Day 5 and so to Lijiang. Now thoroughly alarmed at the mass tourism we have seen so far in in Yunnan, I am relieved that we are staying in a nearby village, Shuhe. But we are proudly told it is, guess what, a mini version of Lijiang! Yes, you got it – more tourist shops and restaurants, nothing old, just on a smaller scale! Wah!
Our new guide, Nini, is tiny, but she tells us her husband says she is ‘strong like yak’ – must be because she eats non-stop. She takes us on a wander, and I enjoy people watching, which seems to be the best occupation here, as there is nothing much else to see. The mountains – The Jade Dragon Snow peak in particular – are not visible! In fact we learn that the cable car broke down today and so no one was able to go up! Lijiang is a popular local destination: it gets 15m visitors a year because the max temperature is 25 C in summer, compared to 40-45 C in Beijing and Shanghai, so rich people are buying time-shares and summer rentals: like Dali, there is now an over-supply of half-finished grand houses in gated communities, which cost over RMB 1m (£100,000); the Banyan Tree is here which underscores how up-market this town is aiming.
Young couples come here specially to take wedding photos, as Lijiang is the epitome of Chinese aspiration with its new ‘old’ buildings and cobbled streets, cool climate and snowy mountains. There is a wedding bridge in Shuhe, where we saw no less than 5 couples taking it in turns to be snapped, each couple accompanied by assistants, one for make-up and another one holding a reflector. Weddings can cost couples between RMB 5000-20,000 (£500-2000) depending on the dress. The pre-wedding photo-shoot normally takes a full day.
We venture out on our own for dinner and, as I am still feeling the effects of the altitude, plump on what we feel is a fairly innocuous choice (kung po chicken, golden treasure vegetables – mostly cauliflower – and tofu) compared to what else is on offer (turtles, frogs, pig-face, stomach, insects), but in my current sensitive state the meal tastes both too spicy and salty. Breakfast seems a long way away, especially as I am kept awake most of the night by the pitiful mewing of a new-born kitten, separated from its mother, who is also calling, in the next-door building…
I am also rather caught off guard by a message from London saying the advance copies of my book Love and War in the WRNS have arrived – two weeks early! But can I raise the publisher to find out what’s going on, if review copies are being sent out, what’s happening with the bookshop tour etc. etc? No, nor do I for the rest of the trip which becomes an increasingly sore point. Ross is convinced it adds to my unwell-ness.
The next morning is bright and sunny as we set off for Lijiang. The Black Dragon Lake Park is the best bit – full of local people exercising, or simply sitting and chatting. The old men bring their birds out for air: they hang the cages on trees, and sit beneath them and gossip while the birds chirrup away. We reckon it’s a kind of one-upmanship: my bird’s better than yours.
The old town of Dayan is simply far too big to cover, especially when you’re not feeling great, but it’s not that interesting anyway. The market is truly local, with some wonderful faces – again the women ruling commercial activity and doing all the hard work. A foppish young man with dyed hair sits on a bridge with his huge mastiff, asking for money. He seems to epitomize the relationship between the sexes here. Visiting northerners don local minority costumes and pose for photos, women shop to drop for long linen coats in primary colours which they wear over simple white dresses, and finish off with modern Mosuo tassel earrings or ethnic jewellery. It’s like a uniform.
As we leave, after a massive cloudburst, I am heartened to see a spontaneous group of traditionally-clad people dancing in a larger circle, the men cigarettes drooping out of their mouths, the women holding hands. Some are singing. But best of all they are doing it because they want to. Perhaps China is not changing quite so fast…
Back at the beautiful Bivou hotel, owned and managed by a friendly Singaporean woman, Hwee Ling Aw, donor of paracetamol and special fermented black bean paste so I can make my own mapo tofu, we change rooms to escape the kitten. Our new room has a sunken bathroom with a window looking out on to the garden, very sexy. We play safe and eat in: nourishing chicken and mushroom soup, pork and aubergine, some stir-fried broccoli and a local version of potato rösti.
