Let me get this off my chest first – Lijiang (丽江) was a disappointment. A huge, huge disappointment.
The ancient town in Lijiang is supposed to be one of the most beautiful and well-preseved old towns in China. The old buildings with wooden exteriors and winding roads made of cobblestones remain relatively untouched since its heydays. And with a history of over 800 years, the old towns were inducted into the UNESCO Heritage Site list in the year 1997. So, how did someting so promising on paper go so wrong?
Two words. Mass tourism.
Actually, make that 3: Chinese mass tourism. There are a few old towns around Lijiang and the most popular one is Dayan Old Town. Once you step into it, you can’t help but feel that you’re being transported into a different time. You would notice how big the town is and chances are, you’ll find yourself lost for a couple of times.
However, it’s hard to appreciate the beauty as at almost any time of the day, the town is filled with tourists. Even on non-public holidays, the place gets very crowded and it’s tiring to navigate through the sea of people.
Lijiang wasn’t always like that. When it was awarded the prestigious international award, it was still a relatively quiet town inhabited by the locals. However, once the spotlight was shone, it brought in an influx of travellers both domestic and international. Due to the rising cost of living, many locals started moving out while the shops and houses that they previously occupied were subsequently taken over by opportunists.
Soon – and predictably – most if not all the shops converted to outlets geared at the tourists crowds. Souvenir and postcards shops are everywhere; hostels and hotels are only a few steps away from each other; outsiders setting up faux local delicacy stalls while global brands such as McDonald’s and KFC have a set up their respective branched here. Perhaps the worst offenders are the numerous bars situated in next to the main square of the old town. What you should know is the bars in China are quite unlike anywhere else. Every one of them has a large stage in the middle and every night, there will be an emcee hosting the show and there will be bizzare blend of traditional and modern performances. They are loud, obnoxious and just don’t belong here.
Like every attraction in China, the local government collects a hefty maintenance fee from visitors. I soon learn that there’s absolutely no attraction in China that is free. You have to pay for everything and for an extrobitant price. Apparently, this is because most of them are managed like a for-profit company and to make matters worse locals pay the same rate as foreigners. Even if you refuse to visit the attractions, there will be thousands queueing up behind you. Classic case of demand exceeding supply. What’s worse is that despite paying the maintenance fee, you will still need to pay an entrance fee on top of it to visit certain attractions. It’s opportunist capitalism at its worst.
However, since the old town is huge and there isn’t a fixed entrance, they left the fee collection to the hostels and hotels. Nobody pays them.
Still, Lijiang draws a huge crowd every year and as the Chinese middle class group starts to grow, the old town couldn’t sustain the crowds especially during national holidays (Just imagine 1.3 billion people sharing the same holidays.) I was told last year that during National Day, there were thousands of visitors stranded in Lijiang without a place to stay. In order to rectify this, the government has expanded the old town in the last few years.
Yes, you read that right. They are building new parts of the old town. In fact, so good are the building and aging techniques that you will be hard pressed to spot the difference.
There’s no doubt that the old town looks good aesthetically and the photos on this blog shows. However, since most of the local culture has been driven out for commercialization, one can’t help but feel that Lijiang is nothing but a shell of its former self.
Thankfully, the saving grace was Panba Hostel where I stayed at. The dorm was clean and had all the proper facilities you could ask from a youth hostel. They have their own cook and you could join the guys for a homecooked dinner each night. Once they had a chef friend who visited them from Dali and decided to make dinner. It was probably the best meal I’ve had in China (Although that isn’t saying a lot, unfortunately.)
The 2 guys handling the reception were always ready to help with directions and tips. They were basically the one-stop centre for questions and despite not staying there, Beau and Rob got their transportation booked at the hostel.
Moreover, they were friendly and chatty. I’ve had a good time talking to them about China and its progress over the last decade. I remember we were talking about politics as Malaysia was about to have its election this year. I mentioned that corruption was a widespread problem and hindered progress. Conversely, they told me that in China, the very thing that people most afraid about when it comes to officials is not corruption in itself. Rather, they are afraid of officials who are corrupted yet do absolutely nothing that benefits the people. Even someone as liberal as them feel helpless in these situations and are unable to influence the system.
But then again according to them, such beauracracy predates the communist era and could be traced as far back as the Qing Dynasty. In a nutshell, it’s how things work in China for the longest time.
Jason, whom I met at TGL told me that Lijiang’s old town was at the quietest in the early morning, so I deliberately woke up before 7am to take a stroll.
Indeed, the streets were peaceful. It was a rare chance to observe locals going about their daily lives – parents sending their school children to school, drivers making their regular deliveries. I had a good time walking around and snapping shots.
Until I started feeling unwell.
In fact, the previous day I had some headache. I thought it might be a delayed altitude sickness (Lijiang is at 2400m above sea level btw), so I spent the previous day resting at hostel and writing postcards. I felt better that night but it didn’t help that the dorm room was unusually cold as we forgotten to shut the windows. My dormmate from Shanghai was mostly awake and with her catching a cold, it kept me up as well. She was then supposed to wake up early in the morning to join a tour but nobody was at the reception to unlocked the doors. What ensued later as she went around calling for help must have woked up everyone else from slumberland. I barely got any sleep.
Still, I thought I had recovered but as I walked around the town, I felt worse than the day before. It got so dizzy that I had to sit by the street to regain energy.
I thought maybe it was due to the empty stomach so once I felt a little better, I went for breakfast. Halfway through the meal though I felt like puking and couldn’t finish the meal. I paid up and walked back to the hostel. I tried to hold myself together and not puke on the open streets where the crowd was slowly building up.
It was quite a distance back to my bed. It was the longest walk ever.
I got back and took some medication and ended up vomiting at the hostel. I felt lethargic for the rest of the day that walking became a chore. I spent the next 2 days mostly sleeping at the dorm.
The worst thing that could happen to you on the road is to fall sick. It’s something you would do all it takes to prevent, whether it’s drinking more water or being more careful of the food you consume or taking preventive medication whenever the symptoms are there. However at times, it’s just not preventable. It sucks that once you get it, you lose travelling days in order to recuperate.
Moreover, it’s extra lonely when you’re alone as there is no one else to care for you. When you’re home, you have your parents or when you’re out, you have your friends to care for you. Something so easily taken granted of.
In the days where I lie on the bunk bed motionless, I felt home sick. It was the single most dreadful moment in my travels.
For the first time this trip, I longed to go home.
Thankfully I made a good recovery on the second day. I found my appetite again and no longer had the dizziness. As much as I should be resting, I thought it was time to move on. I didn’t want to stay at extra day at Lijiang as there wasn’t any other reason to stay.
When all is said and done, even if you don’t plan to visit Lijiang, you might end up spending a day or 2 here as it’s a good base to visit the nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge, Lugu Lake or to go on further into Shangri-La (Yes, there is a town called Shangri-La in China, which I will go into in later posts.) I originally planned to cycle to the other old towns and visit the Naxi villages but my sickness meant that I remained in Dayan for most of the time.
If you’re allergic to big crowds and mass commercialization, it’s probably best to avoid the most popular Dayan and stay at Baisha or Shuhe . The latter old towns are reputedly less impressive but apparently draw less crowds too. As long as you keep your expectations realistic, you will probably won’t be as disappointed as I was.
On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also to share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series.
I was in Yunnan, China from April 10 to May 3. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. Others shots were taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone.