The most attractive town in China?

Trip Start Nov 15, 2005
Trip End Aug 15, 2008

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Flag of China  ,
Sunday, January 28, 2007

The journey up here was notable only for the hilarity that is Bugs Bunny dubbed into Chinese, a shown on repeat through the entire three hour journey. The scenery might have been nice had the weather been clear enough to see any of it.

Of itself, I think the old town of Lijiang is the most attractive urban area I have yet seen in China. Large and almost excessively pretty, it consists of wood and stone houses with gracefully curved, grey tile rooves, set along winding roads following the course of the many canals, or the contours of the hills on which the town is built. Unusual for a Chinese city, to say the least. It's just a shame that for the most part it suffers from an over-abundance of souvenier shops and overly expensive restaurants, and that travesty that is 'culture on show'. Here it takes the form of the local minority, the Naxi, dressed up in 'traditional' costume and dancing 'traditional' circle dances in the main square, or Dongba men posing for photographs, or offering horse rides around town. There's something not quite right about a middle aged businessman in a suit, sitting atop a horse being paraded around town with a huge grin on his face.

On a more positive note, when you do actually manage to escape the tourist shop streets - a  surprisingly hard thing to do - the town becomes far more interesting, as you get to see some life happening amidst the beautiful architecture, people sitting and smoking or doing their laundry in one of the canals, or the colourful local market, set against a background of snow-capped mountains. There are a couple of nice parks around the place, although the supposedly spectacular views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain reflected in the Black Dragon Pools weren't on display when we visited because of the rubbish weather. Also, this town has what are undoubtedly the best public toilets in China, complete with toilet paper (occasionally) and TV screens!

The nightlife in Lijiang is kind of different. One night, we explored the main bar/restaurant street, a bit of a Lijiang institution by all accounts. The entertainment on this street, divided by a small stream and lined on both sides with bars, takes the form of singing. The costumed staff from each place stand outside and sing across the stream to the opposite bar, whose staff (and patrons, if they are in the know) sing back. Odd. If you choose to actually sit and have a drink in one of these places, you're treated to more 'culture on show' as costumed girls dance in endless circles. Oddly fascinating, but at 25 kuai for a small beer, not that fascinating.
A much better option is the Naxi orchestra. An hour and a half performance by ethnic Naxi people, all playing traditional Taoist Naxi songs on original Naxi instruments, many of which had to be hidden underground during the cultural revolution of the 60's to avoid having them destroyed. As interesting as this all was, possibly the best part of the performance were the members of the orchestra themselves. Half seemed to be well past their 60th, and 7 or 8 were over 80; many had long, flowing white beards (thoughtful stroking obligatory) and seemed to pass out in between numbers. One sat right in the middle just seemed to stare from behind his hypnotic dark glasses all evening.

As is often the case, my Lijiang experience wouldn't have been the same were it not for the hostel. Mama Naxi's, run by the perpetually busy Mama and ever smiling, never rushing Papa, both of the local Naxi minority, this place doesn't appear in any of the guidebooks or on the hostel websites as far as I know, yet even in the depths of the low season seemed almost full every night. Word of mouth works wonders. It only has very basic facilities, no heating even, but has character and a wonderful communal atmosphere. This was due to the heated tables that everyone would converge around, and the meals. Dear god, the meals. For a bargain 8 kuai, every evening Mama Naxi would cook up an enormous amount of food (I never saw every dish finished), and some of the best food I've had in China at that. The communal meals meant I got to meet some very interesting people, with whom I ended up walking the Gorge.   

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