Cathy in Asia

News from China #8 - May 15, 2000


[The last newsletter saw me getting off a bus in Lijiang, Yunnan province, at the end of January. Spit had dried on my face but things were looking up.]

When I arrived in Lijiang, I formed an instant attachment to the place and decided that I would be staying put there for longer than the few days I had originally planned. The old town is a UNESCO Heritage site, a centre for the Naxi nationality. It is cobblestoned with courtyarded houses forming narrow alleys, and everywhere running water in the canals, clean but for the occasional lettuce leaf or other vegetable discarded while washing. There are trees, the backdrop of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and best of all, no motorized vehicles. No, perhaps even better: the sales people are low key. It's a great place to relax.

After finding a place to stay, my first stop that sunny late afternoon was in an attractive cafe on the sunny side of a cobblestoned street, on a canal. The paper sign in pink highlighter pen identified it as the Prague Cafe, and inside, it was spacious and Scandinavian--all the furnishings were made of blond wood. There I ordered Orange Milk Tea, and enjoyed the chatter of the clientele, in a mixture of Chinese and English. The next day, I bought a Chinese-English dictionary and headed back for the cafe. As I passed it the two young proprietors were sunning outside. "Where are you going?" one of them asked. "Here!" I said. "Thank you!" they said. I ordered more orange milk tea and then asked if they or anyone they knew would be able to talk to me in Chinese for an hour or so a day. Jun Li said "mei you wenti!" (no problem!) and called her sister in from studying TOEFL on the steps outside. It was the beginning of a privileged relationship with these two, who had just opened their cafe a few days earlier. The first day I chatted with Yan Li for an hour and a half. I left dizzy with the fatigue of speaking Chinese and had to return directly to my dorm room for a nap. After that I went back every day, increasing my stamina to the point where I was spending whole days at the cafe, chatting, studying, reading. I ate meals with the two sisters (usually chao fan and soup; they didn't eat the Western food they served, although it was excellent). We went to a matinee of the latest movie from Beijing. We had a late night heart-to-heart about the problem of having two boyfriends at the same time. I changed the music, relit candles, and cleared the tables when it got busy. After the guesthouse beds were made (literally), I lived there. In short, I was a Prague Cafe groupie and I loved every minute of it. My Chinese improved rapidly.

Although my life in Lijiang was centred in the Prague Cafe, I took daily rambles through the town, checking out the street life and visiting temples and other cafes, now in a better frame of mind to meet other teachers and travellers. I went biking to Baisha village with a woman from Alaska, along a little track winding through peaceful country surrounded by fields and mountains. I went to the local market, where I glanced over into a basket on a woman's back and beheld a fresh pig's head staring at me. On my strolls around the town I looked into sunlit inner courtyards for glimpses of family life. I saw corn cobs drying, food being prepared, children getting their hair brushed. In one courtyard, I saw four old women playing mahjong--seriously.

One evening I went to a concert of Naxi music by a 445 year old band, continued from generations back. The band certainly gave an ancient appearance: the youngsters were the ones under 80. Youngsters and oldsters alike were resplendent in robes and jackets of silk with gold embroidered patterns on them. Their instruments were of all types and included long-necked string instruments, drums, chimes, and cymbals. On the left of the stage was a huge vertical drum. Many of these instruments had been hidden for protection during the years of the Cultural Revolution.

The 90 year-old band leader sat at the back, and his job was to set the pace. At the beginning of each piece, he would lean forward ponderously, intone a note, and strike one of the chimes on his 200 year-old instrument. Every time he did this, the Chinese child in front of me would giggle wildly, which is kind of how I felt too. One fellow was sleeping beside a big gong but he came awake periodically to strike it with resounding effect. The narrator informed us that Naxi music is good for your health. While pop music brings you death with all the whining about broken hearts and flowing tears, this music is rejuvenating.

I also left Lijiang for three days to go trekking in Tiger Leaping Gorge, near the first bend of the Yangtze. It was a happy group of Americans, Brits, French, Canadians, and Australians who set out on the four hour bus ride to the start of the trek, through snow covered mountains on winding roads . There was general hilarity over the unexpected issuance of a call distinctly that of a rooster from what had been until then a mystery box; and when word spread that the woman sitting between the driver's and passenger's seat was pulling up the gas pedal each time the driver depressed it, there was more giggling.

