We had arranged for a car to pick us up around 9:30 for a trip out to the base of Jade Snow Dragon Mountain, an 18,000’ massif to the north of town. There is a system of cable cars that climb up to various spots on the peak and we wanted to have a look so after realizing that the hotel car was far too expensive we hired a local service. “Kevin” the concierge told me the day before that the driver’s name was Mr. He so you can imagine my surprise when he turned out to be a she. Women drivers are very uncommon in China so I was a bit excited to see how we’d fare with one. Her entire name was He Xiao Wen and trying to completely understand the three parts of it was the basis of us getting to know how we well we would be able to communicate. She having no English and my Chinese being, well, my Chinese.
Leaving the parking lot we incredibly encountered a Smart Car convention that was basing a tour of the area out of my hotel. Miss He thought the cars were very intriguing and wanted to know more about them. I tried to convey the name literally, calling them Cong Ming Che, or “intelligent car.” She thought that was about the dumbest name possible. I’m not sure how true that was, but it was very, very odd to see this line of tiny cars pulling out of the lot on their way to who knows where. Who even knew that a Southwestern China Smart Car Association existed?
The highway left town after a couple of traffic circles and a re-visit to the roads we’d used the day before in traveling to and from Shu He. As the buildings thinned out I started to notice brightly colored parkas hanging on clotheslines in front of just about every establishment along the road. I was thinking they were so bad that I might have to have one when Miss He asked me if we wanted to stop and rent a couple. I was a bit perplexed by this and even more so when she asked if we were going to need “bags of air” or something along those lines given the translation. It turned out that the businesses along here have a side trade of providing coats and breathing air to the people heading up the mountain. People unaccustomed to the altitude and the cold. I assured her that we were tough guys from the mountains of America and that we would need neither. She wasn’t buying it and I suspect she thought we were about to be taught a big lesson by old man mountain. But she dropped the offer and drove on.
Eventually the road divided, the change being marked by a big billboard displaying Tibetan Mastiffs, those giant dogs of the Himalayas. Oddly there was actually a kennel right behind it with a few lonely dogs milling around in cages. The sales office must have been somewhere else.
We must have been pushing 9,000 feet about this point because I began to have those telltale feelings of oxygen deprivation – a little light in the head and a bit tight in the chest. It wasn’t bad, but I was glad I was sitting in a car and not riding a bike up the incline. We passed a Tibetan style shrine off to the right; the wind was picking up and blowing the multicolored prayer flags hanging about on lines. The trees were getting smaller and smaller. At a turnout we stopped to take a few photos back down the hill which was split by a small but deep gorge between the two sides of the road. The view wasn’t spectacular but the air was clear and cool and we were beginning to get that special feeling of being above tree line.
We came to the gate to the park and pulled up to a toll booth. I heard Miss He tell the gals in the tiny office that she had a couple of foreigners, so someone in there told someone else to go find the English speaking agent. We sat there for a full ten minutes while this fire drill ensued, lots of yelling back and forth between booths before the English speaker finally showed up and did little other than read us the brochure. We had a few options for riding the gondola so we picked one, paid our toll and continued on arriving after a short drive at the bus station where we would catch a tram to the departure point. It seems that the day was going to be a continuous set of handoffs between differing modes of transportation. The first bad sign was that there were about 100 tour buses parked in the lot. The second bad sign was that there was nowhere for us to park. Miss He solved that by just pulling up on an embankment near the entrance. After struggling through a conversation to inform me that she would be there sleeping in the car when we were done, she led us through a crowd of hundreds of people in matching baseball caps (the tour groups whose buses we’d passed) to the ticket office.
Here it became instantly obvious that this was not going to work. Before committing any money, I asked her to ask the saleswoman how long the wait would be and the answer was 3 hours. Now, in the best of conditions I am not great at waiting. But in a foreign country, where there is a very good likelihood that I won’t even hear our number called, and on a trip that is only 2 days long, and surrounded by hundreds of yammering tourists in a crowded and hot bus station, well, the math seemed obvious – I wasn’t waiting. I had a quick conversation with Mike and at that moment I was very glad to be traveling with someone of like sensibilities. Often these kinds of dilemmas can cause real travel friction because someone can’t deal with the options while the other person has their heart set on something. It’s always good to pick a fellow traveler who can decide quickly and who isn’t wed to every idea. It took us about 30 seconds to agree and head back to the car.
