A 30 minute cab ride followed by a 2.5 hour bus, a 1 hour plane ride and another 30 minute cab, delivered me to Lijiang, a picturesque, historic city in Yunnan province, China. Lijiang and Shangri-la are both great starting points for southwest China’s most challenging and dangerous hike – Tiger Leaping Gorge.
One of the best parts of traveling is the people you meet along the way and my experience in Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge was no exception. In China, western faces are so rare that when you see one, you always stop to say hi. Sometimes it’s been so long since you’ve spoken fluent English that seeing a non-Chinese face feels like Christmas. Being a foreigner in China, you share an immediate bond and friendship with those you meet on the road.
On this trip, I met some of the most interesting people I’ve met in my life. Since my purpose for being in Lijiang was mostly to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge, I didn’t have high expectations for the city. We spent evenings around the campfire drinking beer and sharing travel stories.
One Polish guy, who recently finished University, hitchhiked his way from Poland through Russia and Mongolia to Beijing and then down toward Southwest China. He doesn’t speak a lick of Chinese, but he spent two weeks on a farm in Inner Mongolia, working in exchange for food and free housing. The last time I saw him, he was sitting on the side of a rural road near the farms that dot the gorge. He was reading a book and hadn’t seen a car for over an hour, but remained hopeful that he’d catch a ride by sundown. He wanted to head out of China and into Laos. I wished him well and as I hiked away from him, I saw a truck filled with pigs and an empty front seat heading in his direction.
At October Inn in Lijiang, I met a 30-something married couple from California. Four months ago, they quit their jobs, sold their house and cars. What’s left of their personal belongings fit into a closet in her mother’s guest bedroom. They’re backpacking around Asia for a total of 18 months and when I met them, they were aglow with fascinating stories from time spent in South Korea and Japan. They plan to end their 2 years abroad with 3 months in South America, as long as the money holds out.
Another couple I met at Halfway Hostel on the gorge consisted of a girl from Scotland and a guy from England. They’ve spend the last seven months riding their bikes across Europe, through the Middle East, into India, Nepal, Myanmar and China. After thirty days here, their journey will continue through Southeast Asia, ending in Indonesia, where they plan to donate their bicycles. They’ll fly to New Zealand, where they plan to find jobs and settle down with the 2-year working visas.
The must-see attraction in Lijiang is the historic old town. Filled with shops, restaurants and peddlers, it’s sure to entertain.
When exhaustion led us to shorten our trip along Tiger Leaping Gorge and return to Lijiang a day early, I wasn’t sure how we would spend our time. We’d already been to Lijiang Old Town, so we listened to the wise counsel of the Chinese man, “Tom”, who runs the October Inn. He urged us to “follow that road up and over through the graveyard and you’ll come to a lake. It’s a long hike but it’s free and when you think you’re surely lost, just keep going.” When we arrived to the lake Tom spoke of, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Before I left for China, I purchased a new MacBook. A quick google image search for China provided me with a beautiful photo from an unknown location, which I set as my desktop background to get me excited for my year abroad. And what I saw before me at the end of that hike was my desktop background in real life! Surprise!
Lonely Planet refers to Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pool as “Southwest China’s most obligatory photo shoot.” If the day is too overcast as it was when I visited, photographers are ready and waiting to photoshop the beautiful mountain into your photos for a small price.
If you visit Lijiang, I highly recommend the October Inn. And for God’s sake, don’t you dare miss the hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge!