Monday, April 19, 2010

Lijiang After the Fact, Part 1

This is the first of a set of blogs covering a trip I took to Lijiang,Yunnan back at the end of March. Between work, travel, a trip home, my great visit with Aidan, a lot of stories to tell and a general desire to share my thoughts in volume, I’ve fallen behind. So no, I’m not in Lijiang today, I’m writing it after the fact in hopes that I’ll get caught up before I head out on my next adventure.

Having been traveling to this side of the world for going on 5 years, I’ve been to most of the well-known cultural sites in and around the coastal mega-city that is China. Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Xi’an – all represent various phases of the development of this country starting with unification of the warring states and straight through the glorious revolution. These places – stretching back in time almost 3000 years – are emblematic of the evolution of the Han people, the most common ethnicity in China today. But there are an additional 56 minorities officially recognized by the government and each is represented in the China Nationalities Museum in Beijing one of the few popular places I’ve not visited, preferring to get my cultural exposure on the fly and not in an officially packaged form. With this in mind I booked a long weekend trip to southern Yunnan province and the ancient city of Lijiang.

This region was settled some 2000 years ago by migrant tribes from the Tibetan Plateau and much of their customs cleave to that region. The Naxi, as they have come to be known are still the dominant people in the region, numbering perhaps 300,000, a drop in the bucket in a nation with a population that is 5000 times that. But still being isolated and clustered, their cultural heritage is still dominant enough to provide a totally different look and feel than the rest of the country. The major “town” in the heart of Lijiang is known as Dayan and has an unbroken history of habitation of more than 800 years. In 1996 a devastating earthquake – yet another due to that rogue elephant India smashing into the bottom of Asia – destroyed most of the region. The Chinese government stepped in, rebuilt the place along traditional lines and the result was Lijiang-Dayan being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today it is an extremely popular tourism destination for the Chinese and it’s said that only a fool goes there on a national holiday. Not being one, I checked and re-checked the calendar before I made my plans.

Being a bit off the beaten path, getting there was not an easy proposition. While I can use the popular travel planning sites like Expedia and Travelocity, they are not always accurate in either flights or prices for domestic travel here. Instead, I use a Shanghai-based service by the name of Ctrip (the “C” standing for guess what) which has the details but lacks the ability to actually develop a route. For example, if I said I wanted to travel from Dalian to Lijiang, the answer would be “there are no flights.” You can overcome this by calling them up and availing yourself of their hit or miss English service, but you can’t pay for the tickets over the phone with a foreign credit card. So what you have to do is to try and figure out what cities serve your final destination and then back track to your point of departure. This often results in two or three individual itineraries which in turn means you can’t get boarding passes for each flight, instead having to visit that most wonderful aspect of Chinese travel, the “Domestic Transfer Desk.” The other problem is that when traveling from one big place to some small place, you often have to spend a night somewhere on the journey. At the end of my research and an attempt to use a local travel agent (unsuccessfully for the 4th time) it came down to spending the night in Kunming or Beijing. When presented with a choice like that, the answer was clear – a night in Beijing is always a nice proposition. And, it would allow an arrival in Lijiang at a reasonable hour providing some time for wandering around, dinner and some rest. It was thus booked – Thursday to Beijing, Friday to Lijiang by way of Kunming and Saturday/Sunday seeing the sights. The coming back bookings were far more straightforward – it was possible to get all the way back in a single day.

When my daughter Aidan was out I had tried unsuccessfully to find a restaurant where we could go and enjoy that most Beijing of dishes – Peking Duck. There seemed to be a lot of options, but the funny thing about finding a restaurant in China is that often you can’t. You give an address to the concierge at your hotel and he tells the cabbie who takes you somewhere, stops the car and points out the window with a grunt. Often the restaurant is not even there and if it was it’s doubtful that you could find it unless you read characters. So the more I read about some restaurant down at the end of a maze of hutong streets, the more I became convinced that more research was necessary. I took her to places I knew or places I knew how to get to and we had a great, duck-free time. On this trip though I decided that it was time to find at least one option for the future so I did a bit of research with friends at work and decided to go find a place that was near to Tiananmen Square, reportedly with good food and in theory easy to find. What’s more, it was supposedly located in a pedestrian shopping area loaded with alternatives. I had a business card, I had a mind’s eye shot from Google Maps and so off we went.

It’s always a great thing to find a new place in a city that you think you know reasonably well. This district, right at the top of the stairs up from the Qianmen subway station was so very close to the place where Aidan and I got our first taste of Gobi Desert dust back in March. Had I known, we would have certainly gone there – lots of twisty turns, neon lights, sights, smells and plenty of things worth looking at with a Sephora, Starbucks and Baskin Robbins thrown in for good measure. And after a little wandering around, a somewhat touristy Peking duck restaurant with excellent food and a floor show consisting of five or six cooks behind a glass wall hand rolling dumplings. Maybe a bit touristy, but who cares – the duck was sublime and I finally found a place where I could take just about anyone. Better yet, for the more adventurous visitors there were plenty of restaurants filling that niche between local dive and somewhat capable of dealing with English-speakers leaving me with a good place to get to know better. A great meal behind us, we walked back across Tiananmen stopping to take pictures of the Forbidden City, well lit and not obscured by blowing dust.

The next morning I was off to the airport for a 9:10 flight. I tried to talk my way into getting boarding passes for the first and second legs of the trip (it was the same airline after all) but the gate agent shot me down instantly. A young man waiting at the next counter though made my day, telling me that my Chinese was very good. I love it when complete strangers take the time to pat me on the head for exercising my linguistic skills. The plane was scheduled to depart from a part of the Beijing Airport that was completely unknown to me; this trip was shaping up to be both entertaining and educational. A round waiting room with a thousand people and planes departing to the most far flung places – Kunming, Urumqi, Kashgar – and other names both exotic and remote. It was more like a bus station than an airport terminal, noisy, crowded and not quite up to the press of people that it was hosting. Happily the plane left on time allowing me to escape the din. The people on this flight looked far different than those I am accustomed to up north. Shorter, stockier, darker of complexion, they agreed with my notion of what the people of Tibet look like and it was odd to be among a different set of people. Many of the people on the plane were elderly and they were to a person very hyperactive demanding refills on that sweet, milky coffee they serve on these flights and actually getting up and walking around while the plane was landing. I had the impression this might have been the first flight for many of them.

The newspapers in the days prior to my departure had had numerous articles decrying the state of the weather in Yunnan. Apparently they were in the middle of a long drought which was destroying their famous flower crops and even bringing some villages to the point of being temporarily abandoned due to a lack of drinking water. Jiang, my driver had also been doing some research informing me that while it would be okay, it was probably going to be a trial. He figured there would be water to drink but not much more. I wondered how the 5-star hotel I booked would explain that. It would be so typical of my luck to head off into a place that is famous for its canals and villages built around water and find it dried up. Landing in Kunming, it was obvious that there was a problem – places that were not regularly watered like the fields between the runways were very brown and dried up. But the mountainsides were green and so I entertained a bit of hope.

My experience with the Kunming Transfer desk was funny – no problem with the boarding pass and then on to a little private security line staffed by people who clearly were waiting for something to do – big smiles, lots of laughter and a quick pass through. Upstairs, the airport was unlike any I’d been to here with a large flower market taking up the better part of the main concourse along with many souvenir stores selling the local crafts; sort of a bazaar cum airport with an emphasis on the former. I went off to find my gate and realizing that it was down in what was probably yet another a crowded imitation bus station I decided to stay up on the main aisle to wait. It wasn’t much better up there but at least it was open.

