[These "Travel Notes" are just raw brain-dumps, collected whenever I had a chance to sit down and type during the trip. See December's various topics for more reader-friendly post-trip writing.]
Tue Nov 16: Left Dali today, and the transit was a joke. Arrived in Lijiang, and it's a joke too, except perhaps one not so hurtful.
Dali made a big impression on me, and I've punted on the past few days of activities... mostly walking around, watching people, soaking things up. Dali is really a town where people live, and I left wanting to help them achieve what they want, but not sure how to do so.
The bus ride up was stupid. I wanted what they call a "Luxury" bus, three hours up, leaving about noon. Dali has many many booking offices, and I chose the one which had the clearest signage. Somehow the clerk downsold me from the 65RMB version to the 50RMB version... she had such certainty that it would be better; I now think she got a higher net from it. Instead of noon, it was scheduled 1:30, and she wrote on the ticket 1:50, and when I got there to wait the clerk told me 2:40, then 3pm, then a bit later it finally arrived.
Filthy bus, sunflower seeds all over the floor, grungy, frayed. 75% full, a number of nosepickers, and people who yelled into their many phone calls. Driver was a honker, pathological, should be put down. Once we made it out of Dali we pulled into a roadside stand where people were charged for the au naturel bathroom. Drivers ate a meal, about a half-hour. No advice on how long we'd be staying -- I was under the impression there were no stops, or perhaps one, during this three-hour trip.
Two-lane highway, lots of slow tractor engines pulling cement and dirt and cabbages and fuel and rebar and gosh knows what else. Drivers always trying to pass each other, but they'd slow down just as they were about to do so, probably so they could get a few more 100db+ honks in. Passing on blind curves... even a brain-injured person wouldn't do that.
Halfway through we pulled into another station. I asked "Duo jiu?", but the driver didn't appear to speak Chinese. Three workers quickly scrubbed down the outside of the bus. I took pictures of their activity, then shot the floor of the bus inside. A weakness in some Chinese personality: how it looks, rather than how it is. Please grow up quicker.
After a few other incidents (tractor stuck in a toll lane, a temporary steambath inside the bus, etc) we pulled into Lijiang's southern bus station at 7:30pm. I had asked for a ride so I could get there with a few hours of daylight. It was dark. My maps were all weak, and I had no idea of scale. Smoked a pipe, reconnoitred.
Bus station had women in white coats touting... something. They told me it was 100RMB one person. Repeatedly. Still don't know what it was, and my enquiries in Mandarin were not matched by Mandarin replies.
Finally got the second cabbie to take me to a landmark (the Water Wheels) which the maps said was near an established hotel which had vacancies (Lijiang Grand Hotel). Took me half-an-hour walking around to find it... was recessed from the street, hidden, even though it's big. I was a systematic detective, with no street signs, pulling luggage over broken cobblestones, among throngs of Chinese tour groups. Systematic, I was.
Once I found the Grand Hotel things went easily. Only $50 a night, and the room is quiet at night... see how it is during daylight construction hours. No Internet, that's the big oddity [edit: incorrect]. Supposed to have a good Naxi/Thai/Han breakfast buffet [edit: incorrect].
Great location... right outside the northernmost end of the old city. Lots of foot traffic... like the entrance to Pier 39. Walked down through it and got thoroughly lost... no grid, most streets off the cardinal axes, and I couldn't even get much of a bearing from visual landmarks, having arrived after dark.
Seems like Lijiang is a modern Chinese tourist city built atop an ancient and interesting city. After the 1996 earthquake many people in China first saw the city, and in subsequent years it became a tourist sensation. The original architecture was re-established in this older eastern side of the city. But most of the inhabitants were forced out. Now it's miles of souvenir goods, fast food and bars. Not all bad, though... the handicrafts are actually quite interesting, and the fast food is the traditional stuff presented with more modern sanitation.
The bars... I'm amazed at how clueless of pitch karaoke singers are. Don't their friends tell them? I found some that were quieter, mellow, further away from the 18-year-old-male bar scene.
