Monday, January 27, 2014

Lijiang and Shangri-la!!

Inside my hostel in Lijiang. Note the adorable puppy

Despite the rather hurried decision to come to Lijiang one day early, my welcome was pretty warm. My hostel was gorgeous. It's called Panba Lakeside Lodge and it's right next to the Qingxi Reservoir with a great view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Lijiang is known for having some of the cleanest water in China, which, admittedly, isn't a very difficult feat. It has the best water in a country where the water supply of one of the largest cities has dead pigs floating in it? Oooooh boy! But actually, the water was crystal clear in the reservoir. I would feel pretty comfortable drinking directly from it. The one big, big problem with my hostel was the lack of heating. It is made of concrete, which makes it look super modern and industrial. While this jives really well with my aesthetic preferences, it's hard to appreciate it when I'm shivering. Because of this, I wasn't a very happy camper when I first arrived. Being the sort of person who doesn't speak up when I'm not happy with something (particularly in the service industry), I was prepared to endure an unpleasant couple of nights. Luckily for me, my roommate, Bella, was not nearly as passive. After telling the hostel staff, they provided us with a space heater, and I was more than happy with the rest of my stay.

Lijiang Ancient Town

The first afternoon I acquainted myself with Lijiang Ancient Town. In typical China fashion, this "ancient town" was just a bunch of shops selling the same touristy things made to look homemade until you go to the next shop and see the exact same thing. While this discovery was disappointing, it was still a beautiful place to wander around for a couple hours. Due to my frugality (or stinginess?), I refused to purchase a map of the place and proceeded to get very very lost. One of the great things about traveling alone is that when things like this happen, I feel absolutely no sense of guilt about wasting someone else's time. Plus, I don't have to follow anyone's schedule, so that's even more weight off my shoulders.

The next day I slept in because I hadn't had a full night's rest since leaving Chengdu. After waking up, I had a number of hours of uncertainty about what I wanted to do. After much indecision and procrastination, I decided to just pack my bag with water and food and just walk until I saw something interesting. I ended up following a path that led me to a Chinese cemetery--something I had been trying to find for aaaaages. It was next to a school and tucked between two huge piles of trash. Lovely. After that, my path stopped, so I turned down a legitimate street and started following signs to Shuhe Ancient Town.


I was expecting the same thing as Lijiang Ancient Town, and, to some extent, it was very similar. It had its fair share of shops and touristy crap, but it had a far superior backdrop. Shuhe is built around a series of streams and most of them just run right through the town. Because I was there about an hour before sunset, I stationed myself at a small cafby one of the streams, bought a cup of "Yunnan coffee" (skeptical ), and proceeded to write this post! Woo hoo! After Shuhe, I planned on walking all the way back to my hostel (about a 1.5 hour walk), but it was getting dark. Hearing my dad's voice in my head telling me not to do anything stupid, I opted for the bus.

View from Elephant Hill

Next day, I went on a hike up Elephant Hill. I got up early, grabbed a cup of chicken soup to go from my hostel, and started climbing. It didn't take too long, and I got a nice view of all of Lijiang from the top. After the climb, I went down the other side and found myself at the Black Dragon Pool, which is a cluster of little lakes. I wandered around a bit and talked to a couple of old men playing mahjong before leaving to catch a bus to Baisha.

Baisha is yet another "ancient town" in Lijiang. I just cannot get enough of them, apparently. Unlike Shuhe and Lijiang Ancient Town, however, Baisha is pretty legitimate. And by that I mean, it's literally just an old little town. There are a couple shops when you get off the bus, but other than that, it is simply a place where people live. While Baisha was not nearly as pretty as Shuhe or Lijiang, I had a lot more fun taking pictures and walking through it. An old man started following me around for a while when I wandered into an area where most tourists don't bother entering. Originally, I thought he was making sure I didn't trespass or something. After a little while, I turned around and said hello. Then he asked if I wanted to pet his cow. I politely declined, but took a photo to appease him.

That night, I proceeded to plan the next couple of days. Once again, I decided to change my plans. I was originally going to go straight from Lijiang to Shangri-la, but I heard about a cool place called Tiger Leaping Gorge in the mountains between the two where you can hike and stay the night before heading out. Next morning, I hopped on the bus with Bella and a couple other Chinese and Korean people from the hostel. The bus ride to the gorge was pretty uneventful, but I DID meet another American. His name is Ellis, and he's an English teacher (like every other foreigner I've met here). We chatted a bit, and it turns out he's going to be in Hong Kong at the same time as me to take the Foreign Service exam. We exchanged emails and numbers, so Rhys and I will probably be meeting up with him around the 2nd or 3rd of February.

