Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lìjiāng

Last weekend was Labour weekend in China, so Raymond and I headed south to explore Yúnnán for the three days. We had read of stunning scenery at a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hŭ Tiaò Xiá). To get there we flew 1.5 hours to Lìjiāng (lovely river), famous for its ‘old town’.

To travel in China, we are learning it is easier if we research on the web ahead of time. I think this is useful anywhere, but especially relevant with limited language and so many choices. We are so appreciative of others’ help that I have decided to give a bit more advice when I blog about our trips, to give back to the travel community, and set a few things straight. All those 20 something bloggers who said that the Tiger Leaping Gorge route was pretty easy except for the one hour steep section going up the 28 zigzags were wrong! But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

To go to the airport, we use a ‘black taxi’. I have mentioned Joe before. He is a highly professional, reliable, pleasant driver who many of the teachers from Raymond’s school use. So, when I went down on Friday at 1 pm to meet him, I was surprised to find that he was not there. I wechatted him and said I was waiting. He replied ‘please wait’.  I asked in Chinese ‘how many minutes?’ He said ‘What time is the plane?’ I asked in English ‘how many minutes?’ He replied ‘I am on my way and soon’, followed by another message asking if we wanted to start from our apartment or from Raymond’s school. I said ‘I will take a taxi’, and that is where Joe found me, walking the street looking for a taxi. It turned out that Raymond’s request to pick me up and then go to his school to pick him up, when translated from English to Chinese, asked Joe to pick Raymond up from school and then come and get me. Talk about lost in translation. Joe had been waiting at school, driven the 20 minutes from school to get me, and then we drove back to the school. On the way, as we talked about what had happened, I think he understood that another time (but hopefully we will communicate better next time) he should check before coming to get me, because Raymond could have got in first at school. Luckily, I had just revised how to say ‘first … then…’. And Raymond and I realised that, to minimise confusion, we need to give even simpler instructions – a lesson we thought we had already learned.

We caught our plane, uneventfully, arrived at Lìjiāng airport and decided to get a taxi into town. Our driver was upfront about the extra 10 kuài for tolls – total just over 110 kuài. She dropped us off outside Lìjiāng old town, both miming and talking to communicate that she could not drive us any further, and that we needed to cross the road, walk down a bit and take the first right. So off we went and discovered that this old town part of Lìjiāng is stunning. We loved it immediately. It must be what Chinese towns used to look like, now with a mixture of modern and traditional wares and food places, and lots of travel agencies.

We followed our driver’s instructions, walked along the cobblestones enjoying the ambience, reading the English and Chinese looking for our hotel – Lìjiāng Boutique Rénwén Inn. Because we are such experienced travelers, I had cleverly taken a screenshot of our hotel details. After walking the right hand loop, and not finding our hotel, we searched on Dù, our local maps app, and redid the loop. Ok, let’s try Google maps with VPN. Our various routes had taken us back and forth past a friendly gentleman encouraging people into his restaurant. So our next plan of attack was to ask him if he knew our hotel. He did, so he mimed and talked directions, which then made it a bit awkward when we needed to walk unsuccessfully past him a couple more times – just wave and smile. Plan C, or maybe D, was to pop into one of the many travel agencies. Number 1 was unhelpful, but number 2 was very clever. She rang the phone number and arranged for someone from our hotel to come and get us – highly recommended approach.

We followed our enthusiastic young host in the opposite direction to all our earlier routes, to the left of the main drag and Dù and Google’s suggestions. The name on the door did not match our hotel name. When I expressed concern, ‘chain hotel’ was the answer. It was a lovely little place, and unbelievably good value for about NZD20 per night. We are still not sure what really happened, but were happy.  Our young host and I communicated effectively in a mixture of Chinese and English, and his mum understood me, but I could not understand her.

I had read that tickets for the bus to the gorge tend to sell out so we asked our young host for advice on where to go to buy bus tickets. Armed with our paper map on which he had circled the bus stop and bus ticket sales outlet, we went back up to the main road, where our taxi had dropped us off, to catch a number 2 bus. We waited a while but no buses drove past, so we decided to get a taxi. Using our map, I arranged for the driver to take us, wait and return. Then Raymond hopped in grinning because our bus had gone past while I had my head in the window talking to the driver.

We drove through Lìjiāng getting a sense of the layout of the place, seeing the rest of the old town, cascading down the hill and lit up beautifully in the evening, and wound down the hill through the modern part to the ticket shop. Our driver dropped us off, we walked in the direction he had seemed to point, could not find anything resembling a bus ticket sales place, circled back, rejoined our driver who took us to a travel agent, who pointed over the road. There, we still struggled, and approached some street food vendors, one of whom hopped up, took us a minute further around, and pointed to the ticket shop – with its closed garage door. Oh well, let’s get up early tomorrow.

We went back to the friendly gentleman’s restaurant and had the local delicacy they recommended – which turned out to be chicken and mushroom soup, but not as we know it – brothy rather than creamy. She had encouraged us to share the smaller serving, which was just as well. The enormous bowl bubbled away on the gas burner on our table and we ate as much as we could, finally leaving half of it behind as we headed back to the hotel.

Saturday morning, we left our hotel at 7am, caught the famous number 2 bus to the shop, where in the light of day we could read the sign telling us the bus ticket place opening hours – 8am to 9pm. We only missed it by a few minutes last night, and an hour to go. Breakfast from our friendly street food vendors and let’s explore the park. A bit after 8am the sole woman employee opened the shop, stopped her sweeping when we arrived, walked behind the counter, started up her computer, was helpful but slow and 20 minutes later concluded ‘no tickets, but you can try the bus station’. What, you mean we could have gone there the whole time, including this morning and last night?!  We walked the ten minutes, found out that the earliest available seats were at 11am, and shared a car to the gorge with a Chinese couple who had got married the day before.

The driver showed us all where to buy tickets for the gorge, dropped us off at the beginning of the high level track, and then took our companions to the start of the one day lower level track.

The first part of the middle gorge walk is a concrete road with large trucks going up and down, and you look across the river to the massive infrastructure project on the other side, which we assume is part of China’s vision for high speed rail over the whole country. Not quite what I imagined when others described stunning scenery, but I am learning to go with the flow (eventually). It started off at a steady gradient, but manageable. Then the concrete stopped and it got really steep with steps winding up the hill – the famous 28 bends – I was glad when they were over. Dotted along the route were men with horses whose English extended to ‘horse’. Bú yào mă (don’t want a horse) I replied, tempted as I was – reasoning that the fact that I wanted one so much was evidence that I should not use one.

Then we couldn’t see the earthworks any more, the path became more undulating, we stopped for drinks and a nibble under the shade of a tree, chatted as we went to a couple of Swedish couples over from Shànghăi, and arrived at the first village.

As we walked past Naxi Guest House, we wondered if our hotel was nearby, four hours earlier than I understood from my web research – how encouraging. Then we came to a sign saying that it was another three hours to Tea Horse Guest House and two more to Halfway, where we were staying – how discouraging, an hour longer than I understood from my web research. But we had plenty of energy, were over the worst bit, and carried on.

Then we came to the real 28 bends – very steep, slabs of slate to walk on, path zig zagging vertically back and forth. Ten minutes walking, two minutes stopping – ‘ we have plenty of time’, ‘it is not a race’. Eventually, I set aside my feminist philosophy and gave Raymond my pack.I found it very hard work.

And then the worst was over. We stopped in the next village for a cup of tea and coffee and got talking to a couple of Chinese from Kūnmíng who had good English (although our conversation began with how good my Chinese had been when I ordered our drinks – instant friend!) They were there with their regular walking group, and talked about how the track used to be dominated by westerners, but was growing in popularity with Chinese tourists. Certainly, on our trip, three-quarters of those we saw looked Chinese.

