Part 3: Lijiang

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The following morning we took a second large bus 200 kilometers farther along the Burma Road to Lijiang, the ancient capital of the Naxi kingdom. On the bus we met a French family, a couple with a young boy and a smaller girl. The father, it turned out, was an engineer working on China's new nuclear power plant located in the Southeast. The family lived in a foreign experts' community village, and were taking an adventurous family vacation in the Southwest. We would continue to run into this family throughout the next few days; the young girl, extremely cute and blonde, had an almost mesmerizing effect on many of the locals.

Many people had urged us to go on to Lijiang, is it was supposed to be even more wonderful than Dali. After a six-hour ride, however, we arrived in what seemed a dull, concrete town full of uninspired socialist architecture. We stayed in the Lijiang Hotel, a dull concrete structure with several large, drafty wings. It was a big place, and barely occupied, giving it something of the feel of a ghost town. Dan and Larissa were in the modern wing, and they had a fairly nice room, including cable TV. Cathy and I stayed in an older wing; we too had a TV however. The first night, we watched a soap opera which took place in Shenzhen, the bustling neo-capitalist area near Hong Kong. The plot concerned a businessman taking a trip there with his young attractive secretary. There were discos and night-life. The man and his secretary had separate but adjacent rooms in the same hotel. In the evening, the businessman discovered he needed some papers, and walked to the secretary's room. When he knocked there was no answer, but the door was open, so he entered, and found the papers he needed on the desk. At this moment the secretary emerged the bath, wearing only a towel. Their eyes looked. Cathy and I looked at each other with the same question in mind. Would the towel drop? Could the towel drop? The camera panned down the woman's body to her feet ... and the towel dropped. We were thunderstruck. China was changing, all right.

Whatever our impressions of the new section of Lijiang, the "old town" reversed them completely. We spent our whole second day there, and we saw why the place was so prized by people who have visited. In fact, Cathy and I decided to get up before dawn to visit the old town and see it come to life. (Dan and Larissa slept in.) The ancient section of the city had several small rivers running through it. It was a maze of narrow cobbled streets, jammed end to end with two-story wooden houses. People crouched over the streams, brushing their teeth, and little children with backpacks bought fresh steamed buns from breakfast sellers on their way to school in the golden early morning light. Cathy and I climbed to the top of the little hill above town, from which vantage point we could look out over and past the concrete monstrosities of the new town. Although there were no cliffs here, one imposing snow-clad mountain peak, Yu Long Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, not dissimilar in appearance to Mt. Rainier in Washington) dominated the skyline to the north.

After day had fully dawned, we returned to the hotel, picked up Dan and Larissa, and got back to the old town, which was now bustling. Ancient Naxi women, looking plump under seven layers of traditional dress, doggedly worked their way up and down the streets. Cathy called them "turtles," and it was a very apt description. Their wizened faces were wrinkled and leathery, their eyes mere beads of black, no white visible. The traditional goat-skin cape worn on the back made a rounded shell. Though the women walked at what seemed an impossibly slow pace, they always somehow got to where they were going faster than one could imagine. It seemed nearly impossible to photograph them; by the time I got my camera ready, they had somehow gone past me already, or ducked quietly into a side alley.

Time passed quickly, whether wandering through the maze of streets watching women carrying buckets of water on a pole across their shoulders, perusing the markets where all kinds of odd foods were for sale (including a type of _cheese_, pressed out into long thin flat layers that hooked at the end for easy carrying on string), or sipping noodle soup crouched at low tables in one of the many tiny restaurants. The place had an indefinable magic; it was caught, and caught happily, in a time warp. And, thankfully, it was unsullied by any of those horrific cafes that had sprouted up all over Dali and will someday have completely inundated and ruined the place. China, I think, can do without reggae hippy foreigner hangouts.

In the afternoon we visited the home of Xuan Ke, a Naxi intellectual who had suffered a good deal during the cultural revolution. He spoke English, and enjoyed entertaining foreign guests in his home. I purchased from him a photocopy of a dictionary of the Naxi language compiled by Joseph Rock, an American scholar who had lived for decades in the Naxi homeland. Xuan Ke invited us all to attend that evening's Naxi concert.