Now we had an entire day ahead of us and no itinerary. Pulling out of the lot and heading back down the road I spotted a big black lump in the road – my very first Yak in the wild! It was a big beast, slumbering just off the road in the scrubby bush. Tibetan Skylarks shared the field, doing their unique mating ritual of signing a chattering song while ascending in a straight line hundreds of feet into the air above their patch. We jumped out of the car and readied our cameras as we picked our way across the stony ground. For obvious reasons my mind went to those news videos of tourists being trampled by buffalo in Yellowstone for doing the exact same thing that we were doing. But this guy was so sleepy looking I pushed those thoughts out and forged ahead. He did finally lift up his big furry head giving us a nice view of the white blazed between his substantial horns. His personal space didn’t seem to have been violated; he just lay there dully staring at us. When we turned to walk away, he put his head back down and went back to dreaming of crisp springtime alpine meadows. Miss He told me that his Chinese name was “maoniu” or “Yak Cow.” I thought to ask why they used both names but decided it wasn’t worth the bother.
The mountain was there in the background shrouded once again in deep gray clouds. For some reason, the Jade Snow Dragon had no intention of showing itself to us. I took a few of the best photos worth taking and got back into the car.
There are four main sights worth seeing within driving distance of Lijiang. Jade Snow Dragon Mountain was a bust as we’d just discovered. The first bend of the Yangtze River is supposed to be something to see, the mighty river flowing down from the plains of Sichuan runs smack into a giant block of upthrust lava and being unable to go through it, makes a timid detour before continuing on its way to Shanghai. Near to this is the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. But “Kevin” the concierge had told us that they were too far off in the opposite direction to be a reasonable choice, so that left us with La Shihai, a big lake and locally famous wildlife refuge. So that’s where we headed.
The drive was straight back the way we’d come, making this the third trip down the same roads. Reaching Lijiang though we struck off to the west and climbed up and over a small set of hills on a really crappy road that was perhaps under construction. Cresting the top of the last one, we descended into a parallel valley and there was the lake set before us, ringed in tall snow covered peaks. The wind was howling.
We took a long drive down a short dirt road and pulled into a parking lot. A small group of men sat playing cards, stopping to stare at us as we got out of the car. One came over and talked to Miss He and she handed us off to him. He wanted to sell us horseback rides but we’d come for the famous pole boat ride out among the vast hordes of wintering ducks and geese. He agreed, took us to the ticket office and separated us from an unreasonably large sum of money. Tickets in hand, he pointed the way down an irrigation levee and sent us on our way.
Pony rides seemed to be the big draw here judging from the number of stocky little horses that stood in the fields chewing on marsh grass. A couple of groups of Chinese tourists came trotting by. One of the handlers accompanying them gave a big slap on the butt of one of the tourist ponies and it took off fast, its rider holding on for dear life. We walked on towards the lake until the path ended at a hut made of wooden poles and plastic tarps. A man and a woman sat inside cooking over a small fire. I asked “where” and he grunted and pointed to the left. Down at the end of another small levee a couple of guys stood poles in hand. Judging from their body language they clearly hoped that we were not coming to see them. When they saw we were, the quicker of the two grabbed a boat and took off, leaving his friend to deal with us.
We approached him, took a stab at a greeting and he stood and stared. I pantomimed a boat ride and his fried yelled at him from out on the pond to check our tickets. He took a look at them and rubbed them between his fingers as though these were the first he’d seen. Apparently satisfied, he turned his back to us, opened his pants and relieved himself as we stood waiting. Done with that chore he motioned towards his boat, we got in and were off.
The lake was huge and windswept and notable for its lack of waterfowl. There were perhaps a few dozen Coots and ducks here and there but nothing on the order of what I had hoped to see. We headed off to the south with the wind to our right, small waves lapped against the steel sides of the boat and sent some spray up and over the bow. A long line of partially submerged trees got me wondering how they could survive standing in this water. To our left, a Chinese couple in their very own boat provided an entertaining photo op.