Refuelled, we continued, but I never fully recovered – not helped by Raymond, Sofia from Kūnmíng, and I taking a half hour detour up a hill instead of along the flatter path, to which we then had to return (hour total). We finally arrived 7.5 hours after we had started, exhausted. We wonder whether the highish altitude affected us more than we realised at the time.

I had read good things about the Ben Li Wan Family Hotel and we were not disappointed – it was clean, our en suite shower was hot and sooooo what we needed, the food was delicious, the staff were helpful, including getting us as many pots of tea as we asked for, and the mountain view out of our room was stunning – in fact so stunning that before I went to sleep, I felt it was all worth it. And this place will forever be special to us – what a place to get the wonderful news that Andrew and Cindy were now engaged.

The next morning, we woke, had relaxed cups of tea and breakfast before setting off about 10am, feeling a bit pressured that as we were only halfway, we might not make it back in time, and thinking that if need be we would have to overnight at another guesthouse and go back to Lìjiāng on Monday.

But by 11.30am we had arrived at Tina’s Guesthouse. It turns out the other ‘half’ is this short jaunt, plus a three hour walk down to Tiger Leaping Stone and back, or other options to waterfalls etc. We decided not to bother – we felt we had seen so much lovely scenery on the way, and our feet were sore. Another tea and coffee and then we found a beautiful spot a few minutes away, and sat by the waterfall there and waited for the 3.30pm bus back to Lìjiāng , where we had already booked a second night at our friendly hotel.

My advice to other over 50s – with reasonable fitness levels but not quite what you used to be – is, yes, do the walk, but stop for your first night at Tea Horse Guest House five hours in, having done the 28 bends but not yet absolutely shattered (and avoid the detour). Then, day 2, leave from there about 10am confident that you will get to Tina’s in time for the 3.30pm bus. And, book bus tickets at Tea Horse. We did get bus tickets at Tina’s but, for reasons we never quite understood, it was not initially straight forward. We never made the trip down to the Tiger Leaping Stone so cannot comment on whether or not that would be worth it, but I would suggest staying a second night/third day to do that.

Back in Lìjiāng , we settled in and then went walking for somewhere to find dinner, eventually settling on a small local ‘restaurant’ with a very friendly hostess. There were only four tables, you could see her husband cooking behind the shelves. Our two key criteria were met – she called out and invited us in, which signals a willingness to work at communicating with foreigners, and there were pictures of food on the walls. We had a wonderful time – nice food, and chatting with our hostess and another older woman dining with her family, who seemed particularly fascinated by us and wanted to chat as much as my limited Chinese would allow. She knew New Zealand – that it is small and has milk.

The next day, we left our larger pack at our hotel and explored Lìjiāng old town. First, somewhere to eat breakfast – using our friendliness criteria again. Pictures were not necessary because we could see it all being cooked out the front. Then, we just wandered. We were entranced by the man making the shawls on his loom so I bought one, later realising that he can’t have made all the identical shawls being sold in every shawl shop in Lìjiāng. We found a place selling coffee to keep Raymond happy, and relaxed there people watching, including seeing how a couple cooked and packaged biscuits. These purple biscuits seemed to be famous in Lìjiāng because they also were being sold everywhere. Having watched the woman rolling out the biscuits pick her nose, we knew one place we didn’t want to buy them from. We enjoyed the ‘free’ (if you don’t count the fee to get into the old town) dancing show, then found the Experiencing Hall of Naxi Hieroglyphics Painting.

The Dongba hieroglyphics are the oldest living form of hieroglyphics, because they are still used today. Historical records show the script was used in 7th century, but it may be up to 7,000 years old. A single pictograph can be used to recite different phrases or an entire sentence. The script is logical – when a symbol is drawn upside down it indicates negation, straight lines drawn between people indicates ‘fight’, entwined lines represent ‘discuss’, and a dead animal is drawn as usual but without pupils in their eyes. We were quite fascinated. Eventually, we succumbed to temptation, and the focused attention of the salesman, to buy a hieroglyphics embroidery to remind us of our wonderful holiday.