Sidenote: Speaking of meeting up with people, you may have noticed that I did not mention seeing Amy in Lijiang. Due to rather poor planning and lack of listening on the part of her boss, we weren't able to meet up. I will be back in Lijiang on the 26th (another itinerary change), so hopefully I'll see her and the other girl I met in Chengdu, Sam. I still really want to hit up the bars in Lijiang, so that's my plan for right now. I also really want to go to the top of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, but I'm not sure if I have time for everything, given that my train leaves from Lijiang on the night of the 27th. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, back to the bus ride to Tiger Leaping GorgeMost people on the bus were staying in the gorge for a number of days, so they all got off at an earlier stop. Those who stayed on the bus included two Korean college students, a Chinese college student, and a couple of unknown origin. All of us were only staying a night, so we had to ride the bus to the middle of the gorge next to our hostel. Once we got off the bus, I booked a room, dropped my stuff off, and tried to figure out the extremely rough map of the gorge. My confusion was shared by the Chinese and Korean boys, so we decided to go together and figure it out. That afternoon was probably one of the most enjoyable I've had thus far on my trip.

Yuan Shuai, Dongguen Lee, Shy Korean Boy, and me

First of all, let me take a moment to say how thankful I am that I speak English. I sometimes forget how lucky it is that I'm a native speaker of the most widely understood language in the world, but not today. So here's how the afternoon went. Dongguen Lee (one of the Korean students) could speak English really well with a strong accent, but his Chinese was extremely limited. The other Korean boy could not speak a word of Chinese or English. Actually, it's possible he was just extremely uncomfortable, but all I know is that he only spoke Korean the whole day. So, we've got one person who can only speak Korean and one person who can speak Korean, solid English, and barely understandable Chinese. Then, we've got Yuan Shuai, the Chinese student, who can speak Chinese (duh) and very sketchy English. Finally, there's me. Fluent English, reasonable Chinese, no Korean. I've made a chart because, well, I like charts and I'm currently bored.





Shy Korean Boy




Dongguen Lee

Great (but strong accent)



Yuan Shuai








This created a pretty awesome dynamic for me. Given the languages spoken by everybody, we had to operate in either English or Mandarin. We tried Mandarin, but Yuan Shuai was not accustomed to trying to understand broken Chinese. I have tons of practice understanding broken English, so we switched. Here's how a conversation worked:

Yuan Shuai: *says something in broken English*

Dongguen Lee: *gives me puzzled look*

Amber: *says Yuan Shuai's point in English*

Dongguen Lee: *replies in English with a strong Korean accent*

Yuan Shuai: *gives Amber a puzzled look*

Amber: *says Dongguen Lee's meaning in less-than-perfect Mandarin*

Shy Korean Boy: *silence*

I've never felt more in control of a conversation before. It was great. We also had some pretty interesting conversations, ranging from the differences in our countries' education systems to a slightly uncomfortable conversation about the tensions between China, North/South Korea, and Japan.

In addition to great conversations, we also had a great 4-hour hike. The Tiger Leaping Gorge was beautiful. The story behind the gorge is that a long time ago, a tiger jumped from one side of the gorge to a rock on the other side. There's now a walking bridge between the two points, which we had to pay 10 RMB to cross. Definitely worth it.The climb down to the gorge was a mixture of uneven, steep steps on the side of a cliff and a couple old ladders. The hike was definitely not boring, though it certainly threw into sharp relief how bad my knees are getting. I had them give out on me once or twice during some pretty tricky spots. After it happened a couple times, the guys were all uber protective about being in a position to catch me if I started to fall. My mojo took a bit of a hit after that.

Either way, we made it down and back up without any major incidents. Everybody's legs were pretty wobbly by the end, and I was sorely tempted to pay to hop on one of the donkeys to ride to the top. Once we got back, the guys told me they were probably going to head back to Lijiang instead of staying the night. This, in combination with the rather dreary appearance of my hostel room, made me change my plans again. A half hour later, I had canceled my room at the hostel and hopped into a van en-route to Shangri-la.

