Strange things I saw on the way from Dali to Lijiang: snow capped mountains, tanks on exercise, a film crew, harvested wheat gathered into stooks in the field, Cezanne style haystacks, roadworks separated from the highway with cones and bunting, a town called Xiyi (West One) with very little in common with the Harley St area of London. Road construction is advancing at such a pace that you must need an update for your satnav every week – we came along part new dual carriageway, part widened A road, part old mountain road. My favourite local vehicle I call the bike-truck, a motorbike front with a small flatbed truck in rear (3 wheels in all). There are handlebars, a faring, rear mirrors like a bike, but with a bench seat. You can have a driver and a couple of relatives up front, plus a little one on the driver’s lap, and then in the truck you can either have the rest of the family or a load of wood, stones or vegetables with just a couple of family members on top. No helmets or seat belts or protection against the elements.
Lijiang surprised me by being extremely pretty – it lies at 2400m on a plateau with mountains on all sides, including 6000m peaks visible in the far north.The whole city has maintained the traditional tree lined streets and pleasant architecture that is so often absent with modern expansion in China. The old city is a maze of alleys and canals, all lined with willows, cherry trees and climbing roses. Almost all of the buildings in the old city, sadly, are devoted to the sale of tat and (God help us) there is a McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza hut. We wandered about and called in at a teahouse. A tea master made me Pu’er tea, green tea and 200 year old black tea. All delicious and fascinating to watch the care with which they make tea here.
The locals are mostly from the Naxi minority. They have an animist religion presided over by shamans. Today happens to be ‘sweeping the ancestors tombs’ day (this seems to apply to all the major religions here) so the shamans were not around town – too busy doing ceremonies at tombs in the mountains.The Naxi prize fat, dark women, on the grounds that those characteristics mean they are strong and hard workers! I could be in luck. My guide is half Naxi – when she was a child the government weren’t interested in minorities and she only learned Mandarin. Now, the government wants to preserve minorities and so the dialect is taught in school. She told me about the ‘one child’ policy. Essentially you can have a second child but you have to pay, the amount depending on your salary and the area where you live. For a tour guide in Lijiang the cost is about £18,000 – prohibitive for most.