Grabbed some Dan Dan Noodles and a Dali V8 at a corner restaurant nearby... guy tried to mooch a meal by helping me with the menu (although he actually hindered). Walk a bit, get lost, get found, order some spicy-sauce tofu from a street stall, 10Y. Eat, people-watch. Grab a pumpkin bread, 5Y. Walk a bit more. Need some meat, got sitdown Yak Jerky deep-fried with leafy greens and garlic cloves, and a 500ml of Feng Hua Xue Yue... chewy, but excellent flavor, salty, assertive, but very, very chewy (yes, that was deep-fried jerky... it worked).
Ended up getting back to the hotel around midnight. Very, very quiet here. Wonder if it will get noisier on the weekend. I'm in the off-season, and the Grand Hotel has been outclassed by more modern hotels. Will see.
The part of Lijiang I saw tonight was Tourist Central. Those beautiful golden lights upon traditional buildings on the hill... Disneyland, only added recently for Han sensibilities. The red-lit bars with planks across the river to enter... thumping techno, anguished thrash, subhuman karaoke. The slick-looking rough cobblestones... cobbled together for added flavor for the souvenir stalls which replaced neighborly dwellings. Packs of tourists, from four to two dozen, swarming insensate along otherwise busy walkways.
The people working here wear brightly-colored traditional costumes. The ones wearing black are the tourists. Prety straightforward.
I like it, though. I can figure out dated hotels, accompanied by convenience stores, even in the midst of a wrongly-designed tourist cashflow situation. I think there are richer more expressive parts to be found. Even though it's busy and crowded, right now it's quiet and warm where I am. Think I'll feel comfortable spending a few days here.
Summary: Subject to inhumanly stressful conditions, I persevered, retained my center. Hah, take that! ;-)
Wed Nov 17: My first real day in Lijiang. Had so much fun.
Walked around the outer areas of the old city early today, before the tour groups arrived. Could see Jade Snow Mountain, big and icy, sending rivers down through the town's canals. Quiet... could hear the soundscape change block by block. Lion Hill. Mu Palace. A baba bread, flakey, with Yunnan Ham. To the hotel, a nap.
Then out for a walk in the new city, west of the hill. Vibrant. A day market closing up. Little kids, staring wide-eyed.
Broke my cherry for hotpot. Never knew the social process of eating... easier if you're social, and have someone to teach you. Mushroom and chicken, it was, 58 RMB, more than I could eat. Many mushrooms I knew, some I didn't. It was a black-skin chicken, chopped entirely, flavoring the stock. I didn't eat the feet, too full. Spinach and Tat Soi and (I think) chrysanthemum greens, drop them in till they wilt. Staff were happy to help me get set up... put me in a front seat in the crowded shop, and I think I drew business. (Saw two Europeans walking by, trying to dope out the menu.)
Then just hang around the space near the waterwheels for an hour or two. Spontaneous circle dancing. One group, three dozen, grannies and male teenagers and more, all follow the leader, to recordings of traditional music using modern beats. Awesome. Then another group, one wild flutist driving over a hundred dancers, with a hundred voices joining on the chorus.
A walk to finish off the pipe, along the river to Black Dragon Lake. Quiet, all you hear is rushing water, breaking over rocks.
Walked twelve miles today. Most fun I've had in any city in China.
Thu Nov 8: Second morning in Lijiang. Went to sleep early, woke late... lassitude. We're like 7900 feet high, and in Dali I think it was 6200 feet. No headache... mostly slowness. Am holding off on any more reckless bus rides until I feel more like myself.
Enjoying it, though. Spent the morning walking Black Dragon Lake, and it is as impossibly scenic as popular photos portray. Afternoon nap, avoid the brunt of the direct sun, bright at this altitude.
Now in a streetside restaurant near the South Gate... a whole bunch of them here, to catch the crowds from the newer hotels... except at this time of year the streets are just fairly crowded, and most of these tour groups have their own meals arranged... restaurants, little business. Still displays of skewers of meat, greens, vegetables, mushrooms, suitable for sterilizing on a grill or in a hotpot.
