Saturday, July 19, 2008

Finally in Lijiang!

Lijiang is gorgeous. Despite a frenzied trip to the airport, my trip over was relatively hassle-free. Some women on the plane adopted me as their “Xiao Meimei” (Little Sister), giving me cucumbers (!!), stroking my arm, and trying to sell me beauty products. They were very kind.

For any of you who are interested in going to Lijiang, the China Eastern flight (about $350 one way from Beijing) makes an hour stopover in Kunming before heading to the destination. Once at the airport, you hop on a 15 kuai bus (a little over 2 dollars), then take a quick cab ride (5 kuai, under a dollar).

Lately, when I’ve been saying Lijiang, I’ve been referring to “The Old Town of Lijiang,” a cobblestoned tourist’s paradise adjacent to the larger town of modern Lijiang. (This New Town was really only developed starting in 1949). The Old Town (or Gu Cheng) is car-free, built against a hill and along the infamous water canals I’ve been so excited about. After a huge earthquake in 1996, UNESCO claimed the Old Town of Lijiang a World Heritage Site, and hence, its Disneyworld-like Charms have been attracting tourists for a decade (including me). The Old Town is essentially hotels, shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s so easy to see it as simply that—a mall of sorts set within an ancient landscape. But it’s that ancient landscape that is so important, and so at odds with the whole World Heritage Site System.

Takayoshi Yamamura, in his article Authenticity, ethnicity and social transformation at World Heritage Sites: tourism, retailing and cultural change in Lijiang, China quotes A.L. Martin, saying that "Many communities where World Heritage Sites are located run the risk of being unable to cope with the social and cultural repercussions of the dramatic increase in tourists resulting from being listed as a site." So so so true. It's a weird paradox the designation brings. Again, more on this later.

My favorite part about arriving in Lijiang was the bus ride over. Yunnan, the southwestern province of China where Lijiang is set, is simply gorgeous. Rolling green hills, lush from irrigation and rainfall, hide beneath low grey clouds. Plots of land, growing cabbage, corn, etc are beautifully arranged, often in a terraced formation. Sunflowers peak out everywhere. Obviously, what also caught my eye was the water infrastructure in place. Gutters along the side of the highway, adjacent to 60-degree concrete (I think?) walls buttressing the fields, reminded me of the roads in Cameroon, Central Africa---where ironically, all of this water interest started for me. (During my study abroad there, I was shocked at Cameroon’s lack of access to water, yet also confounded by China’s development projects there.) Along the road to Lijiang, gutters carry road runoff, pasture runoff, farmland runoff… I wonder where it all goes. Slowly, the gutters transformed into a larger river/canal structure. Huge pipes spilled water out into this water body, which at points was stagnant, at points was fast-flowing, at points was clear, at points was growing green algae and lilies, at points was rubbish-filled, at points was seemingly pure. I’m excited to soon know more about this multi-faced system, and hopefully these many wonderings will be answered!

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