After fifteen minutes he came about to the right and headed into the wind. It must have been tough work judging from his loud grunting and coughing. He seemed to be steering us towards a lone Cormorant out on a tree stump. The lake seemed to be very shallow; perhaps no more than a foot or two which probably explained these ungainly flat bottom steel scows they were peddling. Just as I thought we might be seeing that poor bird up close, another boat carrying some guy with a giant lens cut across our path and sped in that direction. Our sailor, taking the cue made a turn back to the north; it seemed that we’d paid for a nice square ride on the lake. I decided to call it quits and instructed him to turn the square into a right triangle and to take the shortest path back to home. He didn’t seem disappointed. We left the place with a feeling of disappointment and of having been robbed.
By now it was all of 1:00 and we had the car rented until 6. I was all for calling it a day being unwilling to accept any additional defeats, but Miss He insisted we come up with another destination. I didn’t have any ideas so I put it back on her. She suggested what sounded like “Bai Shi” which rang no bells with me until after a bit of serious consideration it rang clear – another ancient town. Having nothing better to do and still maintaining hope of a single success, we agreed. Naturally it meant driving for a third time on those same roads we’d already come down. After stopping at a China Mobile store so Miss He could recharge the minutes on her phone, we were on our way again.
Dayan in Lijiang is a polished retail gem. Shu He is just a bit less refined and Bai Shi is the most rustic of the three. Here, the balance between pastoral lifestyle and commerce strongly tips to the former. The buildings were clearly ancient and un-restored and people were going about their daily chores in spite of our presence. There were perhaps no more than 20 tourists in the entire village. Entering the town I passed a little old woman with a giant basket of Cilantro on her back. Walking out to the edge of town we passed another group of four women bringing the days harvest back to their homes. We crossed an ancient stone bridge and looked at the fields which extended from the village to the foothills off in the west. A big hawk sitting in a tree tolerated our presence for a few minutes before launching itself and wheeling off into the wind. I wanted a shot of the side of the bridge because it was one of those classical stone jobs supported by a semicircular arch. I stepped off the road in order to get a better angle and in doing so discovered the town dump – bring your trash to the old bridge and toss it off. Another arroyo put to good use.
I’ve encountered all manner of retail aggression in China from the grabby counterfeit peddlers in Shanghai and Beijing to the indifferent salespeople in Lijiang. I was actually pretty surprised by the laissez faire attitude of the sellers in the ancient town – they didn’t beckon and they didn’t strike up conversations unlike their city cousins. It was refreshing to be able to walk around without being beset by the offers of socks. Shu He was the same, but the level of desperation here in Bai Shi would put anyone in the Beijing Silk Market to shame. Here, with no tourists the force was strong. Wandering up and down the lanes we had ample opportunities to buy all kinds of things from brass Buddha to authentic Naxi batik. There were lots of embroidered items for sale along with the normal junk you find everywhere in China. Taking a right turn I had to run a gantlet between the competing forces of batik and embroidery. I didn’t want either so we headed on promising to return with no intention of doing so. At the end of this lane we passed through a gate and found ourselves on the grounds of a small temple. We wandered around for a couple of minutes, stopping to look in one building at an impressive 500 year old fresco depicting the life of Buddha. When we exited we were confronted by an angry young girl who was joined by a friend who asked what seemed to be a tour guide if we were part of his group of French tourists. He claimed no knowledge of us and so she turned on me and asked what we were doing there. I was flummoxed until I figured out we’d come into the exit without buying tickets. I apologized profusely and we left, unfortunately on the road we’d come in on, which meant we had to make good on our promise to return to the craft sellers.
I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for mementos and it didn’t take long for the embroidery woman to separate me from $15 for a beautiful Tibetan table runner. It was beautiful and with all such gifts I pick them up with that someone special in mind. Smelling money, the batik woman stuck next, dropping from 280 Yuan down to 100 and finally to 60. For grins I stuck to my guns at 50 and walked away. Her husband, sensing a gap in my resolve grabbed his infant son and put him under one arm and chased me down the street offering 55. I stayed with 50 for a block or two but the scene was so comical and he was so desperate that I finally relented and became the proud owner of a piece of Naxi batik festooned with what seem to be alien spacemen for the grand sum of $8. Our final negotiations had secured an additional profit of 80 cents.
Miss He dropped us off at the hotel just short of the originally agreed to time. Despite the problems and misses, we’d managed to fill the day with some interesting experiences. Before letting us out she made me the offer of taking us to the airport the next day at a reasonable flat rate. I agreed – she was a great driver and so much more fun than the guys we normally get. We planned to meet at 9:30 and sent her on her way.