Thursday, June 09, 2005

At Home in Lijiang

We are currently in Lijiang in the Yunnan province (Southern China) with just under one month until our visas expire and a new journey in Vietnam will begin...

Lijiang is a quaint town of cobblestone streets lined with old wooden buildings and shops. The small city is like a maze with a labrynthe of narrow streets criss-crossed by canals and small bridges -- there are no cars here. The streets are too small for autos which makes it a great strolling town. A river runs through the Old Town, lined with restaurants and cafes where people sit in the afternoon sun for tea and family meals. Sitting next to the river for breakfast yesterday morning, I had the feeling, for the first time in a long while, of being on vacation rather than a journey. Lijiang is quiet and clean... and seems almost unreal -- like an Epcot Center version of China... it's heavily touristed by Chinese and feels like a vacation destination, but nonetheless, it is a nice place to hang out for a few days.

There is a large population of the Naxi minority, descendants of Tibetan Qiang tribes. The Naxi are a matrilineal society, which means that women run the show. Historically, the Naxi have an interesting take on love affairs -- a couple pairs up, have children even, but don't necessarily live together or get married. The women take possession of the children and when the relationship ends, there is no further support from the father -- paternity is not carefully considered. This is all on the terms of the Naxi women and it is said that this freedom is perhaps the reason they've been able to have a 'hold' over the men. In addition to relationships, the matrileneal society allows women to own property and gives the power of settling disputes to elder women. The 'girls rule' attitude is even extended to the Naxi language. Adding the words 'female' or 'male' to a term changes its meaning. For example, combining female + rock means 'boulder', whereas combining male + rock means 'pebble'. The dress of the Naxi women is masculine in appearance. They wear blue caps on their heads, and blue blouses and trousers covered with a blue or black apron. I think they are pretty cool.

We're staying at a cozy courtyard hotel with a nice garden complete with song birds in delicate wooden cages hung in the trees. Aside from us, everyone here are Chinese tourists, a nice change of pace from the hostels we've stayed elsewhere in China, which are full of Westerners. We've been incorporated into the 'family' here, which consists of the hotel managers and several Chinese tourists... we've been invited to the communal meals each night in the courtyard and will also be traveling with them tomorrow to a town 200 kms north, Zhongdian, where a horse-racing festival is happening over the next few days: singing, dancing, eating, and of course... horse races will fill our two days there. Zhongdian is also called 'Shangri La' by the Chinese and according to the LP guidebook, it's a town of heavy Tibetan influence... which is the main reason to come here, especially for those not heading to Tibet (like us). It's a good place to see the culture and I've heard from some travelers that towns like this are, nowadays, almost more Tibetan than Tibet itself...

Our new 'family' will drop us off at Tiger Leaping Gorge on the way back to Lijiang -- it's one of the deepest gorges in the world. The Yangzi River -- called the Jinsha Jiang here -- rushes through the gorge, which measures 16 km; it's 3900 km from the water to the peak of the snowcapped mountain tops. I don't think the hike will take us to the full height of the mountain, but it will be a strenuous climb to be sure. We'll stay one night on the mountain and do the climb down, returning to Lijiang the next day. We've read that the trek is not to be taken lightly... people have died by straying from the trails and getting lost... or getting swallowed up in landslides. No worries, though... we will not be doing THIS hike in the rain. We've had enough of that.

We've truly made ourselves at home here in Lijiang, and at this hotel in particular. China has a largely communal society where people hang out in the streets playing card games, 'Go', and Mahjong; people eat together in large groups, sharing food from the same bowls; people spend large amounts of time talking and socializing whether they be friends or strangers. We like this aspect of Chinese society (except when it pertains to the toilets, but that's another blog in and of itself). As we've been invited to share meals here, we decided to contribute something ourselves... maybe it was the whiskey speaking, or maybe a temporary case of insanity... the other night we offered to make some 'Western' food for one of the night's meals. This is a long story in and of itself, one I will tell soon but not here -- suffice it to say that Chinese markets have few ingredients recognizable to our Western eyes. Making food proved to be a difficult task and making something appealing to the Chinese palette all the more challenging... but it's the effort that matters...


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