Along with Dali, Lijiang is one of the most highly recommended locations in Southwest China. ‘Lonely Planet’ lists it as one of the 14 ‘must-see’ places in the whole country. But I arrived in Lijiang with low expectations after my Dali experience.
Everything I disliked about Dali is magnified tenfold in Lijiang. This is a ‘historical’ town with the history ripped out and replaced my Pizza Hut and KFC (see above). There are glimpses of the past in Lijiang, but the majority of the town looks like it was just built yesterday. Part of this was unavoidable – the town suffered a lot of damage after an earthquake in 1996 – but most of the rebuilding is for purely cosmetic reasons. Yet, like a botched face-lift, it has massively detracted from the original.
In a couple of decades, when domestic tourism has matured, I think a lot of Chinese people will be angry at what has happened to their country’s heritage. Forget colonisers and the Cultural Revolution, the biggest destroyer of China’s ancient buildings is ‘renovation’. To the Chinese authorities, renovation too often means smashing down everything original, unique, ancient and beautiful and lazily rebuilding it as a souvenir shop or KFC in modern building materials. Of course, it’s not an exclusively Chinese problem – this kind of thing happens everywhere to varying extents.
I listened to the audiobook of Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’ (I downloaded it illegally – I’m not that interested in morality) and walked down streets packed to bursting point with tour groups. On the second day, I hired a defective mountain bike and rode to a couple of villages – one of which was quite nice but full of trinket shops with salespeople shouting ‘Look, look’, and the other one even more rebuilt than Lijiang itself.
I learnt my lesson. Many people will love Lijiang, but its not for me. I’ve given up on the northern Yunnan tourist circuit – I’m not going to Shangri-La (a city re-named after the fictional city in ‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton). And when I go to Guangxi in the next couple of days, I will skip Guilin, Yangshuo and the other tourist ‘highlights’ in the north of the province, and try to pick my own way across the south, close to the Vietnam border.
To be honest, I’m struggling to enjoy myself or to see a reason for travelling to all these places. It’s better than working I guess, so I should just be grateful for the time off. I see the appeal of the arbitrary challenge – like those people who travel from Jakarta to Jerusalem on an ostrich and then write a novelty travelogue about it. The challenge becomes the macguffin that gets you through the plot. Actually, I have a kind of challenge in mind. I just have to see if I have the willpower and commitment to do it. But most importantly, if I’m going to get the most out of travelling, I need to work out what kind of experiences mean something to me, rather than just blindly following guidebooks and recommendations.