An early start today, driving back to the airport to catch our flight to Lijiang. This felt a bit much after all the travelling yesterday but at least we'd be ground-based for the rest of the trip.
Early morning at Chengdu airport brought another reminder of China's 'foreignness' - the squatting toilet. I'd come across these before in SE Asia and hadn't really had any problems apart from keeping track of my clothing and making sure nothing was hanging too low. And while we're on the subject China is another country where the paper does not go down the pan, which seems weird & icky at first but quickly becomes second nature. Which makes sense for number twos (sorry).
After a short drive we came to Lijiang where we unloaded our luggage by the roadside and waited for the hotel porters to arrive and ferry it across the old town, which had severe traffic restrictions. We also had to travel on foot but at our own leisurely pace, taking in the sights of the central town square. This wide pedestrian area was broken up with trees and ornamental gates but dominated by four giant screens arranged in a cube that seemed to be on every hour of the day or night - a bit incongruous in the otherwise very natural setting. From the square we walked through narrow lanes paved with smooth stone, climbing up a low (but appreciably steep) hill to reach our hotel on top. This was laid out in a traditional style of small courtyards surrounded by low (one or two storey) buildings with lots of plants & shrubs, mostly in pots. A nice, serene setting.
The rooms were perfectly fine although with one unexpected feature - in addition to the usual bathroom freebies like combs, shower caps & toothbrushes there was a pack of condoms. And this wasn't the only time, around half of the places we stayed in provided them, sometimes in more than one variety. More puzzling was the selection of shampoos, conditioners & shower gells, each of which was labelled only in Chinese. On the basis that it was all just soap I generally used the one that smelled the nicest.
After a brief wash & brush up we reassembled for a walk out of town towards a lake with views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a permanently snow-capped peak. Along the way we started to see examples of 'Chinglish', translations that were either weirdly literal, strangely awkward, or just incomprehensibly bizarre, often used as shop names (I shall return to this topic later). The lake was beautifully picturesque with the mountain rising far in the distance, framed by pagodas and a classically styled stone bridge. On the way back we passed a couple of games of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) where the two players were inevitably joined by onlookers who would occasionally comment on the progress or offer advice or suggestions. Cutting out of the old town we stopped at a tea shop where a vast selection was on display, although (naturally) only labelled in Chinese. The shop assistants spoke no English but Leon somehow managed to perform multiple simultaneous translations as various types were sniffed, tasted & purchased. I bought a pack of 'tea blocks' - compressed tea that comes as a paper-wrapped nugget and is prepared by unwrapping and pouring boiling water over. I think. We'll see what happens when I try it.
Returning to the old town we wandered through its maze of lanes, streams & bridges. The area was clearly set up for tourism but still retained its charm and it was delightful to explore the twisting ways with their myriad of shops & eateries. Although a lot of the shops did seem to be copies of each other with exactly the same stock & presentation style, something I've seen in other SE Asian countries. As the evening drew down the lights came on and the whole area became an Aladdin's cave of delights, tempting & beguiling while leading the inattentive traveller into a labyrinth of tiny passages. I'm usually very good at maintaining a sense of location but an evening in Lijiang left me completely lost - and then saved me when just before I was about to give up & phone Leon for help I spotted the stairway up to our hotel.
As the night wore on I discovered a group of (presumably) locals dancing around an open fire. I was tempted to join in but wasn't sure if this was open to outsiders so without a direct invitation I decided to enjoy it from the outside. The style seemed more in common with Middle Eastern or Eastern European dance than stereotypically Oriental but that could well be down to my lack of Far Eastern experience.
Next morning started with what was to become a regular occurrence through the trip, a very non-Western breakfast. The Chinese style is for quite a savoury meal with noodles in broth, dumplings, stir-fry, etc. and although I normally try to engage with local norms it seems that a very deep part of myself requires a familiar repast to start the day. Sadly this was rarely the case. Today's breakfast had no orange juice, no cereal, no eggs (apart from hard boiled), very sweet bread for toast with no butter, hardly any fruit, and coffee with milk & sugar already added. I had a go with the local options a couple of times but it really didn't suit me, mostly I stuck to a frugal breakfast and made up for it with the fabulous food available for later meals.
Next we were off for a short hike up to a hilltop pagoda with views across the city (which was much larger than it had originally seemed - over one million people) and beyond to the surrounding mountains. Then a few more hours wandering around the town before repacking, checking out, and loading ourselves into the minibus for the drive to Tiger Leaping Gorge. It felt like I was leaving Lijiang just as I was getting a feel for the place but that often comes with a touring holiday.