Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Impression: Lijiang

No, I'm not talking about the Zhang Yijiang extravaganza at the foot of the Jade Dragon Mountain, which, even though I've heard many great things about, I refused to pay to watch as a matter of principle.

What I'm talking about is this fantasy of Lijiang, as this tranquil backpacker heaven. At least, according to my Chinese friends, a place to rest and rejuvenate.

Many amateur photographers scavenged the Old Town for a perfectly misleading photo befitting the image of Lijiang--cobble stones, deserted street, old women in minority clothes. But the truth is, the town is mobbed by tourists, most of the buildings in the town center have been converted into guest houses and restaurants and stores, and the main street at night, full of bars and dancing Mosou women in bright costumes, is overflown with loud disco and young people yelling their hearts out, encouraged by alcohol.

The only thing that could have saved Lijiang for me, during my first day there, was the Prague Cafe. Outside of the cafe sitting on the sidewalk were a group of bohemian looking friends who played guitar and drums and sang all afternoon. It appeared rather alternative and cool in the over-commercialized atmosphere of Lijiang.

Inside of the cafe, I struck up a conversation with two Taiwanese housewives who were traveling together. When the group took a break outside, one of the members came in to talk to the two women. They chitchat for a long time, the same cliches of how great Lijiang is, how the vibe nourishes the soul, etc.

Finally, the pudgy round-faced guy sitting at the next table could not help it anymore. He said, "I just can't help jumping in. But don't you think your lifestyle can't last forever? How do you make money? I would think you should make enough money first--in fact, make a lot of money first--before you spend your days hanging around and singing. You look like a full grownup now. Aren't you worried about the future? Don't you think it's kinda irresponsible living? How much money can you collect in one afternoon anyway?"

The guy was a businessman from Wenzhou, one of the most entrepreneurial area in China. He owned his own factories and he hadn't taken a vacation for years.

The rest of us laughed. The singer explained--it's not about money; it's about the free-wheeling lifestyle; it's about doing things we enjoy doing; it's called real living; free living; etc. etc.

But the businessman insisted--you have to have some economic foundation, right? How do you support yourself, rent, food, and what not?

The singer said we don't need that much to live on; Lijiang is cheap; and we have good friends. All is fine. Don't you worry, my man. We made a choice. This is our life.

The businessman was not convinced, but he gave up his Marxist lecture on superstructure and economic basis. I joked he sounded exactly like my mother.

After a while the band resumed playing. The businessman went outside and from the look of it, tried very hard to fit in, to enjoy the free-wheeling music.

Back in the room, the singer started talking about his plan of building a guest house to the two Taiwanese housewives. Yes there are gazillion guest houses in Lijiang already. But this one will be different. It will be grand, immaculate, decorated in high style by his girlfriend who's studying overseas presently. It would cost a couple of millions of renminbi, the whole thing, but the business will take off, for sure.

The singer had a pony tail, a healthily tan (not the peasant tan) and a handsome face. When he left to join his band, the two women whispered to me, "We come everyday to see him. How handsome he is!"

They asked why I was there in Lijiang. I said I was taking my last trip before going back to corporate, freedom loving and entirely anti-my-mother's-teaching as I was. I said I was going back to build some more economic basis before my next attempt at the superstructure.

Lijiang has the weird capability to bring out the cliches in people.

So I left the next morning, wondering at the same time if I'd fallen into the cliche of searching for that off-beaten track a la the Lonely Planet.


Michael said...

I also got into that cliche of finding somewhere off the beaten track. I visited Lijiang in 1991, well before the town centre was damaged by an big earthquake. Actually it was not so nice then, a very grim industrial feel to it, everything very grey. Yes it is very busy with tourists now and the "atmosphere" is not genuine. But if you want to go off the beaten track there are still so many places even near Lijiang where you can find some peace and natural beauty. Weixi, for example.

See my blog at

Beijing Loafer said...

Stay tuned for the next post. :)

richard h said...

On the *ahem* solid foundation that our blogs have very similar names (and themes), I'd like to propose that we link to each other. I am over at (that's Hong Kong or Bust).

Lived in Beijing myself, and enjoy reading you blog. In fact one of my friends is thinking of opening London Or Bust. I see a global franchise worth billions of dollars...

Baomin said...

I was once at a friend's dinner party and encountered the same type of "economic foundation building" lecturer myself. I was amazed to learn that he had a US degree.

It is easy to find people who think their line of thought was the only one plausible and are so sure others who don't conform were misguided.