Back to the hotel, pick up our pack and out to the airport. We had never managed to find out where the airport bus left from so decided to wave down a taxi. The first one to stop was a minivan already heading out there. The woman asked for 120 kuài . I thought ‘I know we can get it for 110 in a metered taxi’, so said, ‘No thanks, too expensive, I know we can get it cheaper’, thinking she would drop to 110. Next, she offered 70! My best bargaining yet. As we got out and I paid her, Raymond said ‘I think she likes you’ – I guess my amazing bargaining earned her respect.

Certainly, I was very encouraged on this trip that I seem to have graduated from Chinglish to the next stage – Chineglish? I can say whole sentences, effectively communicate on a range of useful travel topics, and everyone seems to understand me. Unfortunately,  they then talk back to me in Chinese and I still have to work out how to understand them.

So, another wonderful holiday, in a place we had never heard of before coming here, would strongly recommend, and which increases our fascination with our adopted country.

The great wedding outfit hunt

Next time I move to China shortly after my son gets engaged and it is the northern hemisphere summer, I will immediately look for a dress to wear to the wedding. Unfortunately, last July, I was a bit busy coping with all that China threw at me. 

After years of buying at end of season sales, I was planning to look before the summer stock disappeared. However, this is yet another thing one has to learn in a new country – when do they change stock? It still seemed very warm to me when I noticed that summer dresses were gone and clothing shops were full of winter coats of every possible colour. 

We did have a bit of a look once I spotted the difference, but didn’t know where to shop and couldn’t work out discounts (or ask for clarification). No percent signs. Signs with numbers between 1 and 8, followed by a Chinese character popped up everywhere. It was only after my Chinese lesson on shopping for clothes that I understood ‘3折’ means pay 30% or in my kiwi way of thinking, take 70% off. 1.5 and 2 are quite common, so you can understand that initially we assumed it meant a 15 or 20%, rather than 85 or 80%, discount. Now that we know, it can be great. 

Too late for end of season bargain hunting. Oh well, plenty of time, I will just have to pay full price next spring.
So, we ignored the issue, and, mid-Jan, when we returned from our Christmas holiday, we decided we would go looking for a dress for me and a suit for Raymond. 

Our first port of call was the shops within walking distance of our apartment. One dress shop in particular has beautiful clothes. I tried on several sleeveless winter weight dresses that could work in Marlborough on a bad day, but, as, the shop assistant pointed out, my hips are too 宽 (wide). I later mentioned to my Chinese teacher that in New Zealand it would be considered rude to tell a customer her hips are wide. Apparently it is in China too!

We found a nice suit for Raymond for about NZD400, but, because we knew we could easily pop back later, we decided to check out the big shopping centre near us first.

So the next weekend (our only one before our Laos holiday) we set off. We had both downloaded Mobike, one of the bike sharing apps taking China by storm. Cycling is perfect for us to go to the Global Centre, the world’s largest shopping centre by square meters of shopping. From our apartment, it is a bit too far to walk, if we take the scooter we have the hassle of parking it, the metro stops right there but is a reasonable trek from our place, and none of our four buses go right there. Plus biking would be a new adventure and some exercise.

The system is that you open the Mobike app, which use GPS to show all the bikes near you. You walk to the nearest bike, scan the barcode, the lock on the back wheel magically unlocks, you hop on, ride it wherever you want to go, hop off, put it up on its stand on the footpath, lock it and walk off. It means you don’t have to return to where you left it later, or even bike back. And with the population here, there are bikes everywhere.

But, as you can probably guess, our first trip was ‘interesting’. 

We walked out our front gate, found a couple of bikes, and scanned the codes. Mine worked instantly. Raymond’s didn’t. He had been having trouble with data on his phone, so we locked mine and walked to our nearby China Mobile shop. There we found two particularly unhelpful staff, and, fortunately, one particularly helpful bilingual customer. He listened, translated, gave up on the two unhelpful staff, and found a more technical staff member to solve the mystery. Not sure what he did, but it works now. 

