. We drove through tiny ethnic villages and picked up stray people wandering along the side of the road, it was also a good chance to hear more of the Mandarin language; it is such an unusual language and the tones and sounds of it are so different to English that it was an interesting experience in itself just to listen to people chat to each other (although it always sounds like they are arguing with each other, even if they are actually just talking about the weather). The province which we are traveling in at the moment, called Yunnan, is the second biggest tourist destination in China after Beijing and the whole province is undergoing huge building and renovation work (which is a pity because it is Yunnan’s oldy-worldy feeling that makes it so interesting). About half way through the journey we came across some huge construction work on the road; a new super-sleek highway is being built to join some of Yunnan’s main towns. However, rather than wait until the new highway has been built before they demolish the old road, the Chinese government had decided to dig up the road we were driving on and leave you no alternative than to drive along a muddy, bumpy, dirt track for almost two hours (it would be the equivalent of digging up the entire A55 from Chester to Bangor all in one go and then leaving all the traffic to drive along the demolished tarmac). To say that the remainder of the journey was bumpy would be an understatement, we nearly fell out of our seats many times and everyone was clinging on for dear life.
We arrived in Lijiang at about 1:30pm feeling pretty shaken and rattled. Lijiang is such a huge draw for both foreign and Chinese tourists and is separated into two areas: the old town, which is protected from construction work and pedestrianised, and the new town which (just like in Dali) is full of KFCs, shopping malls and ugly concrete buildings
. The bus dropped us off in the new town and after a quick taxi ride we managed to find our accommodation in the outskirts of the old town. It sounds silly but when we were planning our trip back at home we seemed to spend more time looking into China more than any other country even though it was our final destination; since the very beginning of our plans we have dreamed of visiting Lijiang. The best way I can describe it is to say it is like a time-capsule of ancient China. Lijiang is a maze of old cobbled streets, waterways, red lanterns and street stalls selling BBQ corn on the cob and potato cakes. It is also home to the famous Jade Dragon Snow Mountain which is the most photographed scene in Southern China. We were so excited to finally be here and couldn’t wait to see what our 3 days in Lijiang had to offer. Our hostel here is really lovely; they do great food and offer free green tea all day, which we made good use of! Our first wander down into the old town was met with a heavy downpour which was so strong it nearly broke our umbrellas, so we ended up huddling in someone’s shop until the rain eased. Lijiang really is a maze and we got lost many times that afternoon. Our first impressions of the town were really good but it wasn’t at all what we had expected it to be; we had thought that Lijiang would be really old-fashioned and quiet, we were hoping to have hit upon a hidden gem here. However it seems that we are about 10 years too late; as we walked down into the main square it felt like every Chinese holiday-maker and foreign tourist within a hundred mile radius had descended into Lijiang. There were so many people around we could hardly move and every street was lined with souvenir shops selling the same old tat. The town was very beautiful though and it had a great atmosphere, but we were slightly shocked at how much of a tourist trap it had become.
On our second day in Ljiang we headed out to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Park
. The park is actually centered around a huge lake called the Black Dragon Pool and was built during the Qing Dynasty in the 1770s. The view from the bottom of the lake looking up towards the mountain range is considered one of the most beautiful sights in the whole of China. So considering the torrential rain which we experienced yesterday we were incredibly lucky to have glorious sunshine for our day at the park! We can testify that the park, lake and mountains are absolutely stunning and we can’t imagine that we will ever find a more photogenic sight even if we kept traveling for another 10 years! The park was very peaceful and we spent most of the day wandering around and sitting under the trees for a few hours at a time chatting; it was as serene as we could ever have hoped for. Under every tree, sat at every bench and hidden in every nook and cranny were elderly Chinese men playing chess, who took a great delight in staring at us every time we walked passed them; we knew that we would get stared at in China, but sometimes it feels really ridiculous. The park has a couple of temples and pagodas which we visited… we think we might have even got accidently married in one of them! Opps! As we were looking around one of the temples a monk came over to give us some incense as an offering and when we saw that we were together he pointed at us and made a sign to ask if we were in love. We answered yes and the next thing we knew he had taken our incense, lighted it and started performing some kind of ceremony over our joined hands. He was chanting, swirling the incense fumes over us and rubbing the ash on our foreheads and fingers. We were looking at each other and wondering what was going on, but he was so lovely and smiley we didn’t want to interrupt him. After he had finished he smiled at us and instructed us to place our smoldering incense in the urns and then directed us to the donation book, where we had to write our names and say how much of a donation we were going to give to the temple
. We ended up giving a pretty tidy donation because we figured that it was karma for all the countless temples which we’ve been in to during our travels and not donated in. We have no idea if the monk’s little ceremony was all hocus-pocus to impress stray backpackers, if it was some kind of blessing or a really quick wedding ceremony… either way it made our time in Lijiang more memorable and hey maybe we can count the rest of our time in China as our honeymoon!