As it got closer to departure time I went down to find my gate and joined a smaller group of people for the hop into Lijiang. When we were within 15 minutes of the scheduled time, it was clear that we were not leaving and sure enough the gate agent turned on her megaphone and announced a delay which, while not fully understanding, I did get the gist of. It’s actually pretty obvious in Chinese airports that when the megaphone comes out there is some kind of problem. Knowing the details of the problem is the key and not being completely fluent, I rarely grasp it. I have to listen and try to hear numbers which indicate either the length of the delay or the new time. When she finished her announcement, the gate agent looked my way and instantly developed that look of horror that is so common here among airport personnel – I have people in my waiting area that don’t speak Chinese and I can’t do anything about it. She stood there looking terrified and turned around to look the other way. I decided that this ice needed to be broken, so I walked over and asked her for the departure time, in Chinese, and she was instantly my best friend with big smiles and a rapid fire answer that I got nothing from. Didn’t matter, I had gotten her off the hook.

As the second departure time neared, it became clear again, that we were not going to leave. Standing and waiting, a man asked in perfect English if we were heading to Lijiang and told us there would be another 30 minutes to wait. This guy turned out to be an executive chef from Chandler, Arizona who was on his way to visit a friend for a week. We ended up sitting together on the plane and had a nice chat about everything and I came away with a personal invitation to their weekly demonstration meals anytime I happen to be in Tucson. I’m always amazed at how these little moments line up, paths and plans crossing time and miles to bring two people together in some far-flung airport waiting area.

It was the same thing flying across the mountains to the south – dry valleys hemmed in by tall green mountains dotted with stubby trees. The effect of the drought was obvious but it didn’t seem to be catastrophic; at least from 30,000 feet. I was traveling on this little jaunt with my friend Mike and the hotel he was using sent a car to pick him up. We were heading to pretty much the same place so I bummed a ride. Along the way I made a cursory attempt to talk to the driver but he didn’t seem interested. The road into town was lined with fields that looked pretty lush, the most popular plant being some sort of cabbage that had gone to seed in the form of tall stalks crowned with bright yellow flowers – waves of bright sunshine that undulated across the plain to the edge of the distant foothills. The architecture was the second thing that was obviously different – stone buildings, each two stories crowned with an ornate tile roof in that style that says “China” to anyone that has never seen the place. Instead of all four walls being block though, the front and rear were composed of wood panels hosting carvings and screens instead of windows.

We got stuck in some construction work, part of a project that seemed to be widening the road. Tall Cypress trees just unplanted were stacked perpendicular to our direction waiting to be loaded onto flatbed trucks. I found it interesting that these trees would be so carefully removed and reused as opposed to how they might be treated by a road-widening project in the west. Farmers were out working in the fields, hand watering the plants from ponds using ladles with long wooden handles. Off to one side I actually saw a Water Buffalo, only my second in all my travels here.

Lijiang itself looked pretty much like every other city in China but minus the vertical component – there were far fewer of the omnipresent high rises you see everywhere else. Instead most buildings were no more than three to five floors and even though modern, each had those same wooden screens forming as the houses in the rural villages on the way in. We checked Mike into his hotel and returned to mine which turned out to be quite spectacular, designed and built in that same architectural style. My room was one of four in an isolated unit out on the back of the grounds, just a few steps from the actual ancient city. We rode out there in a golf cart. The room was heavy on dark wood and carvings, it featured a bedroom, bath, sitting room and office – truly something you’d pay dearly for elsewhere. The quality of this place, the new road and the fancy as yet unopened airport off to the side of where we came in said one thing – “tourism.” Clearly there was a master plan at work. After dropping off my gear, we stepped out through a back gate and into another world.

The Dayan ancient town is built around three branches of a river that flows down from the Tibetan highlands. Everything in the town is about water – the buildings are all built along tiny stone canals that start at one end of town and flow down to the other end and out into the valley. The guidebooks mentioned that it was quite easy to get lost here but that all one had to do was find a canal and follow it as it flowed down and out. It sounded easy enough and naturally, I scoffed at the idea that I could get lost anywhere. So confident was I that I was not even disabused of that notion when we found ourselves dead-ended in a school courtyard no more than 200 feet out the hotel gate. An old woman waved us back and pointed out the obscure left turn we had missed. Correcting our mistake we headed up into the old town.

