Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ring Around the Province, Part 6: Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog (And So Was I)

The last chapter of our two-week-plus field trip around the province is rather anticlimactic in some ways and rather dramatic in others. Basically: our last stop was Lijiang, a small city I went to with my parents in 2004 during our three-week trip around China. At that time, Lijiang showed definite signs of impending touristification, but it was still heartstoppingly beautiful and incredibly charming. The huge snow-capped Yulongxueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) loomed against blue sky in the background and the sound of running water from the city-wide canals (the city has had running water for 1200 years) followed us wherever we went. I was positively enchanted, and so were my parents.

The city is the ancient heart of the Naxi (another Chinese minority) kingdom, and in 2004 Naxi people still went about their business-- Naxi women in their distinctive clothes carried baskets through the alleys, danced in the square, or talked over a game of Go; Tibetan traders hawked antiques in the side streets; and basically the city was still a working, living, breathing entity. For a wonderful picture I took of Naxi women in 2004 in Lijiang, see my entry at the very beginning of this blog, in February, entitled "Getting Ready to Get Ready" (if I were more internet adept and/or less lazy, I would provide you with a link.)

Lijiang has... changed a lot in the last four years, to say the least. One of the men they brought in to give us a lecture, the Director of Visitor Somethingorother quoted a number that basically breaks down to 11,000 tourists a day. It is now the most touristed city in all of China-- and you can really, really tell. The throngs of Chinese tourists following a guide, inevitably in faux minority get up, wielding a flag and bullhorn in each hand; the flashy bars and fake minority dancing; the pure volume of people everywhere you go... we were not impressed, and I don't know if I'm using the Royal We there because everyone else was as disgusted as I was.

A word about Chinese tourists: people talk about the Ugly American, and those people are very much in the right, but not every American visitor to another country is neccessarily Ugly. There seems to be at least a spectrum going on. But Chinese tourists that I have encountered, while many times extremely friendly and charming, are, in their natural habitat, nothing short of obnoxious. Loud talking on cell phones, inappropriate picture taking, spitting or blowing of noses everywhere, more incredibly inappropriate picture taking, getting drunk off of bai jiu and staggering around. Basically: blah. Also, I suppose it didn't help that my first trip to Lijiang featured pristine, gorgeous springlike winter weather, whereas our stay this time around was mostly rainy or overcast.

I did try Lijiang v. 2.0 out a little bit, honestly. Tania, Mike, and I went out to eat a few times together at the grossly overpriced cafe-type places in the gorgeous old city. Every time we were faced with bizarre approximations of western food, however-- the first time I ordered some chocolate cake for desert and was given, basically, sweet white bread with something kind of like nutella on top; the second time, Mike ordered cereal with fruit and was giving some strange grits-like concoction that tasted like it had lemonade in it. Odd, and we paid way too much for it. One of our meals featured bored looking women in Mosuo (another minority here costume parading around the room in some approximation of dancing. We just ignored them. We did get to see a Dongba ceremony (an ancient animistic religion Naxi people practice which uses the only true remaining ideographic-- that means symbolic, a la heiroglyphics-- written language in the world) at a park near the city. It was really cool to see, although it was hard to tell how much had been fabricated for tourists. Actually, that's kind of Lijiang in a nutshell right there. I did have a cool adventure with John and Kailey where we met a Mosuo girl who led us around Lijiang's new portion looking for an affordable restaurant and then insisted on paying for us before she went back to work, but other than that...

Anyway, whatever I might have seen of Lijiang was cut off abruptly when, after ironically the only decent meal I had in the old city (incredible Tibetan soup and an oreo milkshake, although thinking about it now makes me queasy), I was set upon by a positively vicious case of food poisoning. I think it was the milkshake (never trust dairy products in China), but regardless of the cause I was what my trip-mate Chris termed "bullfrogging" (the nice way to say it is... working both ends, sometimes simultaneously) for a full 14 hours. Tania was incredibly understanding and sweet in looking after me, and my mother kept in cell phone contact hourly (cell technology is fantastic) but it was not so much a pleasant experience. I ultimately because so dehydrated, unable to drink anything, that I fainted for a few seconds.

The next morning I went to the hospital with Ashley, who had a similar affliction, and got a rehydrating IV for a very reasonable Y110 (about $16.) We were so lucky to find two beds together in a room-- Chinese hospitals are... I don't even know if I have a word to describe it. All the beauracracy of the Communist Party but when you're probably sick and unable to navigate it, with too little space so that people have to take IVs on benches or in waiting rooms, and with very little regard for hygiene (we insisted on one-time-use needles, naturally.) On the plus side, the hospital was the one place I really got to see Naxi culture in action, with old women coming in for treatments from the countryside.

Ashley, Lisa, and I stayed an additional day in our hotel in Lijiang trying to recuperate before beginning our ISP. And then, filled with anxiety and still not feeling exactly myself, I set off on my month-long adventure, starting with a 4 hour (that turned into 7-hour) van trip to Lanping, Nujiang Prefecture.

(To be continued next time...)

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