That evening we went along to see a performance by a local orchestra of elderly men from the Naxi ethnic minority group who play traditional Chinese music on old-fashioned instruments. They were amazingly good and we had a brilliant night out. The following morning we were getting ready to head out when we bumped into our friend Jen, who we had met back in Dali along with her partner Tony. Tony had gone out hiking for a few days but Jen had opted out because she had been unwell for a few days (I didn’t infect here with my cough honestly) so we spent most of the morning eating a lazy breakfast and chatting with her. Later in the day we headed out to a local temple which is set on the top of a hill overlooking Lijiang’s old town. It took us a while to find it because we kept getting lost down the tiny cobbled streets (and distracted by the shops selling pretty souvenirs) but in the end we found it and our hike to the top was rewarded with fantastic views. When we went inside the temple we found that it was actually being used as a glorified souvenir shop (is there anything that Asian people won’t turn into a souvenir shop!). On the second floor was a guy selling painted Chinese scrolls. Most of them were huge (big enough to cover an entire wall) but a smaller one caught my eye; the design of it is a red cherry blossom tree with some Chinese calligraphy at the bottom
. I set my heart on it the second I saw it and set to work trying to haggle with the seller for it. He didn’t speak a word of English and was jabbering away to me in Mandarin despite me telling him that I didn’t speak any of his language. Well to cut a long story short, and it is a very long story, we managed to get the price down from £45 to £15 using the universal language of typing numbers into a calculator. It is such a beautiful scroll but I will admit it was a bit of an impulse buy….as soon as I got it back to our room I suddenly realized that it is actually 4 feet high and won’t fit in my backpack (in my defense it looked a lot smaller when it was on the wall in the shop). So now we are stuck carrying this scroll around with us where ever we go and even have to sleep with it when we take over-night trains because it is too big to fit in our bags. Opps (again)!
That evening we went along to a family meal hosted by the owners of the hostel and met a family of Germans/Russians called Hans, Alexandra and their two children. These are the kind of people that you really want to meet when you are traveling! Their children are aged 15 and 13 and the family have sold all their possessions and are spending the next 5 years traveling the world. They have been traveling for 3 years so far and they have already been to a countless amount of countries. We were amazed at their stories and the confidence and knowledge of their children. We spent nearly all night talking to them and learning all about their adventures; they were amazing people. Tom and I have such huge respect for Hans and Alexandra and the decisions they have made for their children’s upbringing, it was incredibly educational for us to chat to them…we felt like we learnt so much of them in the few hours we knew them. It is the memory of people like these that will stay with us for a lifetime.
With us both full of colds and bad coughs we left Dali today and headed to our next destination of Lijiang, which is about 4 hours away. It was easier for us to catch a bus than get the train to Lijiang so we booked ourselves two seats on the 9:30am and caught a lift down to the station. We had thought we were going to be traveling on some sort of tourist mini-bus type of vehicle but it turned out we were on a little local bus full of Chinese people who spent the majority of the 4 hour drive staring at us. As I may have mentioned before, Chinese people are very germ-phobic so me coughing my guts up every two seconds didn't exactly help matters; I could feel people leaning as far away from me as possible, the guy next to me was practically pinned up against the wall as though I was going to infect him with the plague. I felt really paranoid every time I needed to cough or sneeze so I ended up eating a whole pack of throat lozenges just to stop me spluttering. Despite all this the drive to Lijiang was amazing and we wouldn’t have missed it for the world