There were a number of special Naxi dishes available that are found nowhere else but in the Lijiang region. Perhaps the most interesting and unusual is made from the bark of the Xiangchun tree (Chinese Toon, for you botanists). Shoots of new branches are picked off the trees when just a few inches long. Thin as twigs, they are boiled in water and then laid out in the sun to dry. Finally they are deep fried and served crisp. On first tasting them I had mostly a sensation of charred crispy barbecue flavor, mixed with an underlying bitterness. But after eating some more a very delicate, fine and delicious flavor emerged, which varied slightly from twiggish stem to leafy bud-end. Quite a delicacy.

After dinner we went to the small concert hall. It is said that the Naxi orchestra still plays songs in the Tang Dynasty court style, now lost elsewhere in China. This had been demonstrated when it was discovered that the Naxi melodies fit certain Tang-era song lyrics perfectly. On the wall hung a few musical instruments which were several hundred years old. There were other foreign tourists in the audience; it seemed that this traditional orchestra now mostly played for non-Naxi and non-Chinese. Although there were a few young apprentices performing, most of the musicians were quite old, and I wondered about the future of this traditional art form.

On our last day in Lijiang we hired a horse-drawn cart to take us north of Lijiang past some of the small Naxi farming towns and up to some local temples. In the tiny, dusty village of Baisha, underneath the imposing presence of snow-capped Yu Long Xue Shan, we met Dr. Ho, an aged Chinese herbalist who greets foreign visitors with enthusiasm, and happily shows them his scrapbook of articles about him which have appeared in various books, newspapers and magazines from around the world.

Perhaps more than anywhere else in China, Americans seem to have a very special place in the heart of the Yunnanese, especially those old enough to remember the war against Japan. After the Burma Road was closed, a group of fighter pilots nicknamed the Flying Tigers made risky flights over the mountains to deliver supplies to the Chinese and to keep the Japanese bombers at bay. As far the Yunnanese are concerned, these brave and selfless young pilots saved their homes from certain destruction, and they are eternally grateful. The Flying Tigers had an airbase near Baisha, and used to play soccer with the locals nearby. To this day the Naxi language has incorporated the English word "pass" into its soccer vocabulary. Dr. Ho also told us that supplies sent over from India were often specially earmarked for delivery to individual people in the town, who had become good friends with the pilots. After our conversation Dr. Ho graciously whipped up some herbal teas to help relieve us of various bodily ailments.

Out here, in the fields and hills north of Lijiang, one could more easily appreciate the magical beauty of the area. Though less apparently spectacular than Dali, the valley was clearly an idyllic paradise. There was absolutely no pollution at all (Dali sometimes hazed over slightly with the output from nearby marble factories), and at night the sky was drizzled with an infinitude of stars. Although the air was dry and rainfall seemed to be light, the valley was fed by numerous mountain streams, and where they passed by, or where the irrigation channels spread their life-giving waters, the valley bloomed. If watered, the land was fertile. For me, coming from polluted Taipei, and Cathy, coming from the industrial north of China, the clean air was a godsend. It wasn't hard to see why American researchers of Naxi culture, such as Joseph Rock in the first half of the century, chose to stay in the area for decades.

Up in the hills north of Baisha was an old Buddhist temple known for its ancient and magnificent Camellia tree. Set in an elegant stone courtyard, the gnarled tendrils of its trunk dividing and re-fusing in twisted profusion, it was in full and glorious bloom. Each bright pink flower, some as large as my fist, had golden yellow pistils and stamens not just in the center, but throughout the flower, between every two petal layers. A legend says that during the Cultural Revolution, when the monks were kicked out of the temple, the aged head monk risked his life to sneak back every night to water the venerable tree under cover of darkness.

And that was basically the end of my trip! Cathy, Dan and Larissa went on to hike the spectacular Tiger Leap Gorge north of Lijiang, while I had to head back to Kunming and fly on home to Taiwan.

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This page last modified January 13, 1998.

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