Rock My World

Further catching-up to do, back to 1 September.

After leaving Lijiang (parts one, two, three), the top thing on our abbreviated Yunnan list was Shilin, the Stone Forest. It’s about an hour’s drive out of Kunming, and as one of China’s most popular tourist spots (among Chinese travelers at least), you’d expect that visiting it would be a breeze. That expectation would not be accurate in this case.

We arrived at the Kunming Airport in the morning and checked our bags at the storage desk. Then we went to the Tourist Information Desk and asked about getting to Shilin. I know my Chinese isn’t perfect, but the lady there basically told me I couldn’t go to Shilin, and tried to talk me into seeing the International Flower Exhibition. I bought a city map to get my bearings and gave up on her.

I had read online that there are buses for the Stone Forest that leave from the train station, so we took a taxi there and looked for the buses. I do know the characters for stone and forest. We saw some buses, but they were obviously privately run, and from what I’ve heard, they’ll take you to the destination, but only after they make you stop at a few shopping areas where they get kickbacks. I called a coworker back in Beijing who has been there, and she suggested we just hire a taxi for the day. I found one, and I managed to talk him down to ¥400. Seemed kind of steep, but he wouldn’t go any lower, and we were basically taking up more than half of a day’s work for him. Off we went.

The drive took us into some mountains that were fairly heavily cultivated. I’ve never seen corn grown on such steep slopes.
When we finally got there, we were immediately assaulted by women in ethnic garb trying to take us on tours in their little electric trams for ¥200 a person. I said “We want to walk,” and asked for directions to the ticket office. The entry ticket is ¥140 apiece, again much more expensive than Beijing attractions. We agreed on a time and place to meet with the taxi driver and in we went.

After all the hassle getting there, being inside was a breath of relaxation.
Like Lijiang Old Town, Shilin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area just inside is a tended garden, with mowed lawns and flowering trees among the stone shafts.
If you’ve ever been in a limestone cavern like Carlsbad or Mammoth, you can think of the Stone Forest being the same kind of thing only out in the open air.
There are quite a few ponds among the spires, and they are inhabited by frogs and tadpoles.
The limestone of an ancient seabed has been uplifted and eroded (mostly by water) over the millennia, leaving behind odd-shaped spires and crevices. There are also lots of caves and sinkholes in the area.
We wandered around on the twisting paths for several hours, ending up way off the beaten path.
While there were lots of people near the entrance, not many venture into the outer reaches of the park.
The landscape is just amazing, with interesting shapes at every turn. That one is called Elephant on a Platform.
After a point, we reached Oddly Shaped Stone Overload, and the frequency of clicking the cameras diminished. Even so, we ended up with over 300 pictures.
As with most places in China, there are surveillance cameras, here disguised as trees.
One thing you can say about the park is that the high admission price is reflected in the quality of the restrooms, which were clean, functional, and almost odorless, much better than any other public facilities I’ve yet found here.

There were some very narrow passages.
Here’s one of the groundskeepers taking a little break.
Luckily about the time we were getting worn out and starving (we never did get lunch) we chanced upon one of the popular spots near the entrance.
This little lake is home to an amazing number of large golden fish, and for ¥2 you can get a little bag of food for them.
Lots of people do, and the fish go crazy.
About this time, the taxi driver called and asked if we were almost done. I told him twenty minutes, not knowing exactly how far we were from the parking lot.

Even though it was about five hours until our flight, we had him take us to the airport. Kunming had not been that friendly to us, and we didn’t feel like running the risk of going somewhere for food and not making it to our flight on time. We picked up our bags from the storage area (only ¥20 to hold them half a day), and went to the airport KFC for a much-needed meal.

That covers the scenic parts of our Yunnan trip. I’ll have one more post dealing with what it was like to travel within China during the time of the Olympics.

Pictures by D & I.


Happiness is...

I know for a fact that not everyone in China adores pandas. But even those who aren’t smitten with them are supportive of preservation, and after the earthquake in Sichuan this spring, the wellbeing of the pandas was of great concern, much talked about in the media.

Some of the animals from the damaged preserve were relocated temporarily to the Beijing Zoo, and not long afterwards a new advertising campaign appeared in the subways stations. Of course, the “cute” factor is played up. The Chinese love “cute” almost as much as the Japanese.
I think the point is to encourage people to visit Sichuan to see the pandas once their preserve there is reopened. Naturally, one of the themes is that the pandas will be happier and better off in their native territory than in Beijing, and having seen the zoo here, I can certainly agree. I’ll eventually get around to writing about my zoo visit.
I can’t help thinking that this slogan applies to more than just pandas.


