and was a great defender of the Naxi culture.
The delightful clothing of the Naxi is symbolic as well as practical for the conditions. The traditional shawls have an upper blue segment which represents night, a lower sheepskin band to represent daylight, and small circles recalling the stars. Two circles on the shoulder areas depict the eyes of a frog, an ancient Naxi deity, (Eyewitness travel guide- China-pg 390-393).
Sandi and I spent Christmas Eve on the hilltop, sitting around an open fire with 4 sweet and charming young Naxi girls, drinking tea and dancing. Christmas day started with goodies and coffee on the roof looking at the Jade Dragon in its snow capped glory and opening much appreciated gifts from home. It was truly special and I am deeply grateful for this magic experience.

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Where I stayed
Brookside Guesthouse
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