Dwarfed by 13,000 foot mountains, we walked for a few hours each day in the gorge along mountain tracks used by the people living in the villages dribbling down the terraced mountainsides. The accommodation was basic but the proprietors keen. At the "Halfway Guest House" we sat on little stools around the open kitchen fire while the whole family got into the making of moon cakes--Mom kneaded the dough, children made paper circles for the cakes to sit on, and Dad kept the large skillet hot on the fire. Hot out of the "oven" (one skillet over another over the fire), they were delicious. Later Mr. Feng (Dad) was happy for the help of English sign painters (us) to make a new sign which he planned to post on the highest point of his dwelling with a light behind it so that it would be visible from Qiaotou and Daju, the two terminus points for the trek. He was probably overly optimistic, but it may be the start of the lighting up of Tiger Leaping Gorge (sorry to the purists, but this is progress).

Back in Lijiang after the trek, the mood of Chinese New Year was evident. It was like Christmas Eve, with crowds of people doing their last minute shopping, basket backpacks on their backs. Grandmothers strolled slowly with other family members, arm in arm. At the Prague Cafe, the carpenter was making the beds, using an IKEA catalogue as his guide. Across the street, two women were washing great lengths of intestines in the canal.

I spent the next couple of days with my impromptu "Lijiang family", the two Prague Cafe sisters, an American postal worker, a young German couple on holiday from language studies in Beijing, and a young Chinese woman also on holiday from Beijing, and a young Chinese engineer from Guangzhou. We shared meals, made jiaozi (dumplings), chatted, and set off fireworks. We watched a procession of children in Naxi dress parade past the cafe, and in the nearby town centre there were free music and dance performances.

We weren't the only out-of-towners celebrating Chinese New Year. In fact, Lijiang welcomes hundreds, maybe thousands of visitors at this time. The few days either side of Chu yi (the first day of the first month) were extremely busy business days. In the spirit of the holiday, a sign was posted on the front gate of an old house, written in the Naxi hieroglyphics and translated into English by "Foolish Yang Mingyi, an old boy of 80 of the Naxi people":

The people of Lijiang all have their eyebrows spread
and their eyes beaming upon the guests.

It was an interesting time to observe different kinds of travellers, and it seemed they fell into three distinct groups. The first group consisted of foreigners like me, most of them university teachers, as I mentioned before.

Independent Chinese travellers made up the second group of New Year tourists. Typically, they came from the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Like Western backpackers they came for the culture and scenery, wearing hiking boots and goretex. Others not into hiking brought their wei qi (Go, or Chinese Chess) tiles and board into the cafe, playing with great concentration, every now and then slapping the tiles down on the table--whaaack!. I really enjoyed meeting and chatting with these travellers; everyone was in a holiday mood.

The third kind of tourist was the one in the Chinese tour groups. From early morning to late at night they trailed behind their flag-carrying guides, stared in the cafe windows at the foreigners (I was an unwitting tourist attraction), took pictures of themselves in pin-up girl poses, and seemed to think it hilarious to shout "HULLO" in false, silly voices. Hearing this obnoxious noise I expected to see a child at its source, but instead too often found myself looking at a middle-aged man in a business suit. One afternoon, a man, drunk, burst into the cafe, put his left arm around an Italian woman, then took a picture of him and her with his right hand. Then he did the same thing to me, and then dashed outside again where he accosted another waiguoren on the bridge to take her picture as well. I imagine the photos reveal a variety of expressions of surprise, doubt, distaste, shock . . . The independent Chinese travellers, asked to account for the strange behaviour of some of the tour group tourists, weren't embarrassed or apologetic about the wierdness of their compatriots, but said they were curious, that's all . . . Their tolerance helped me to be more tolerant too.

Eventually my sunny days of chatting, reading, and studying in the cafe came to an end and it was time to move on. As promised, Jun Li made me my cafe favourites for the road (Orange Milk Tea and vegetable sandwich), and clutching my shu cai san ming zhi and waving through tears, I headed off into the early morning in a luxury bus bound for Kunming. From my high perch I watched the shining pink form of Yu Long Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) recede, and the Yunnan valleys start to fill with morning sunshine. The comfortable eight-hour ride was perfect for reflecting on the friends I had made and conversations we had had, and for anticipating the next stage of the journey.

Next: Adventures with Mum. Some famous sights of China: Guilin, the Three Gorges on the Yangtze, the Terra Cotta Soldiers, the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City.