Around this time, I got the news that Beijing was going into COVID war mode. Although still low, in the single digits, the delta cases kept increasing and as I stated earlier, if there is one thing the Chinese understand, it’s the power of exponentials. War mode in this case meant that tracking was in full effect again as well as temperature measurements at all building entrances. There was also a strong advice not to leave Beijing or its province, but since I was already in Yunnan, I decided to enjoy my vacation.
Next on our travel route was Lijiang old town (丽江古城), a UNESCO heritage site. Lijiang is an old Naxi people town dating back more than 2000 years and its old buildings and water works are among its most prominent features. The city feels a bit like Venice with its bridges and many fast-flowing streams that have been neatly arranged into different functions: drinking water, washing water and sewage. The city was largely flattened by an earthquake in 1996 but it has been beautifully restored.
The most beautiful part of Lijiang was the Mu Family Mansion. It’s a large complex that starts at the bottom of a hill in the middle of the city and follows the contours up the hill. The Mu family ruled over Lijiang and its surroundings and the complex is a mixture of official buildings (meeting halls, library), temples of various religions and personal living space. The Mu family focused on trade and was closely associated with the emperor. The city never had any city walls and apparently that wasn’t necessary because the Mu rulers kept good relationships with everyone. However, the fact that Lijiang is surrounded by high mountains on all sides with only a few river valleys in-between probably had something to do with it as well.
Despite the beauty of the city, it wasn’t my favorite part of the trip. Over the years Lijiang has turned into a party/hookup town with many overcrowded and loud live-music bars catering to a younger clientele. I couldn’t rid myself of the thought that this may not be the most effective way to deal with an active pandemic.
The next morning we had a trip planned to Yulong snow mountain (玉龙雪山) or better known by its English name: Jade Dragon snow mountain. We took a cable cart up the mountain and there we climbed up to the top to see its glacier and its jagged peaks at 4576m. It’s a good thing we started early because soon the clouds set in and covered the summit obscuring it’s views.
Yulong is part of a national park which includes a large theatre area where they performed a Naxi culture play. While they provided an English explanation, sort of, the nuances escaped me but the larger story was something like this: The men went on long caravan rides to trade goods, the women stayed home and did all the hard work, when the men came home they got drunk first with their friends, after which the women collected their inebriated men. In typical Chinese fashion, the play was big (well over 150 actors is my guess, and many horses) and very loud.
The next stop was a beautiful turquoise glacier run off lake at the bottom of Yulong mountain. It provided a stunning backdrop with lush green forests and snowy peaks in the distance. Consequently, it was a popular place for wedding pictures. I’ve never seen that many prospective couples together. I’m using this word prospective, because apparently the custom in China is to take the wedding pictures before the wedding so you can use it in your invitation.
Of all the towns we had visited so far, the best was our next stop in Baisha old town (白沙古城). Baisha was on the Tea horse trading route as well as the ancient southern silk trading route. Baisha was known for its silk embroidery, a skill that’s still being practiced in the city today. The city also hosts a sizable temple complex with gorgeous Buddhist murals, although most of it was under reconstruction when we visited the site.
One of the reasons I liked Baisha so much, was because of the Naxi people’s torch festival that coincided with our visit that day. While the original festival was cancelled because of COVID risks, the local people held their own in small gatherings around the town. It felt much more genuine and intimate to see locals dance and light their torches. I was told that the origin of the torch festival was to chase away the dragons before harvest, but after searching the web, I learned that it’s celebrated by other minority groups as well for different purposes, including match making.