Hanging Around the Garden
Lijiang, to put it simply, is the China every newbie tourist like me expects to see. You get off a plane in Shanghai or Beijing. You battle the crowds and the inexplicable confusion of navigating a western-looking city without a word of Mandarin. Lost in interminable taxicab rides, you choke on the smog and smile at the unidentifiable meats in your noodles. After a month or so of this, all you want is a wicker chair and an unobstructed view. Mountains, rivers, fields – anything so long as it’s unobstructed.
We made a reservation on the bus, using the Lonely Planet guide yet again, at Mama Naxi’s guesthouse. After an extremely confusing and relatively expensive ride into the old town, we were coaxed, bewildered and road-tired through the labyrinth of the old city to our place. Turns out, Mama Naxi’s is not the place we’d expected at all. Of the two guesthouses we were shown, the first sported a row of broken windows in the room and a construction enterprise on the ground floor courtyard. There wasn’t a foreigner in sight, which also dampened our plans to meet and chat with a few fellow travelers like we’d done in Xi’an. The second house was overrun with lazy old Naxi grandfathers – more on them later. Ridiculously overstuffed bags in tow, me Michael and Jake took to the road again, trying to navigate the town with the woefully insufficient LP map. After a few false leads, I decided to pop in a place called “Enjoy Inn” to ask directions.
The Enjoy Inn is run by Joy and Lo – transplants from Shanghai and Chengdu respectively. I haven’t stayed in a more relaxed, mellow place since Thailand. The guesthouse is situated right on one of the main rivers leading out of the old city, and the two of them tend to sit around drinking Puer tea, playing guitar and chatting on the terrace all day and night. There was also their Labrador Lala and a suite of rocking chairs. Perfect. Anyone planning to visit Lijiang, please give their place a try – they’re just starting out, and what they lack in “refinements” they more than make up for in enthusiasm and kindness: Enjoy Inn, No. 39, Bayi Lower Section of Qiyi Street, Lijiang.
After a day of moping around with my computer, working on some of the remaining NetBeans videos, I took an extended trip through the town. Lijiang was originally the seat of the Naxi kingdom of Mu – a matrilineal society vaguely traced to the scattered people of the ancient Angkor kingdom. They’re completely different socially and culturally from the Chinese, the only trace of whom is a resurgent community of what used to be Szechuanese squatters. The region was historically ruled by a number of different “lawless“ tribes, including the Lolo and exiled Tibetans. Well into the 20th century it was considered a backwater by the Chinese authorities and was rife with bandits and was mostly ignored. Today, Lijiang is a near-perfectly preserved center of tourism and the tribal character has largely disappeared, giving way to the global monoculture. About all that remains on first glance are the endless stalls of colorfully dressed Naxi women weaving scarves and carving wooden plaques for the spitting hordes of Chinese tourists.
Lijiang experienced a brief renaissance during the Second World War, when the caravan routes from India via Tibet were re-established to supply China under the Japanese occupation. This is a truly forgotten segment of history that deserves a Hollywood film or two. Yaks, horses and donkeys were enlisted to haul cartons of American cigarettes, foodstuffs and other goods over the Himalaya from India after the Burma road became impassable. Lijiang was the closest city to Kunming, from where the goods could easily be transported all over China, and over the course of a few years, the provincial fiefdom became a relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan city.
The real magic of Lijiang lies in the remnants of that venerable society – the bits that truly made it a culture and not just a tourist commodity. The streets and buildings are inarguably unique – the entire city deserves to be a UNESCO site – but the majority of commerce is still managed and conducted by women. It’s actually unusual to see a Naxi man doing anything other than sitting on his ass, waiting for his wife to tell him to do something basic. It’s funny, and a little bit refreshing actually. The fabled good nature of the Naxi also remains – in the markets and at every corner, where young girls giggle at passing foreigners and the old women good-naturedly but determined, try to shove maps and trinkets in your face. I made a short video tour of the city, which is online here: http://www.altmediafilms.com/goplaces if anyone cares to see more.
The entire old city sleeps until well past noon, evidently – a place after my own heart. Wandering the maze before 8 am is a surreal experience, where the sameness of the night-time bazaar is replaced by a sameness of intricately carved shuttered windows and flowers poking their heads from out of tiny courtyards. The Naxi are obsessed with plants of all kinds, and the old city is a paradise for anyone coming from China’s mega-cities, where the only green thing to be seen is usually in your dinner bowl. A roving gang of wild Pomeranians patrol the streets, chasing any and all passers until their voices wear thin or a well-placed kick connects. Following the rivers upstream, the streets narrow and stairs eventually replace the time-worn cobblestone pavement until you reach the top of the Lion Hill and gaze out on a spectacular vista of snow-capped peaks and grey-tiled roofs. It’s well worth getting up early. Once 😉
Thanks to Joy, who valiantly agreed to translate for me, I managed to shoot a bit of Mr. Chen working his family silk factory. His village in Yunan province, far to the Northwest of Lijiang, is home to the “best” Mulberry trees in China, and historically produces its finest silk. I got to watch him peel the silkworms from their cocoons and stretch the stuff into giant socks, which were later hung to dry in the back of his tiny storefront. Behind the drying sheaves of silk, his 10 year-old son labored away at his schoolbooks. Because of arthritis and various other health hazards implicit in the preparation of silk, Mr. Chen has decided that none of his children will follow in his footsteps. It’s completely understandable, but sad that such a beautiful and historically important craft will probably disappear in a couple more decades.
A 200x200cm heavy silk blanket made by hand by Mr. Chen and his wife costs about 100 Euros. It is 100% pure silk, and nothing like it can be found in any shop in Europe – if anywhere on the planet. Each blanket like this requires 140,000 individual silkworm cocoons to be washed, stretched, dried and spun. It’s astounding to watch, and amazing to think that this humble little worm initiated one of the world’s most fabled and important eras of history.
I spent 4 days there, which was barely enough to scratch the surface of this fantastic, beautiful town. I’ll be going back, for sure.