The old town of Lijiang is a maze of cobbled streets lined with red lanterns and canals contaminated with bright green weed. There are people everywhere, bumping shoulder to shoulder as Justin navigates ahead, looking for the hostel we have booked; the famous Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse.
Lijiang is located in the northwest of Yunnan province in The People’s Republic and is separated into the new town and the old town. The old town, where we are now, is a hotspot for Chinese holiday-makers. The streets are surrounded by tourist stores selling everything and anything you could imagine. There are scarves, chicken feet and yak yoghurt. Apparently, yak yoghurt is on the list of things I have to try before we leave. I certainly won’t be sampling the chicken feet.
Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse is flagged by a red lantern baring its name. We step inside an inviting living area where backpackers are eating dinner at mismatched tables. There is a Chinese man walking around with a baby tied to his front and small, fluffy dogs sniffing at our feet. The man approaches us and introduces himself simply as Baba Naxi. Although he doesn’t speak much English, his warm smile communicates his welcome. I have heard a lot about this hostel from Justin who has stayed here before. Apparently Mama Naxi is a complete slave driver and isn’t afraid to yell at her husband or her guests – what a woman.
Our bags are whisked off us and we are invited to sit down and join the dinner table. We sit opposite an English couple; Anna and Ed. They have been teaching in China and are on their school holidays. A plate of steaming vegetables and beef are put down before us. I am hoping I can get by being a vegetarian in China, but I have been forewarned that there is meat in almost everything. I try not to think of this as I pile my plate high with a mouth watering eggplant dish. I hide a smirk as I read a sign on the wall that says unfortunately the dinner price has risen from the equivalent of one Australian dollar, to two. That seems incredibly cheap for the feast that has been put before us. There is rice, vegetables, a range of meats and a never-ending supply of green tea.
Baba Naxi is an excellent host. He ensures our tea cups are never empty and walks from table to table, jiggling the baby up and down. I am disappointed to learn from fellow traveler’s that Mama Naxi is at their other hostel and has been there all week.
Our room for the night is beyond cold. It’s the middle of winter in China and the chill in the air is enough to freeze your breath mid exhale. Still, the room is impressive. There is a double bed, a single bed and a small ensuite bathroom. Everything the backpacker needs and all for about ten dollars. This hostel is an ancient Chinese building with an open courtyard where birds squawk in cages and dogs lie around as if they own the place.
I sleep in my thermals, hugging the blanket close to me. In the morning it is difficult to get out of bed, and even worse when we discover the water is near freezing. For breakfast, we enjoy a delicious banana pancake made by one of the staff. I like the attitude of the staff here, they seem to put the guests as second priority to everything else but, nonetheless, there is a certain charm about them.
We rug up in scarves, thermals and jackets before going to explore the old town. In the daylight it is a beautiful place. The canals shimmer and locals wash their clothes in them.
We walk past food stands selling the chicken feet, beef buns and an assortment of other unidentifiable things. I am curious about the food, but the scent of the combined cooking is enough to make me gag; my stomach is as sensitive as a pregnant woman’s. Even so, I try a sweet flat-bread with chives called ‘baba’ and it is delicious.
There is a huge language barrier between us and the locals. They chat to us animatedly as we pass their stalls. They even proudly mutter a word or two in English. Mandarin is a difficult language to get a grasp of. You have to get the intonation of a word perfect otherwise it may mean something else entirely. As I walk past the locals I let their conversations wash over me; slightly overwhelmed by the fact I can’t understand them at all. I stop at a stall to purchase a yak yoghurt. It is in an old milk bottle with a blue top. I am slightly suspicious but Justin assures me it is worth a try. It is surprisingly sweet and tasty.
Today we are visiting Black Dragon Pool, ten minutes from the old town. The pool is incredibly still and the pavilions and surrounding mountains are reflected as a mirror-image on the surface. The branches on the trees stretch out wide and the mountain is coated in a layer of fresh snow. We sit and watch as the local indigenous people, the Naxi, play a game that looks similar to chess. Their faces are wrinkled in consternation as they plan their next move. They are wearing their traditional garb and are are a sight to behold amid this scenic environment.
We stand for a while on Dragon Bridge which overlooks the pool. There are other tourists leaning against the railing and staring idly at the alluring scenery. If I get to see views like this every so often, I think I’m going to enjoy traveling.
We make our way back to the old town to explore. On the outskirts is a large waterwheel and locals holding huge eagle-like birds on their arms for tourists to take a photo with. The sun is out today and it takes the bitter chill out of the winter air.
In the late afternoon we rug up and make our way out to explore the streets. At nighttime, the historical centre overflows with Chinese tourists shopping, buying street food and singing at one of the many karaoke bars that are located just off the main square.
On our way to this strip of bars, we pass a bonfire where locals dance in a circle, chanting a song in Mandarin. We join in, mimicking their moves.
The karaoke bar is an entertaining environment. Inside, professional karaoke singers croon Chinese pop hits while waitresses walk around and take your drink order. I am shocked when I get the bill and see my Vodka Cruiser cost twelve dollars.
After, we walk outside and purchase a paper flower to send down the river with a candle. We make a wish and watch as they dart down the waterways and disappear into the dark. Later on we see hundreds of them passing us by as we walk back to Mama Naxi’s.
We return to the centre of the old city and stop on the way at one of the many tea-houses. The warm tea is a relief in this cool weather. I order a honey and date drink that is sweet. Outside the window is a similar view of the surrounding old town roofs spread out like a sea before us.
Later, we join the hordes of tourists for a nighttime shopping session. The owners try to coax us into their stores as we pass. We see leather shops with beautiful hand crafted notebooks and fine Naxi-made scarves and clothing. I buy a purple handmade scarf from a Naxi lady who makes them in her shop. For dinner we go to a charming riverside cafe and share a pizza. Though this is not very Chinese, we have been living off vegetables, meat and buns for the past few days.
In the morning we are off to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Mama Naxi’s has organised it for us and we will trek for two days. Tonight we sit up talking to fellow travelers and sampling our first Tsingtao of the trip. The conversation turns to how Chinese people spit in the street. Another Polish girl called Anna explains that the Chinese find the street dirty, therefore it is socially acceptable to spit on the footpath. This explains one of the many cultural differences I have experienced while being here. I am getting a taste of what it will be like to stay in hostels for a year; a great chance to meet people from all over the world.
I am impressed by Lijiang’s natural beauty. It’s a combination of ancient architecture, clear-running lakes and scenic snow-capped mountains. It is rich with indigenous influences. I just hope that next time I come I get to meet the famous Mama Naxi.