I was told Lijiang was a former backpacker haven-turned-tourist town with an ancient village and a snow-peaked mountain that touched the clouds. But right now it was 6am, and Harry and I couldn’t see a thing.
My former student, Harry, and I had traveled for 17 hours by train with a 5 hour-layover in between. It was too dark to start walking around town but a good time to eat some xiao baozi (mini rolls stuffed with meat and vegetables).
After breakfast, we checked into our hostel and then wandered through the Old Town. It was a maze of narrow, cobblestone alleys that wound in between tea houses, cafes, and tourist shops that all had traditional, sloping tiled roofs and stone walls.
We began an upward climb that led us to Lion Mountain (more of a big hill) that overlooked the whole Old Town and the rest of the city. This was not your normal Chinese city that was a concrete forest of skyscrapers and residential apartments. I could count the buildings that were 10 stories or taller on one hand.
The whole city was practically encircled by mountains, and we could see Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the distance. It didn’t have much snow but was impressive regardless.
I was beginning to deliberate which mountain would house my summer cabin, but lunch had to come first. Later we went to the main square to watch a traditional Naxi song and dance show. They were a minority group in China who lived in Lijiang long before foreigners ever came here.
For the last dance, the performers held hands in a semi-circle and encouraged onlookers to join them. I’m not a dancer, but I figured I could hold someone’s hands and tap my feet occasionally as we rotated around. So I joined the group. Harry chose to be the photographer.
That afternoon we left Old Town and followed the river to Black Dragon Pool Park, which had stunning views of Jade Dragon Mountain on a clear day. Near the park was Elephant Hill, which towered over the crystalline ponds. We decided to climb it.
After nearly a hundred steps, we arrived at a small pagoda that gave panoramic views of Lijiang and the mountains surrounding it. I was glad to be there. I think Harry was glad to rest.
That night we wandered again through Old Town and found a 100-year-old church that was no longer active but open to the public. Later on, we discovered a wax museum with Putin himself greeting us on the steps. You had to pay more to go inside, but we did see a Chinese guard sleeping on a chair who looked disturbingly lifelike.
After the museum visit, we walked back to the hostel to rest. Tomorrow we would start a 2-day hike through a gorge that cut through the mountains. And I couldn’t wait.