Dish of the moment is rice & ham steamed in a bamboo tube. Seen plenty of pictures, never had it before. This dish is ten sections, each two inches long. I was baffled by how to eat it... "zenme chi?" but the waitress brought me chopsticks instead. I figure you hold one end to your lips and suck the rice in... seems to work, and nobody's pointing and staring. The rice is glutinous and sweet, little meat.
After I entered another couple sat down. Of the three-person staff, the mama/cook is between duties, older sister is knitting rough cotton, younger sister in the brighter clothes is the tout on the street. No reason why a customer should choose one place over the half-dozen adjoining... no reason to choose one souvenir stall over the others which have the exact same stock. The phrase "Unique Selling Proposition" has not entered the vocabulary yet.
Knitting is very, very big here, by the way. Dali too. Haven't seen any guys knit yet, but women knit sitting, working, walking... all types of activities. Lots of knit goods in the stalls too. Some shops have small looms set up for weaving. Others do brocade. Hard to tell the blend between made-elsewhere goods, and standard patterns replicated by the shop owner.
Previously spent about an hour in Siefang Jie, old town center, the crossroads of the old Tea-Horse Trade Route. Now tour groups assemble after time spent stall-wandering. Near full moon, rising past a large tree, mountain in the horizon, tides of tourgroup banners in the foreground. People-watching, very enjoyable. Made judicious use of sunglasses and brimmed hat to avoid becoming the center of a photography mob... keep the head moving past a staring gaze, corner-of-eye awareness.
Biggest thing I got from that surge of humanity is that each of those brains is trying to improve their own personal situation... a lot of decentralized decision-making there. That's only one small fraction of the intelligence we've got working on this planet. Not all of it will be put to the noblest and highest of purposes, but the longrun trend, I think, is beneficial.
Lots and lots and lots of small kids too, under five years old. More than I've seen anywhere else in China. Yunnan is one of the poorest provinces, so that's one aspect, but the government's birth permits are allocated at a higher ratio to minority groups than to Han. There's also the aspect of the overall expectation of improved economics in China... optimism breeds people. Hard to guess the blend between the factors.
The number of tour groups also made me think of tablets. There are tourgroup operations elsewhere in the world, but Chinese tourgroups certainly seem the biggest and most dynamics. At some point each group member will be issued a device with GPS, multimedia database, and apps for connectivity to the other devices in the group. It's easier for me to see this as distributing devices than as distributing apps to their current devices... easy to carry a five or seven inch tablet optimized for the necessary apps, fewer support issues, particularly as display-screen pricepoints plummet. Not sure how many other people in Adobe know of the CITS scene. Would drive local media creation, tooling. I'd also really like to see schoolkids in Dali document their daily lives, tie it in for visitors, maybe for export afar.
That last point is important to me. One thing I got from the community of Dali, and the cultural persistance in Lijiang, is that folks here are proud of who they are, they want to maintain it. There's some globalism, but there's also strong localism. (And for good reason too... the local culture is very rich.) Agriculture may be rich, but trade is poor... one of the biggest assets they have is culture, and I want to see that contribute to the rest of the world, before it fades under global pressure.
Big theme of this trip, that... the dynamic between globalism and localism. I see lots of people wearing local shirts and jackets, bluejeans on the bottom. Traditional music has been updated with global beats. Local restaurants serve standards from elsewhere in China. They're finding a balance. Globalism has its forces... Steve Jobs would like everyone to buy an iThing. But much of our richness is at the edges, and Adobe tooling can help decentralize artifact-creation.
Odd thing about the globalism dynamic here... television content is mostly from central or local governments. They may have Kentucky Fried Chicken, but they don't have reruns of Married With Children. Only certain aspects of the rest of the world come in through the broadcast screen. Western movies are also carefully screened before national distribution. The home screen for broadcast video is one of the earliest ways that people use visual technology, but its effect in the PRC is not as wide-open as elsewhere.
