The further south in China I head the more I fall in love with this vast, diverse and slightly mad country.
I arrived into Lijiang at night, which I’m realising is the best time to see most Chinese cities. The old town stood out, beautifully lit up on the mountain side. It almost made me get over the fact that I accidentally ate swan on the plane hours earlier (for the record it had the consistency of cat food, was stringy and full of chillies).
Lijiang is a tourist town, for Chinese tourists, with a population in its thousands rather than millions. The streets are still crowded but they are picturesque streets with little shops that sell well tailored clothes and intricate silver jewellery. It’s easy to spend a day browsing or awaiting your fate in Tiger Leaping Gorge, as we did.
The upcoming trek had started to creep into my dreams as after just surviving the last two I wasn’t sure I could do it. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that before, usually just going into things with pure determination, a large dose of stubbornness and definitely a few nutter genes.
We started the Tiger Leaping Gorge mission and within about half an hour the group of 12 got accidentally split into 3 groups. There were 3 of us in my pack and we got well and truly lost. We called and shouted but heard nothing back. Eventually we managed to retrace our steps to the road we started on and found the others, with the help of a local man who thought the whole situation was hilarious. The trek hadn’t got off to a great start and the detour had knackered me! We plodded on up steep mountain paths, the evil 28 bends, through a waterfall and dodged mountain goats, stinging nettles and the ridiculously loud bugs that scream from the trees.
We did the two day trek without too much issue, in fact it may have been easier than the Mount Emei staircase walk, definitely more picturesque. The Yangtze River looked pretty deadly below. The most entertaining moment was encountering the fearsome old lady that claims a corner of the path, with the most spectacular view, is hers. She doesn’t make herself known until you take a photo, then she demands cash. You can run but she will chase you. We stayed at The Halfway Guest House in the mountains, it was pretty magical in our log apartments and the food perfect.
We travelled back to Lijiang for a night and then onto Dali, a 5 hour bus journey away. Again a beautiful, traditional looking town but geared up for Chinese tourists. Lots of men painted gold in warrior outfits wait at the city gate and look disappointed if you don’t feel the need to get a photo taken with them. I bought a roughly embroided sunflower picture to remind me of all the fields full of the big sunny flowers I’ve seen on my travels in China. We ate in a restaurant with no menus, you just visit the kitchen and point at the raw ingredients you fancy all laid out on a big farmhouse table. The kitchen team then prepare the dishes from the ingredients you’ve chosen, which included donkey. We had around 12 different dishes, with the donkey in a kind of stew with chilli sauce. It was edible but not my favourite meat. The rest was delicious, as is 90% of the food I’ve eaten in China.
Headed to a local food market the next day. I’m not sure I’ll ever get bored of the fabulous elderly faces and interesting foods you see at the Chinese food markets. We bought fresh corn and pomegranates for lunch. Next we went fishing. I’ve fished once in my life and pulled the rod out so quickly it broke the tiny fish I’d caught in two. Luckily we headed out into the Erhai Lake on narrow fishing boats and discovered the cormorant birds were about to do all the hard work for us. They perch obediently on the side of the boat or glide through the water behind. They’re odd birds with hooked beaks, quite large and they look like they’ve been coated in oil. They dive to catch the fish, but aren’t able to eat them. They have a piece of string tied around their throats so when they catch them in their beaks they can’t swallow and the ‘fisherman’ nabs the fish. Poor birds! Anyway, this caught us a carp for lunch – tasted bloody amazing!
Dali is made of up of 18 different ethnic minority groups with traditional Chinese people (Hans people) actually being the minority. We watched a show they put on as part of a tea ceremony. As much as I want to give back to local communities, I wish I’d paid and not sat down. The singing is enough to make your ears bleed and the choreography the kind you see at the audition stage of awful Saturday night ‘talent’ shows. Don’t put yourself through it!