After a much better night, we snaffle down some teeny mangoes that Nini has bought us – she is convinced we are starving and ladens us down with food parcels at every meeting: in addition to the mangoes, we have apples, bayberries, flower cakes (made from snow peach and rose petals), more peaches and nectarines – and meet up with her and the driver at 7.30 am. We had agreed that if it was clear, we would try and beat the crowds at the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5596m).
You can queue for up to four hours at peak times we are warned, and then not get a ticket, when 20,000 tourists visit in one day (don’t come here June – August when fights break out in the bubble lift, restaurant and electric kart queues). Still feeling a bit ropey, I declare that if we have to wait for more than 40 minutes we will have to make Plan B.
However, our ploy pays off, and we queue-barge a huge group of 48, and walk straight on to the bus, which takes us to the bubble lift, where again we march straight on. As we alight we see scores of electric karts lining up to take the local tourists – Chinese don’t walk, Nini says. Several of them are clad in enormous, all-engulfing red and blue full-length puffas (see above), despite the warm sunshine.
This, plus the tickets for lift and the karts, together with an optional cost of fancy dress, can set you back between RMB 200-300, or £30! That’s a lot of money, especially as most of the visitors we see are not Shanghai sophisticates or Beijing bankers. As Nini says, Lijiang is a ‘money-making machine’. She was amazed when we told her that the cable car company in Switzerland did not pay us for the privilege of being in our village: in Lijiang, the villagers receive a contribution from local government. Amazing.
Eschewing the buggies, we walk along a wooden trial through tall pine trees to the Spruce Meadow (3200m), our final destination. Also called Lovers Meadow, it was here that only 50 years ago, as reported by Peter Goullart in his book Forgotten Kingdom, young lovers who wished to avoid arranged marriages would come and commit joint suicide. Up in the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain you are closer to the Three Kingdoms where you can live in love and harmony with your lover for eternity.
We are accosted, as we join up with the growing crowds, by a group of women all dressed up in in Mosuo costume who insist that Ross is photographed with them! One of them is a beauty: Nini overheard one visitor saying to his Naxi guide, ‘You are so beautiful, can we get married?’ Hope that’s not what she is saying to Ross…
As we wander round the circumference of the meadow, Nini tells us she wants another child but her mother is not keen to look after no 2: her two-and-a-half year old toddler, Kevin (yes, true!) is a handful. The cost of help in China is prohibitive and the kindergartens, as everywhere, hotbeds of sickness. Much more expensive though, in the wake of the great Chinese baby milk scandal, is the cost of powered milk (RMB 350-400/£35-40) per tin, and its not always available. She says many women don’t breast feed either, so having more than one child is a considerable expense for a Chinese family.
On the return journey we get a glimpse of the hell of tourism on an on an industrial scale. All three car parks are choc a bloc with buses and taxis; there are people milling around in apologies for queues; restaurants and snack bars are doing brisk business selling everything from kebabs, to sweetcorn, to sticky buns, deep-fried food and other sweetmeats. And still they keep coming!
Next stop is a Naxi village, Yuhu, which we are told is still traditional. Oh yes? Everywhere new houses are springing up, and there are souvenir stalls in the main square, where groups of surly-looking Naxi men and women sit around with horses, waiting to take the Chinese for a literal ride. Apparently when they get half way there, they say it’s too far, so they return! No shortage of customers, however, It is also the village where Joseph Rock, an Austrian botanist lived from the 1920s and only left when the Chinese war of independence threatened to overwhelm him. Peter Goullart who also left at that time.
After a wander around Yuhu, we visit the Baisha frescos, which date from the 15th century Ming Dynasty; somehow they survived the Cultural Revolution and the earthquake, although they are not in good condition. They are unique in that they celebrate Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism and the local Dongba (shamanistic) religion. For lunch we try stir friend yak meat, which is surprisingly delicious.
But the best news is that FINALLY I am feeling better! Long live Traditional Chinese Medicine! I might even have the hotel’s free cocktail tonight…