I'm still baffled by the retail mindset. I do rough customer/revenue counts, and it's hard to see it covering staff expenses. Restaurants are quite active about pulling in guests, but then it can be hard to catch their eye for a followup order, at least without yelling out "Fuwuyuan!". Handicraft shops do try the strong upsell, insisting you examine additional items after a purchase... maybe that's successful with most of their clientele, but for me at least it makes me want to get out quicker. Mid-November isn't that far our of prime tourist season. Then again, I come out of a high-volume retail produce background, where you've got to move stuff quickly, and figure out ways to get people to buy... not just wait for someone to come in and buy. Dunno.
Lijiang, hard to find places. Few street signs here, compared to Dali, even compared to Kunming or Hong Kong. Curvy streets, no grid. Foot traffic is often so heavy that it's easy to pass by places without seeing them. Been trying to find Xuan Ke's Naxi Ancient Band venue... know I've passed by it, but haven't been able to ID it on the street.
Language use in Lijiang is quite interesting. In one sense it's easier, because Mandarin is a second-language for most residents too, so it's not as hard as communicating with a native Beijinger. I'm hearing lots of Sichuan-style Mandarin, where "s" sound replaces "sh". Then I'm hearing tons of speech I can't place at all... the majority is likely Naxi, but there are other conversations with very different sounds, too. No idea.
It's often easier to speak with people for whom Mandarin is a second language, but it often introduces new barriers too... often, people look at my face and believe I'm speaking Europeanese instead of Chinese. Sometimes I've had a bystander interpret my Mandarin, into Mandarin.... ;-) I realize my tones are sometimes off, and this causes unexpectedly high barriers, but maybe I should start with a standard "Ni hui shuo Putonghua ma?" before trying anything else....
Tobacco. In Kunming I found some angel-hair blonde Virginia, and in Dali some more regular-looking brown Virgina ribbon-cut, both in the same pack. In Lijiang I'm also seeing cigars, handrolled, from regional Virginia leaf. I don't smoke cigars much, but bought a pack. Sweeter and cleaner than cigars elsewhere, no assertive Maduro or Dominican flavors, just straight Virgina. If Hong Kong didn't have restrictions on travellers I'd bring back a few ten-packs for cigar smokers within Adobe.
Seeing lots of bongs and hashpipes too. Local folks smoke cigarettes or cigars in the bongs. Not sure about the hashpipes. Along with the Tibetan-style textiles, it feels a lot like Haight Street.
Hats? The most dramatic are the fur hats, whether discreet Manhattan-style folders or big ornate frameworks to support a whole skin, complete with tail, paws, and head. Bucket hats are big, in various fabrics. I like the hemp knits, in bright red, pink, yellow, blue. Some knits are also ballcap-style, and I hope to be right-time-right-place to pick one up. Other bucket hats are batik regular patterns. Cowboy hats are very big, in both straw and leather... some of the latter have horsehair trailing down the back. I'm trying to find ones that I can also wear in San Francisco....
Let's see, two 500ml Feng Hua Xue Yues at 3.5% alcohol, that's 35 milligrams, just about equal to a two-ounce shot of Jameson's, divided by ten bamboo-encased rice rolls and one hour... think it's time to wrap it up at this streetside restaurant at the South Gate of Lijiang Old Town, find a bathroom..... ;-)
Sat Nov 20, just past noon. At Lamu's House of Tibet, a joint reputed to also offer the best western food. "Since 1998" says the wooden sign out front. Light rain, temperature finally up to 50F. An omelet with Yunnan Ham and sweet peppers; Tibetan potato balls enclosing a spoonful of ground beef, two cups of dense sweet Yunnan coffee.
Been taking it very easy... altitude, exhaustion, cold, wet. Having fun so long as my body stays strong. Need more sleep though. Power off at the hotel... was figuring on watching some Wushu drama on TV while resting my body, maybe later this afternoon.