Back outside, two more bikes right there, scans worked brilliantly, and off we went.

One of the nice things about biking to the Global Centre from our place, is that we live on one side of the green belt of Chengdu and the Centre is on the other, so we can cycle through a nice park. First, we headed towards the river, over the pedestrian crossing, and up onto the footpath by the park. Well, one of us did. That image in my mind of lifting my front wheel up and over the kerb turned out to be purely fictional. My bike stopped, I didn’t. I flew over the handlebars and landed, winded, on the footpath. Initially, only my dignity was hurt. I picked myself up, and off we went, the rest of the ride proving uneventful, and costing us about 20c each.

Later that evening my ribs started hurting, and it took about six weeks to come right. On reflection, I am not sure I could ever do that trick with a bike

The Centre is pretty amazing – bling on steroids, and an overwhelming number of shops, especially clothing shops. However, once I was systematic in working through them, I found ‘the millions’ dropped to five shops offering more elegant dresses, with some initial spring stock. In Vero Moda I tried on a few. Fortunately a Chinese colleague of Raymond’s happened to walk in part way through this process and helped explain the occasion, but still no success. Oh well, maybe in Laos over New Year. 

Or not. I tried, but those wide hips really are my downfall across Asia.

We then had one more weekend in Chengdu before flying to New Zealand. We headed into Taikooli, a large shopping complex near the city centre. First shop, I spotted a beautiful dress, tried it on, perfect! How much? 10,380. What is that in real money? NZD2,000! Mental note to self ‘avoid all shops where someone opens the door for you, and several staff are hovering to anticipate your every need’.

Back to looking. Too short, too expensive, too unlikely to fit those hips, too glittery, too wintery. Three hours later, we gave up and went to the lantern show.

Then we caught the metro to Tianfu Square, got off to transfer to our bus home, and walked past some shops. I popped in and saw a possible dress – it flares out over hips. I tried it on, Raymond loved it (objective as he is), I liked it enough, and we bought it. From Vero Moda! And yes, I had noticed it three weeks earlier, but I thought it was too plain.

Bonus at home – the pink was a perfect match to snazzy shoes I already owned, it went ok with my existing jacket for unpredictable NZ weather, and a friend had a matching hand bag.

While looking for me, we had also checked out suits for Raymond, and concluded one of our local shops had the best option – looked good, reasonable price. So, the following Monday, less than a week before we were to fly out, straight after work, we headed back to purchase his suit.

We walked the five minutes from our apartment block to the shops. ‘Was it this shop?’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Or this one?’ ‘It is not how I remember it.’ ‘Me neither.’ ‘It must be here somewhere.’ ‘This is crazy.”Let’s try this one instead.’ ‘Ok.’

We never did find the original shop. 

However, in a new shop (we are both 99% sure it is not the same one), I had my most encouraging ‘conversation’ in Chinese yet. The woman understood me asking if it came with trousers, checking the price, and seeking her view on length. 

Raymond tried on a 2,000元 suit, then I noticed a pink thread going through the fabric. He popped on his glasses, decided he didn’t want to match my dress, and tried on another one. Perfect.

We assumed the price would be similar. When we came to pay, she typed 656 into the calculator. I said to Raymond ‘The trousers must be extra after all.’ Then she entered 3,280.

I said ‘Oh no, this is more expensive. The total will be about 4,000 (NZD800). But we have left it so late (four days til we fly out, still need to hem the trousers, and shops disappear), let’s just buy it.’ She could tell we were confused. So she entered 3,280 x 0.2 = 656.

Then we understood. With an 80% discount the suit would now cost us just over NZD120. A bargain, and a good illustration of how we live in an ongoing state of not quite knowing what is going on.

Of course, it didn’t really matter what we looked like. All eyes were on our beautiful daughter-in-law, handsome son and gorgeous granddaughter.