Our next destination was Yúnnán in Southwestern China, bordering Vietnam and Tibet. Far away from anything I had seen in China yet and south of Sìchuān, Yúnnán was hot and beautiful, and from what I saw as we traveled through the province, the women were definitely better looking than in Sìchuān, too.
Our real destination in Yúnnán was Lìjiāng, a small historic town in northern Yúnnán that is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. We arrived on the comfy double-decker sleeper train early; the sun had recently come up and the air was a little chilly. Traffic was heavy as we left the train station but soon thinned out as we passed through sparse suburbs until we arrived at the Lìjiāng old town.
The town of Lijiang. Beautiful, but too touristy.
The old town is all cobblestone street and old wooden houses, some partially or completely restored, some authentically old but with restored roofs and interiors, but some genuinely crumbling, looking old and dilapidated and lovely.
Lìjiāng is famed for this sort of thing, and was genuinely nice, but we found out very soon that we should have planned to stay in this place only one night and then have moved on, either to the real countryside or to nearby Dàlǐ or Shāxī, which everyone we met said was worlds better than Lìjiāng. Lìjiāng was just another tourist destination, and I learned again, as I had learned at nearly every stop on this trip, what was impossible to decipher in the guidebooks—you’ve got to head away from the tourist spot at all costs in this country, or be damned.
Jess hanging out in the nice hostel we stayed in, the Panba Hostel.
The driver pulled up to a quiet side street and we walked to our hostel, and I tried for a couple of hours to get in touch with my friend Shūlěi, who was also traveling in Lìjiāng at this time, with no luck. Who knows where she was or why she wasn’t contacting us. She had messaged me the night before saying that I should get in touch when we arrived, and we had spoken and agreed that we would meet today.
After a while Jess started talking about wanting to rent a motorcycle. I didn’t know where to get one but the hostel manager, a guy named Jiāng Yángzi (English name River), told me that we might be able to go to a village called Shùhé to rent bikes, so we hopped on the broken down hostel bikes and took off, rode for about an hour, about 7 or 8 miles, me asking directions every ten minutes, until we arrived in the village.
It was overwhelmed with horses and stalls selling souvenirs, a nightmare and worse than Lìjiāng itself, which the foreigners we had met along the way all derided as just another tourist trap.
We crawled through the little town for an hour but found no motorcycles, so I called the hostel and they told us to try another place. So we biked for an hour to find it, only to find that my Google maps was wrong. And in the end we simply returned to the hostel after biking in the hot sun for four hours, basically convinced that there were no motorcycles for rent anywhere in Lìjiāng (this turned out to be true; I confirmed later).
We stayed in the hostel waiting for Shūlěi to call, and I tried to work out the details of what we could do over the next couple of days. I texted Shūlěi and eventually she got back to me, calling, and said that she could see us the next morning and that they were staying outside of town.
So we relaxed. We were both exhausted from the bike ride and badly sunburned, and Jess collapsed into bed and stayed there the whole afternoon. I looked in the guide and went off to try to find a restaurant that claimed to offer calligraphy lessons, and walked for two hours aimlessly, unable to find the place in the winding roads of the old town, asking for directions multiple times and still not getting anywhere.
It got dark and I gave up. The streets were getting thicker with people, the noise growing steadily, until I wanted to escape temporarily. I went back to the hostel and found Jess still in the room, dozing. I asked her if she wanted to eat and she said, as usual, no, so I told her I was going to take a shower and we could go after that.
I went downstairs to relax a bit more after my shower and met an American guy who had been traveling with a woman who looked Chinese. She was tall and beautiful, with shoulder length hair that she repeatedly pushed back with her hand, a nervous tick that conveniently looked good.
The woman had heard me speaking Chinese and complimented me on it through the guy, in a way, and then he asked me my method for studying. I told him about how I’ve used Chinesepod for two years and then asked a few questions, and the girl spoke to me in Chinese. She was wearing leggings, dressed like an American, and as always it took me ten minutes to realize that she spoke perfect American English. By this time there was a weird tension between us, the American Chinese girl who speaks perfect English and perfect Chinese, confronted by the American white male studying Chinese who speaks decent Chinese and English, both vaguely threatened by each other in some inexpressible way, both on not opposite but opposing ends of a cultural spectrum, looking at it from different angles, somehow epistemologically indifferent to each other.
Shulei and Pingping arrive in Lijiang.