For lack of a better description, I’ll call what I saw a retail theme park. Almost all of the buildings had been converted into some sort of crafts or souvenir shop, or barring that – a restaurant. The narrow streets wound in and around the buildings, fronted on one side by a tiny canal crossed here and there by little stone bridges that gave access to the stores or other lanes that wound off in some other direction. There are no cars here and the only things you need to worry about are delivery carts being driven too fast or the incredibly uneven surface of the streets which are formed by shiny limestone blocks. It looked as though most places were commercial on the first floor and residential on the second. Every tenth or so doorway turned out to be the entrance into either a small inn or a private home, two storey affairs with suspended walkways opening out onto courtyards where plants grew in large jars and Mynahs sang in wooden cages.

I had it in my mind to try to remember the way back so I was filing away landmarks and hoping that they’d look the same in the dark. We wandered around for a few hours, stopping to spend some time in the main square from which all the major lanes emanated. Here we found four Yunnan cowboys dressed in traditional Yak fur slickers and fur hats and mounted on sturdy ponies, hoping to make some money by having their pictures taken by the tourists. It was getting dark and a bit cool, the latter due to the 8000’ elevation, so we went off in search of a restaurant. We found one off the beaten path and were led to an open air balcony on the second floor where we dined on a chicken dish, a traditional Naxi potato pancake and deep fried Yak served with fresh mint. As nighttime fell, red lanterns were lit on the fronts of the buildings, further adding to the beauty of the place.
We had to leave in separate directions so we decided to head back to the main square to get our bearings. It was dark now and the place was not particularly well lit which made the more subtle landmarks all but disappear. But the main streets were plain enough and so saying “goodnight” we went off.

At first I thought I was in pretty good shape following the exact lane we had come in on. Somewhere along the way though I missed what should have been a right turn. I passed a nice gate in the Ming style, similar to those in the Xi’an city wall and made a note to come back for it in the morning. I walked on and on before it finally began to sink in that I had gone too far. Looking for one of those downhill flowing canals, I was surprised that there were none to be seen. I kept going and finally turned on my GPS to at least get an idea if I was heading in the proper direction. It seemed I was, and the hotel should have been somewhere off to my right. I began taking right turns just to see if I could slowly wind my way in that direction but what I found instead was a host of unlit dead ends amid homes – somehow I’d left the commercial district entirely. I could see the brightly lit main street out over the roof tops but there didn’t seem to be an obvious way to get there. Occasionally I’d pass a person standing outside talking on their cell phone, or I’d walk by people in their homes playing cards or sitting around the dinner table. This level of adventure was a tad too intimate for me, seeing people watch me walk by the first time and then the second time when the route didn’t turn out to be an exit. I’ll admit I was getting a bit nervous.

I kept at it though and finally found a way out to a main street. Completely disoriented by now I wasn’t even sure which way to turn so I made a left and walked quickly to put some distance between me and the two people who suddenly seemed to be following me back in the shadows. Looking at my GPS I remembered two things – first, in China there is an offset to the displayed map which means you’re actually 300 feet to the north of where it looks like you are. In a city that’s designed like a maze, this tidbit renders it more or less useless aside from showing your general direction. Secondly, I saw that I should have turned left at my escape point and so I turned around and walked straight back through the two people behind me. They turned out to be a couple of schoolboys still in uniform; probably on their way home.

It turned out that I was quite a bit down the road from the hotel but I eventually got my bearings and found my way into the lobby. I didn’t want to use the golf cart again, but I couldn’t find a clear way in the front door and out the back so after wandering aimlessly for a few minutes I asked one of the many young men standing around to point out the back door. Of course, none of them spoke English; I was lost a second time in the main building of my hotel. Eventually one appeared with enough language skill to understand what I was looking for and a willingness to take me down the stairs and point the way out. I managed to find my way through the hotel grounds without getting lost again a third time and made it to my room with no further ado.

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