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The Savor of Lijiang
2004-10-27

LIJIANG is an open city -- its city wall has no gate. It is said that when the city was first built, the Naxi (dominant ethnic group in Lijiang) headman, whose family name was Mu, saw an enclosed compound with himself inside it as resembling the Chinese character (besieged). He consequently left the city unsealed. Eastern, Xinhua and Xinyi streets serve as Lijiang's three points of entry. Visitors wander around the city with no fear of getting lost, as all roads and lanes link up.

I met a map seller on the street. I failed to haggle one cent off his 6-yuan charge for a hand-drawn map of ancient Lijiang City, but got a wealth of local information from him, such as which eateries serve the best soy bean noodle and pea soup, and the correct price for local snow tea. He also assured me that stores run by Naxi people never cheat their customers. He ended his litany by stressing that I should "... not just listen to what other people say, but discover Lijiang for yourself, as 100 people may have gained 100 different impressions."


A Lost Paradise

This epithet proved a fitting description of Lijiang. Before my trip I got to know a Naxi girl called Zhao Wenling in Dali, another city in Yunnan Province. A Lijiang native, Zhao has traveled around the world, living on her painting skill. "I loved Lijiang ten years ago, but not now," says Zhao, disconsolately. The flow of migrants and tourists into the city has changed it drastically over the past decade. Ancient buildings have been leased and transformed into souvenir shops. The streets are thronged with visitors late into the night, and dazzling neon signs detract from the moonlight Zhao remembered so fondly during her long journey. " After just two days in Lijiang, I have to escape. Whenever I come back to Yunnan I usually stay in Dali. It resembles more closely the hometown I remember."

Zhao admits that these changes benefit local people, because tourism brings business, and more jobs, but insists that they have ruined the city itself. "Each time I return to Lijiang I notice more refurbishment, and even though restoration has been made in the original style, they make a difference to the ambience of Lijiang. I no longer experience the same sense of romance and intimacy when walking along the re-cobbled paths. The old cobbles were slick and gleaming, but their replacements are cold and sterile." Zhao admits her views are a little extreme, owing to her artistic sensibilities as an artist. Guided by cherished memories of her home, the ancient city was once one of peace and grace to which, after years of wandering, she yearned to make her home.


A Sweet Home

As Zhao bids farewell to Lijiang, Kim Myeong Ae, from South Korea daily feels more settled here. "As I am pregnant, my husband takes care of most of the work in the shop," Myeong says briskly in her strong Yunnan accent. Interested in the Chinese language, in 1996 she set out for a three-month course of study in Beijing. Two months later she took a trip to Yunnan with a girl friend, where she met her husband, a boy from Hubei Province. "When he asked me if I was Japanese, I lied and said I was from Beijing, a trick my friends taught me to avoid being cheated," Myeong smilingly recalls. Her marriage is happy, but no one in her family, other than her mother, approves of it.

Kim Myeong brightens up when the topic shifts to Lijiang. Fascinated by the city, she entered Lijiang Institute of Education in June 1997, and later opened a cafe with her husband. The early days were tough. Myeong shows me the scars on her hands, "A memento of my chef apprenticeship," she jokes. Subject to increasing pressure from her family, she almost gave up the business to return to the ROK.

But her love for her husband and the city prevailed. "Lijiang is enchanting, the most beautiful and tranquil of cities."

The couple now runs two cafes and one tavern in the city. Myeong says she has totally assimilated into local life. When she went back to Pusan to make her marriage arrangements, her niece commented that she no longer looks Korean. Since her story was broadcast on TV in South Korea, any Koreans that happen to be passing through Lijiang drop in to her cafe for a chat.

To Myeong Lijiang is home -- family seat and site of her business. She sees no reason to leave here.


Mystic Naxi Culture

He Benhua's gallery has the unexpected name "Backpacker's Outdoor Club." A native-born Naxi man, 28-year-old He has been a committed painter of and lover of Naxi culture since childhood. According to Naxi customs, a man should be well-versed in music, chess, painting, and calligraphy, and also have a fine appreciation of wine, tea and tobacco. He is an expert mask carver, and his work, which depicts the life and ethos of Naxi people, is often featured in the press and on television. Standing before a picture engraved in the Dongba language, which He is studying, he explains how it refers to the Naxi ancestors that migrated from the highlands.

Although machine-made souvenirs flood the market, He insists on personally designing and hand-crafting his products. "I never crave money, because this kind of lust is infinite. Someone who makes ten thousand yuan one year yearns for twenty thousand the following year, and can never feel satisfied, so it is best to lower one's expectations." Such an attitude is rare in a city newly exposed to commercialization. But He is nevertheless keen to absorb new knowledge and experience. Apart from his gallery, he also runs a mini Internet cafe with just four computers, and arranges budget tours within Yunnan and to Tibet. Most of He's customers are foreigners, which has helped his English a lot.

According to He, Lijiang has made a leap of at least twenty years, sociologically and economically. It became known to the world in 1996, when an earthquake brought in international aid workers, who, astounded at the city's beauty, told the world about it. "Tourism is of undoubted benefit to us. But when you gain, you also lose in some aspects. Our loss is that the ancient city is becoming irretrievably commercialized."

He believes that Lijiang's charm stems from its landscape and its culture. He finds it disappointing that so many tourists are merely novelty-hunters. Most of his customers are preoccupied with prices and bargaining, and whether or not they are being cheated, asking: "Is this really Dongba writing?" He opened his gallery not to make a huge profit but with the aim of helping more people to understand and appreciate the ancient Naxi culture.

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