Finally I showered and Jess and I wandered around the town, which in the evening had become furiously choked with Chinese tourists, shouting, loud, pushing, crowding around street attractions, moving slowly and bumping into each other, everybody either trying to pass someone or walking too slowly. We got sidetracked and went over a bridge I didn’t recognize. We saw children placing paper flowers with candles on them in the small river and the candles getting caught in a whirlpool and piling up beside the bridge, only a meter away from the kids, refusing to budge and shattering the magic of what they were doing. We walked past an old well in the town that had once been used for drinking water, now surrounded by a crush of Chinese snapping their cameras and shouting, and we caught a glimpse of a man standing down in the well, holding a bowl of clear looking water over his head, preparing to drink.
We got back on track and arrived at the restaurant, which was nearly empty, and the waiters curtly directed us to our seats, where we looked at 50 yuan burgers, 30 yuan Tibetan dumplings, 20 yuan sodas, everything overpriced but at least with a relaxing environment. The bathroom was in a store next door and a sign inside instructed customers in English, “only pee, no poo!” and in Chinese, “forbidden to large convenience” (this is the Chinese way of saying “poo”).
We ordered our food and jess found that her burger had egg mixed in the meat, as well as carrots and some other unidentifiable vegetables.
The dumplings were OK but I felt that we had wasted our time and money coming here. And on the way out we wanted to pay money for a book from the book swap, which they initially agreed to but then reneged. By now I felt sick from the extremely spicy and delicious noodles I had had for lunch, and we started to rush back to the hostel, but Jess saw a dress she wanted on the way. She bought it quickly while I writhed in stomach pain standing up in an alley outside, trying to avoid the tourists who crowded and streamed around me.
We went back to the hostel and soon went to sleep, feeling stressed and frustrated, both, I think, slightly disappointed with the day, but expecting, rightly, better things to come.
Monday I got up early, unable to sleep, and Shūlěi called me in the morning and said that we could meet in about an hour. I set out to meet her and her friend Píngpíng and found them eventually near the water wheel in the middle of Lìjiāng old town, and we walked back to the hostel together. Shūlěi’s friend was very friendly and a little shy at first, and it took about 15 minutes for me to realize that she could speak English and that she had lived in England for four years. Shūlěi thought that I had been traveling with three others and was surprised to learn that I was only with my cousin; they met Jess back at the hostel, and we sat around drinking tea for a while until it was time to go get food.
The delicious meal we had together.
We walked up to the main street above the old town to find a restaurant, where Jess became horrified by the chickens and fish being slaughtered and cleaned in the doorways of the restaurants. “We’re not eating here, are we?” she asked with a raised eyebrow when we stopped in front of one of the places. They were classic Chinese—loud, grimy, doing brisk business with a mix of different style of dishes.
“They feel this kind of thing is pretty disgusting,” Píngpíng said to Shūlěi in Chinese.
“It’s OK,” I said, “she does think it’s kind of gross, but I don’t mind.”
“Well let’s go somewhere else,” Shūlěi said.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, my stomach grumbling. “She’s not going to eat anything no matter where we go. She picks bones out of a chicken egg,” I added, using a Chinese idiom to describe someone who’s overly picky.
“How can you treat your cousin like that?” Shūlěi demanded, laughing a little at how uncouth I was, and she and Píngpíng led us on to a place where they weren’t slaughtering chickens but only cleaning fish in front.
Shulei with Pigsy, the monstrous dog at the hostel in Lashihai.
We ordered fish flavored fried pork with no spice for jess, and fried Chinese greens, and a boiling vat of spicy fish for the rest of us and ate well, Jess occasionally chatting with Píngpíng and Shūlěi listening intently, trying to parse their English, and interjecting in Chinese when she understood something they said. There were times when Shūlěi couldn’t understand what we were saying, but mostly she could follow along.
I wanted Jess to be able to participate in all our conversations so I tried to translate whenever we spoke Chinese, but also I felt that this was part of the experience of truly experiencing a language — being very aware that you don’t understand, listening to the sounds, occasionally being caught with someone who can’t speak at all. Seeing Jess in that state reminded me of the few times, in the very beginning, when I was left on my own–when I rode in a car with someone who spoke no English and I spoke no Chinese, when a friend who spoke English got up to use the bathroom–those moments when you are left with someone who speaks a different language, who perhaps wants to ask you things, say things to you, but who has no choice but to sit in silence while you sit in silence, neither of you wanting to frighten the other by launching into a speech in an unfamiliar language.
Lashihai was exactly what we needed after a day in Lijiang.
This had been the reason I had studied Chinese to begin with. I had wanted to see what it was like to be the one who was able to pierce that wall of silence, where the combinations of sounds—seemingly arbitrary, endlessly complex, irreproducible without years of effort—became beautiful aural symbols that released us from our cages of silence, sometimes made us aware of how simple and helpless we were without it, how defenseless and isolated a person is without words.