Am not taking side-trips out of Lijiang. Possibilities included Leaping Tiger Gorge, the First Bend of the Yangtze in Shigu, maybe even the highly matriarchical Mosuo on Lugu Lake. Besides the physical stress, cofactors on the punk-out include the sheer number of tourbus vendors, all with the same orientation of getting a group of 6-8 rather than assembling for set times. There would be overcharging... I don't have the heart to haggle with people scratching so hard for cash. Then there's the honking and aggressive driving, particularly on narrow mountain roads in the rain... no thanks. I know the Yangtze bends there, and it doesn't need validation from me to prove it. Easier to watch people in town, and think.
Kunming was very noisy and pushy, Dali imposing and friendly but also sad... Lijiang may be colder, but it's easier to spend a few days here. Had originally checked into the Lijiang Grand Hotel for two nights, extended it by four after I had scoped things out. Looks like daily flights from Lijiang to Jinghong in souther Xishuangbanna are only for peak season... no flights Monday, one on Tuesday. I'll probably stay another night then, seven in all. Fine by me, although I think the locals will start to wonder about who this foreigner is, and what his trip is.... ;)
Cameras are funny. Lots of people use them in lieu of looking where they are. It still amazes me how the big thing is taking a photo of yourself in front of some frequently-photographed background, as validation that you actually did something. Only people I've seen who have framed unusual shots have been foreigners, and few of them at that.
Three types of photos... photos of the camera's owner, of famous sights or characteristic people (uncompensated vendors, eg), and unusual detail or perspective on an environment. Technology innovators have brought cameras to the world, but it's been a crapshoot what the rest of us have done with them.
Tue Nov 23: Last morning in Lijiang. Got out walking while it was still dark, full moon over Sifang Jie, caught the sunlight just arriving on the eastern peaks of Jade Snow Mountain.
Been taking it very easy the past few days... not sure if fatigue is from altitude, over-exertion, cold wet weather, diet, something else. Did finally get some gastric distress, after a night of drinking local Sulieman wine (like a sherry or Shanghai Huangjiu, but which I later learned was 42 proof!), then a suspect "American style" breakfast of fried eggs easy, some Yunnan bacon (lean, this one was), hash brown croquettes, some good brown toast and two large cups of Yunnan coffee. Slept and took it easy the last few days.
Lijiang Municipal Museum is at the north gate to Black Dragon Lake. Didn't see it in the usual guidebooks; learned about it from a photocopy of "Museums in China" that I brought along. One of the better exhibits... large three-dimensional model of the area, Naxi and Dongba exhibits, walk-in log house, wild photos of fauna, flora, and fungi.
Taking off in plane this morning to Jinghong in Xishuangbanna. Fifty minute flight, twenty-five degrees warmer.
o Taxi ride to the airport had its moments... got stuck in one of those "might as well turn the motor off 'cause we ain't going anywhere" traffic jams. Some road (rail?) contruction paralleling the two-lane highway from Lijiang to airport. Lots of big heavy trucks, tractor trucks, tour buses, more. Took about seventy minutes for something like twenty miles. Longer than the plane flight. Left early, so plenty of time... an adventure. Didn't see any truck drivers playing cards by the side of the road though. Plenty of police standing around.
o Lijiang is in an awesome physical environment. It's surrounded on three sides by different mountain systems, and open to a broad plateau to the south, wending its way down to Dali. As a trading post, Lijiang was about as high as the southlanders could go, and about as low as the mountain folk from Tibet could go. Usually they'd transfer caravan goods here, from lowland animals to mountain mules. A nexus.
o Memorable food: Rice noodles and vegetables, griddle-fried, wrapped in a thin tofu skin, then chopped with spatula onto a styrofoam tray and lathered in chili sauce. Mushroom-filled steamed jiaozi. Skewers of yak meat, dusted with ground Chilis & Sichuan Peppercorn, three sticks for ten yuan. Round pumpkin bread. Babas, self-rising, rolled and flakey, corn-based and crunchy. Yunnan Ham, the choice fattier pieces for high-caloric value, which I couldn't quite finish. Dan Dan Noodles at a 24-hour joint, bare noodles on top of piquant ground pork sauce, mix them up before eating, about a buck US, with 500ml of Feng Hua Xue Yue at $1.50.