*fast-forward a couple days*

View from Shangri-la hostel

I stayed at the Lao Shay Youth Hostel in Shangri-la and, like my hostel in Lijiang, I was the only foreigner in sight. The hostel was in the middle of a valley filled with yaks wandering all over. I didn't really realize until I saw it how close I was to Tibet. The architecture and city layout were different than anywhere I've been in China. Anyway, when I arrived in Shangri-la, I had the good fortune to meet a young couple, Yu Ping (a 27-year old Chinese woman) and Lee (a Korean man in his early thirties) who helped me find the hostel and invited me to go with them to see Dukezong Ancient Town and Songzanlin, a local monastery. I also met a young Chinese woman in her 20s who called herself Serena (named after a character on the popular American TV show, Gossip Girl). She and I were roommates, and her English was particularly good. Serena was quite the character. She opened our first conversation by telling me that her hair was actually a wig because she had recently shaved her head after getting upset. Yikes. She had also traveled to Shangri-la to meet a guy who worked as a travel agent there. I got to hear all about her love life drama and heard the fallout when the guy she was meeting failed to respond to her. No wonder she named herself after a character on Gossip Girl. Yeeesh.

Anyway, my stay in Shangri-la was brief. I spent my first night getting to know Serena, Yu Ping, and Lee. The next day, I went out to see what was left of Old Town after the fire a couple weeks ago. There wasn't much. I think the early estimates on the damage were significantly under the mark. To me, it looked like 80-90% of the town was gone. That being said, I don't know what it looked like before the fire. While we were there, numerous military groups were helping clean up the debris. I managed to snap a quick video of them marching away. Men in military uniforms are not quite as threatening-looking with brooms instead of guns.

After snapping some pictures and pulling a gigantic Buddhist prayer wheel around, we headed out to the Songzanlin Monastery. This place was absolutely gorgeous. While I didn't learn too much about the actual monastery, the pictures I took are some of my favorites thus far. After roaming around for an hour or two, we headed back to downtown Shangri-la for lunch, and Lee randomly joined a young girl giving an impromptu dance performance.

The next day I headed back to Lijiang by bus. I am very happy that I never have to make that journey again. The road between Lijiang and Shangri-la goes through the mountains and most of it does not even have a guardrail. In addition to this, my bus driver loved to pass everyone in front of him, regardless of any hills or upcoming bends in the road, so I was white-knuckling my armrests for about 4 hours straight. I honestly cannot believe we didn't fall into the valley or knock someone else off the edge. The numerous ambulances and car accidents along the way did not help my anxiety.

At long last, I arrived back in Lijiang and walked to my old hostel. I was pleased to find Bella and Dongguen Lee were still there, so I got my old room and spent a good portion of the afternoon chatting with them. Dongguen Lee and I have almost identical tastes in television shows, which came as a huge surprise to me. He watches Breaking Bad and The Newsroom, which are probably in my top 5 shows of all time. Both of them left that day, but Amy (the Scottish girl who I met in Chengdu) and I went out for dinner that night and had a few drinks in Lijiang Ancient Town.

Overall, I've really enjoyed my time in Yunnan Province. So far, given all the Chinese cities I've visited in the past two years, Lijiang is probably my favorite. It manages to feel like a smaller town while still having over 1 million people. My experiences with the local people here have also been more pleasant than anywhere else. I didn't get the stares I usually get in China, and every single person I met was both very friendly and extremely helpful. Another thing that strikes me as particularly awesome about Lijiang (and I guess Yunnan Province in general) is the preference for large, furry dogs. Golden retrievers, huskies, malamutes, German shepherdsthe best kinds of dogs, in my opinion, are everywhere! My hostel had its own golden retriever who I cuddled with whenever possible. Love it. The weather and scenery in Lijiang was also spectacular. No smog whatsoever, plenty of sunshine, a great view of the mountains, and crystal clear water. I'm gushing a bit, but Lijiang clearly exceeded all my expectations. The guy who ran my hostel offered me a teaching job in Lijiang, and I was half-tempted to take it.

In a couple hours, I am meeting Amy and Sam (the Australian girl who I also met in Chengdu) for dinner before heading to Guilin. Given the great reviews I've been getting from people (Duncan, Alyssa, and Ellis) about Guilin, I have unreasonably high expectations for it. Tonight I am taking a 9-hour train ride from Lijiang to Kunming, waiting in Kunming for a couple hours, and then catching my 22.5-hour train ride to Guilin. I should probably buy a book to read or something
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