After lunch Shūlěi and Píngpíng left to go meet some people who they might be sharing a van to Tibet with. Their plan was to hire a van and a driver to take them the rest of the way across the west to Tibet in a long drive, four people altogether, crammed into one van, and since two of Shūlěi’s friends were going home they would have to share the van with two strangers.
Jess and I relaxed at noon, still feeling not fully adjusted to the elevation change and the rough couple of train rides that had brought us to Lìjiāng, and then around 4 we went to meet Shūlěi near the water wheel again.
The four of us took a cab ride out to where the girls had been staying, Lāshìhǎi lake, about 20 minutes away from town.
The cab ride took about 25 minutes. First we zipped through the streets of Lìjiāng and quickly escaped onto a narrow country road, and began climbing up a hill. Soon we were at the lake—a long stretch of still water surrounded by motionless fields of grass and gently sloping mountains. Everything was a bit gray and muted, the clouds steely, suggesting rain, the air cool and lightly windy. The place was beautiful and quiet enough to hear the wind blowing in the leaves; there was only one road visible, the one we came in on, and no other cars in sight.
Shūlěi and Píngpíng explained that they had found the place after they had arrived in Lìjiāng. They had been staying in the old town and hadn’t liked it, so they had taken a cab ride to check out the area outside town. They had gone to Lāshìhǎi and walked for a while, and paid an entrance fee. Then they walked ahead further and met some men who asked them for money to go for a boat ride, but they were a little startled by the six men, who were large and somewhat forbidding looking. So they declined the boat ride and walked by themselves a long way, walking around the river until they were hungry and thirsty, until they finally found a house that looked somewhat like a hotel, and they knocked on the door, and someone answered.
It turned out it was an incomplete and run-down hostel on the side of the lake, inhabited by a young Chinese guy from eastern China who had moved to this area to relax and work with the locals. Shūlěi and Píngpíng both explained that he helped the locals, but they didn’t clarify exactly how, except that he helped them buy things that they needed and teach them some things. He had a Harley Davidson motorcycle in the hostel, and lots of western liquor, but the grass in the courtyard was severely overgrown and it appeared that they hadn’t cleaned the place in some time. It looked almost abandoned, but was still running. In the entryway there was a comfortable and relaxing couch with a table in the center, a hanging chair, but it appeared that no one had used any of it in weeks.
Píngpíng stayed behind to prepare to leave for Tibet, and Shūlěi took us for a walk out toward the lake through the soggy grass in the wetland, our flip flops gathering thick, heavy muck. Horses grazed on the side of the road and throughout the wetlands. Apple trees and pears grew in the orchards ringing the lake, the apples individually wrapped in small paper bags, to protect them from bugs or the sun, I couldn’t be sure which.
“Why is it like this?” I asked Shūlěi. “It seems the hostel is set up for foreigners, but there’s no one there.”
The hostel in Lashihai, with Prince, the dog.
“Actually he’s not the owner,” she said. “The owner is cycling to Nepal and he’s been gone for two months, and when he comes back they’re hoping to finish it and start up a hang-gliding operation here, but they still haven’t figured it out. And when he comes back this guy might leave.”
“Wow, he’s got a pretty comfortable life,” I said, but Shūlěi didn’t respond to that at all.
Shūlěi had been a good friend of mine for several months in Sanming. She was very different from all the other Chinese women I had met: she was confident, for one—she moved and spoke in a self-assured way that you rarely saw in young Chinese women; she was very friendly and outgoing, and wasn’t shy about saying what she thought, and often expressed more thoughtful opinions than many of the young women I met; she also never asked me silly questions that directly related to my foreignness, and seemed to sense that I would rather just be treated like an ordinary person. She didn’t try to pamper me or treat me like I was special; if we ate something or had tea together, I could pay or she could pay or we could split the bill; she didn’t worry about it. And perhaps most of all she expressed dissatisfaction with the traditional life she was expected to lead—she had a steady job at the university that her parents wanted her to keep, but sometimes she talked about ditching her “stable” lifestyle for something more adventurous. On top of that, she was an independent traveler. She was the only Chinese friend of mine who had been all the way to Tibet, and she was already planning to go again.
When I knew them both back in Sanming, Ruirui (the friend Jess and I met in Xi’an) called her the only “Chinese foreigner” in Sanming.
The front of the Lashihai hostel.
But now that I had met Shūlěi here in Lìjiāng, she seemed even more independent. Perhaps traveling does that to all of us, but the difference was striking. She seemed preoccupied with getting to Tibet, and a little bit stressed out by the preparations. She had told me earlier that they were planning on spending more than 3000 yuan each for the trip, which I knew was probably almost two months’ salary for an average employee at the university (somewhere north of $450).