Ride the Black Dragon

Everyone told me that going to Lijiang for three days was foolish. It’s too little time, and there are so many things to see. But three days was all we had, and I figured three days was better than none. If we liked it we could go back some time for a longer stay. It’s certainly on the Should Revisit List.

However, next time I go there will not be at the end of August. It’s the rainy season, and as you saw in the previous post, rain it did. But as I said before, it was the only time we had, so we made the best of it with umbrellas and raincoats. At least it wasn’t too cold.

One of the places in Lijiang that was on my list was Yulongxueshan, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. From pictures I’ve seen, this beautiful peak rises above Lijiang in a most picturesque way, but due to the weather we never got so much as a glimpse of it. Hutiao Xia, Tiger Leaping Gorge, will also have to wait for another time.

Next on the list was Heilongtan, or Black Dragon Pool. I asked at the hotel, and they said it was only about a fifteen minute walk, so we set out under grey skies on Sunday morning.
The entrance to the park is quite lovely. At first we thought there was no one at the ticket booth, then I saw a couple of ladies having their breakfast inside. At ¥80 per person the fee is quite steep compared to Beijing attractions – you could almost see both the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace for that amount. We probably could have walked in without them noticing us if I hadn’t gone up to the window. Ah, well, our contribution to the park’s upkeep fund.

Not far inside is the Green Bridge, which spans a waterfall.
Then you get to the Pool itself.
According to the signs inside the park, the Naxi people who live in the area have a very strong attachment to water, with much of their religion focusing on rivers, streams, and lakes, so this spot was quite important to them. In addition to the big temples, we saw a few little impromptu shrines with incense burning where creeks flowed into the pool.
Instead of dragons or lions like you see in Beijing, the roofs here are often decorated with fish.
It often pays to look up.
For a while at least, the rain held off.
Where there is water, there are bridges.Speaking of more formal temples, there is this one.
Its construction had something to do with an ancient king named Mu who ruled in the area. Today, the inside has a memorial to a more recent leader who died only a few years ago.
I like the way they’ve given the statue a rain poncho. Or maybe they just like things colorful.

One last picture before we move on, since the place is so darn photogenic, even when the weather is crummy.
After walking all the way around the lake, we made our way back to Old Town and ended up back at the Rembrandt Café for more Naxi potatoes, maoniu chuanr, and Yunnan coffee to recharge our batteries before hitting the shops in earnest.

I think I’ll call this a complete post, neatly covering a single topic, and finish up our all-too-brief Lijiang trip in the next one.

Pictures by D & I.

This Old Town

That’s the “street” outside the Zen Garden Hotel. As I mentioned before, no cars allowed, or even really possible.
Lijiang Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of five I have visited in China (the others are the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, and Great Wall, all in the Beijing area).
For the most part, the area consists of narrow stone streets winding around narrow canals, lined with little shops and restaurants. It seemed that there were really only about a dozen different stores, but each one of them had dozens of branches.

There were the shoe and slipper store and the jewelry store.
The weaving shop, sometimes with weaver at work making scarves and shawls.
The stores that sell paintings and wood carvings.
Also note the water pouring off the roofs. Gutters are not part of the traditional design.

Then there is the candy shop, where they make a tasty sweet from ginger and sugar.
And the yak jerky shop, with various kinds of dried yak meat.
And cute little yak toys.

There is the shop that sells traditional musical instruments from the area.

Yeah, that’s me buying a hulusi, with the shopkeeper showing me how to play it.

There is a calligraphy shop.
The artist is doing one for me of a famous poem I learned in my Chinese class.

And the camera shop, with batteries and memory cards, along with film for the old fashioned ones.
Note the restaurant sign above the Kodak store: OID BEIJING INSTDNT BOILED MUTTO – GUANGZHOU SIDEWALK SNACC BOOTH.

You also find a food place with various roasted animal parts.
I think this place supplied half the restaurants in the area.

There is a cultural center with displays and performances related to local ethnic minorities.
The other shops, not pictured, include the one that sells little bronze statues, the tea shop (local specialty is pu’er), the T-shirt shop, stores selling polished stones and stone carvings. Jewelry stores came in a few varieties: those that specialized in silver, some for jade and other stones, and those for cheap bangles and novelties. Take these businesses and repeat ad libitum.

Of course, there are lots of restaurants.
To escape the rain, we ducked into a place called the Rembrandt Café that sells a selection of Western dishes as well as local fare.
No, that’s not what we had. There was a guy at the table next to us doing about the same as we were: having a snack while taking pictures out the open window whenever anything interesting happened. He ordered one of the local specialties (dragonflies, I think) but didn’t eat much of it. I once saw him drop one on the floor for the dog that was hanging out, but it sniffed and walked away.

We ordered Naxi style fried potatoes, which are cut like French fries but cooked with green onions, soy sauce, vinegar, and hot peppers, and some yak meat skewers (maoniu chuanr). Both were quite tasty. And the Yunnan coffee we had was excellent. They make it very strong and serve it in small portions. As an added bonus, the café had music playing: old Bee-Gee’s hits (from the pre-disco era).

At night, the restaurants along one of the canals (helpfully named Bar Street) come to life with music and lights.
They all have employees dressed in ethnic garb trying to get you to visit their place. Inside, they have various kinds of entertainment.
Several of them had loud electronic versions of folk music, with dancers in costume, often joined by patrons interested in learning some dance moves. Other places had singers with acoustic guitars, and a couple had small bands.

Stay tuned for part two, which covers some of the less commercial sights of the town.

Photos by D & I.


Zen and the Art of Hotel Management

I recently had my first opportunity to see something of China outside of big cities. Having visited Shanghai and Tianjin, along with living in Beijing, I’ve had a fair taste of what Chinese city life is like. But China is a big country, and much of it is made up of something other than urban density and development. A quick weekend getaway to a small town seemed like a wonderful idea. Of course, in China, a “small town” can have a population of over a million. So maybe it’s not fair to call Lijiang a small town, but it’s certainly a far cry from what I’m used to. Besides, the part of Lijiang we saw was not really the city itself, but what they call Gucheng, or Ancient Town.

I’ll cover the travel details in a separate post. For now I’d like to get on to the fun stuff.

Lijiang is located in the northwest part of the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. It is a mountainous region, not far from the Tibetan border, but its latitude puts it near the tropics, so lush vegetation is mixed in with the high altitude, giving rise to an interesting assortment of plant life. The airport is located quite a distance from town, and the taxi ride into the city took use through a valley covered with fields, mostly corn and sunflowers interspersed with vegetables and fruit orchards. In the orchards, the ground under the trees was heavily cultivated with vegetables, conserving real estate. In some ways, it reminded me of the Big Island of Hawaii, with crops planted underneath a verdant green mountainside.

As you’ll see, much of Lijiang Gucheng is not accessible to cars, so the taxi took a winding path up the side of Lion Hill and stopped in a stone-cobbled lane, where a woman met us to guide us to the Zen Garden Hotel. It was a little way down a winding stone path, and as soon as we saw it we knew we had made the perfect choice of a place to stay.
This is the courtyard just inside the entrance. Living up to its name, the hotel gave us an immediate sense of peace, much needed after the hectic activity of Olympics in Beijing. After completing the required paperwork, we were shown to our room.
The furnishings were old style (I’m no expert to know if they’re real or reproductions), but it had the modern conveniences we like.
The bathroom was entirely new, and they had wireless internet. They also provided two apples, a fruit-filled pastry, a lovely tea set and some bedtime reading material.
Just outside our room was a covered walkway open to the air. From there, the view over the town was rather nice.
The “lobby” is also nice.
On a cool, rainy late summer day, they light a brazier. It’s a pleasant place to sit with a pot of tea.
I was amused by the technique used to tend the coals in the brazier.
On the lowest level is a small dining area where they serve a breakfast buffet, kind of a combination Contintental and Oriental breakfast. There are some bird cages, so during the day you can hear the birds and the sound of the running water – very relaxing. And in the afternoons, one of the staff members would play a bamboo flute in the lobby.

The only drawback we found was that the plumbing in the bathroom was very noisy. When someone is taking a shower, it’s almost like a jet engine roaring. There is also a demented rooster nearby who starts crowing about five in the morning and continues for hours. But aside from that, it’s probably the best place I’ve ever stayed. I’ll take it over a big city luxury high-rise any day.

If you’re planning a trip to Lijiang and are looking for a wonderful place to stay, you can’t do better than this. The Ancient City is full of small hotels like this one, many of them less expensive (this is about US$144 a night), but it’s hard to imagine any improving on it.

Coming up next, Lijiang Gucheng itself, as well as other Lijiang sights.

Some pictures by D, some by me.