I’m on my way to Lijiang!
We are now fully into national holiday week, and you can feel it! The only remaining spaces on the train are ‘standing tickets’….fortunately this train journey is my shortest so far in China at a cheeky 2 hours :-)
I take a photo of everyone crammed together in the carriage and hear behind me, “Cosy right?”. I turn around and meet Lee, a fellow Brit from Newcastle who had been travelling for a couple of years and had spent the past year living and working in Australia. Lee was on is way home for the first time in 2 years for Xmas (before deciding on when and where to travel next). On the way back, a cheeky detour through China and Mongolia :-)
We get off at the station and make our way over to the bus stop. It was here where it became fully apparent that our years of British conditioning to form and stay in a queue is not going to do us any favours in China!
One bus came roughly every 30 minutes and could hold maybe 40 people. From the hundreds that had just gotten off the train, this was going to take a while. The bus would stop at a random place in the vicinity of the bus stop and for those few seconds just after the door opened the scene resembled something out of the ‘Walking Dead’….the hoard would frenzy up and run to the doors. Even the one time where the bus pulled up directly in front of us we still didn’t manage to get on! People piling in and forcing themselves through you left and right. It seemed like the tiny old ladies with sticks were particularly strong and aggressive…..“Is that a walking stick or a weapon?”, Lee asks me as we see a woman (who was at least 90) use it to block a young couple at the door.
About 2 hours later, and the 5th or 6th bus to come by, the crowd (and our patience) had thinned a bit and we managed to squeeze in just before the doors closed behind us.
Neither of us have booked a place to stay tonight. This isn’t usually an issue, but judging by the amount of people around on holiday week we both knew we may be in a bit of trouble. Fast forward another 2 hours and we’re both trying to navigate around Lijiang Old Town, with our bags on our shoulders (in Lee’s case – 3 bags), at a snail’s pace in the middle of a throng of Chinese tourists. We’re getting either getting turned away or given a massively inflated price from every hostel and guesthouse we visit, and both agree that we are ready to give up. Our plan B is find a shop, get a few beers and then crash in a park or a 24 hour fast food chain until morning.
We make it out of the main street and try to find a shop. Sit down, take a beer. It’s gone midnight but we take one final look at some hostel booking websites and see a glimmer of hope for not sleeping rough tonight. Another 15 minute walk and down a few progressively dodgey-looking side streets and we arrive at a place with a spare bed. It’s pretty run down and dingy, and the smell from the shared bathrooms means that you couldn’t stay in there for over 5 minutes without starting to hyperventilate…….but……it did have this little guy living there :-)
The next day we head out to see a bit of Lijiang. We both felt that we had explored the old town markets enough the night before and instead had been invited up to the other old town of Shu He, a few kilometers North, to meet up with my old roommate Jing Yi and the performance group she was working with for the national holiday week – The FireNomads….a group of solo travelling street performers, who had all worked together in the past at one point or another, that had come together for the holiday week when the tourists were about :-)
We decide to make our way up by foot and take in some of the sights of the town including probably the most famous view in Lijiang – The bridge over the Black Dragon Pool with the Jade Snow Mountain in the background.
One thing which has taken a while to get used to since visiting China is the amount of times you have your photo taken by complete strangers. Sometimes you will be approached for a photo or a selfie, other times you can tell that someone is trying to get a sneaky photo in without you knowing…..however, most of the time the cameras here have been designed to always have the ‘click’ noise audible so you notice :-)
Now there were two Westerners together the effect seemed to have doubled. We got stopped a bunch of times walking through town for group photos. At one point I felt something to my side and turned around and saw a girl of about 6 years old just standing beside me stroking my arm.
And the construction work seemed endless! It was like multiple estates were all being put up all at once…..to various levels of completion. A bit further on and we arrive at a fully completed high-end shopping plaza…..again with no-one around apart from 1 or 2 bored shop workers.
5 minutes later and we’re both doing laps in the Grand Hyatt pool.
“Well, didn’t think I’d be in a 5 star hotel pool when I woke up this morning”, I say to Lee
“Hang on, we may be busted”, Lee says and nods to the entrance where a young woman wearing a hotel uniform is walking around the pool in our general direction.
She approaches us, and as I’m trying to come up with an answer to the question ‘Are you staying in this hotel?’, she kneels down to the side of us and quietly says,
“Excuse me sirs, please take these complimentary swimming caps”, and hands us 2 G.Hyatt branded black caps, before walking away. We wait until she is back out of the pool room before we both break out laughing.
A swim, shower, and complimentary body-lotion later, and we’re back on our way to Shu He. The journey starts to resemble less of a ghost town as we approach and finally start to see people again. Such a different experience to the previous day’s old town experience after our journey with the bags. Slightly fewer people and a bit more space….nice weather…it was a really good atmosphere. We nip in for some food (the spiciest, cold noodles I have ever had!) and wander the streets for a while.
After an hour or so it breaks into a sudden thunder-storm and we duck into what looks like the nearest café to avoid the rain. We close the door behind us and all the hustle and noise from the crowds disappeared in a second and we were in a serene wooden reception area, with the delicate sound of the Chinese harp in the background…….It was a bit like stepping through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.
A small, jolly, old Chinese man with a round belly, red cheeks, and a massive smile approaches us. He says something in Chinese and immediately starts laughing and a massive hearty laugh which seems to big for his body.
He gestures for us to sit down, offers us both cigarettes, and laughs when we both decline. We have a bit of back and forth with the guy, us in English and him in Chinese, with the occasional word translation app on the phone…..Neither of us had a clue what was gong on but he seemed to laugh after every sentence. We sat and drank boiled water and listened to the combination of rain on the roof and the Chinese harp in the background (being played by one of the staff) until the storm subsided and we thanked him for the shelter and made our way to the show.
The show is already underway when we get there. An outdoor courtyard lit up by neon strips of lighting on the floors in between the marble slabs.
Music, a crowd, 2 people in monochrome jumpsuits and top hats performing a visual display of the cycle of Job, Commute, Food, Wine, T.V, Sleep, Dream, Wake, commute, Job……in an accelerating pattern until explosion (both audible and emotional!).
I glance at Lee who returns the same, slightly confused, look as thought goes through both of our heads: ‘What a f%*king weird day!’ ……from the stranger selfies, to the ghost town, to the swim, to the town, to the jolly fat guy and the chinese harp to….whatever this is!…….as the cycle continues to spin in front of me at a rate which made me thankful I’m not epileptic, and I can still smell my chlorine soaked boxer shorts which are in my backpack to my side.
The show is brill and completely free. Fire Poi, Bellydancing, Crystal ball (think David Bowie out of Labyrinth), abstract performance art.
After they finish up me and Lee join Jing Yi and some of the group back at nearby bar which was sponsoring the event. A bit of live music and a few beers later me and Lee decide to head back to our other ‘Old Town’ and agree to meet up the following day. A daytime performance, a yoga workshop, and a sci-trance DJ….I’d never heard of this music before chatting to Lee…#oldman :-)
An awesome, if completely random, few days to end the week! Time to head even further North….Next stop: Shangrila!