We walked further our into the marsh and eventually I took off my flip flops, because they had become completely laden in mud, and Shūlěi continually urged me to put them back on until she took hers off herself and realized how much easier it was to walk without them, and we walked, our feet covered in thick layers of mud, until we reached the end of the muddy path and the lake began.
Some Chinese boys rowed close to us on a long blue boat made of blue aluminum, 15 feet long and heavy, with a deep puddle of water in the bottom.
The boys in the boat at Lashihai.
“You guys wanna go for a ride?” Shūlěi asked.
“No, let’s not bother,” I said.
The four boys rowed closer. We could see that they were dressed in colorful athletic shirts, one in a bright yellow Kappa jersey, and wore dirty but not cheap pants and shoes. They were deeply tan and laughing and joking in the boat, apparently out fishing, and as they got closer they began calling “hello” at us. They got closer and Shūlěi called out to them in greeting.
“One person 30 yuan!” was their reply.
It was strange to hear. We were miles away from Lìjiāng, which itself was miles away from anything except mountains. But we hadn’t come far enough to escape the money-making impulse at the sight of visitors.
“You guys really know how to do business!” Shūlěi shouted back, laughing.
They rowed past us.
“Can you get in here?” She called, as the water seemed too shallow to get to solid land.
Yeah, they shouted back, as if it were completely obvious and she must be a little dim for asking.
“How do you get to land?” She asked.
“We just go in here,” they said, giving that peculiar Chinese answer to her question — the one that answers nothing, that gives no information, but simply makes the questioner seem ignorant.
The muck on our feet made it impossible to walk in flip-flops.
We walked back and then went to the hostel, and washed our feet. We sat around for a while and Shūlěi told me about the animals in the hostel. There was a dog called Bājiè, Pigsy, from Xīyóujì, the classic Chinese tale about a monk who travels to India to retrieve the sacred Buddhist scriptures. The dog was huge and black and did not look like a pig but like a monster to me, after the episode in Sìchuān. Then there was another dog, a chocolate lab named Prince, and then a small tabby orange cat named Iron Bullet, Tiědàn, because she had been the only of her litter to survive
“Pigsy watched prince grow up,” Shūlěi explained, “so when Prince was a puppy Pigsy was really protective, even bite people. Actually he doesn’t bite people unless he’s protecting Prince, but one time he used too much force and hurt someone,” she said.
Suddenly I became very aware of how close Jess was to the big dog. “Maybe we should get going,” I said.
We headed back to town by car, getting a ride from a wealthy couple who had a television in their black four door sedan, installed in the dashboard. They dropped us off on the side of the road and we transferred to the van of Shūlěi and Píngpíng’s friend, Límíng, meaning “dawn”–and then he took us to Shùhé village, where we watched people dancing around a large fire in the small village square. The Chinese people had a conga line going in a huge circle around the 10 meter bonfire, tourists all, except for a group of five very pretty Chinese girls dressed in ethnic attire and looking uncomfortably and unsmilingly at the squirming masses of tourists around them. A few police officers stood inside the ring making sure nobody got too close to the fire.
The bonfire in Shuhe Old Village to celebrate the Torch Festival.
Jess and I watched for a while as Shūlěi and Píngpíng danced. It seemed fun, but I didn’t trust Chinese tourists around a huge fire, no matter how many policemen were there, and anyway dancing has never been my strong suit.
After the fire, we walked back to the van with Shūlěi and Píngpíng and Límíng, and on the way we bought several of the hand-made tie died tablecloths from a vendor in the town, Shūlěi and Píngpíng bargaining doggedly on our behalf while Límíng waited outside. Then we walked back to the van and Shūlěi realized that Límíng wanted to go back to his place the opposite way from the way we had come in, so taking us back wasn’t convenient.
So we said goodbye in the parking lot, some weird distance in the air between us, maybe because none of us knew if we would see each other again, and because we had only had a chance to meet for this one day, while all of us were planning to go elsewhere.
They would start their journey to Tibet the next day, and I couldn’t go with them. This was because of the ban on foreigners in effect this summer (potential political unrest in Tibet) and because you couldn’t get in anyway even if you were allowed, because foreigners had to go with a tour group.
Jess and I walked back through Shùhé to get a taxi back to our hostel. I was tired again and a bit sorry to say goodbye to Shūlěi and Píngpíng so soon. But the next day we were heading out for Tiger Leaping Gorge, which promised to be one of the best parts of our trip. And turned out to be by far the best place I’ve been in China so far.
And I’ll write about that in the next installation of this travel log. It might take a few days for me to get to it, though, as I’m in the middle of a transition to Xiamen at the moment and time is limited. Saying goodbye to another place even as I write this travel log—and finding that it takes as long to record these adventures as it does to live them.
Next: Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hǔtiàoxiá), the one place we visited on our whole trip that I can't complain about even a little.