Friday, 13 May 2011

The tour group versus the tourist

Friday 13th May 2011

18 days left traveling the world.

MP3 track of the day: No one – Alicia Keys

Weather: A pleasant temperature with a pale blue sky dominating. Thin white clouds stretched out over large areas and, during the afternoon, Lijiang experienced a short storm.

It was starting to get personal; as I quickened my pace through the cobbled streets of Lijiang I knew that, as every second went by, tour groups got closer. The time was 7:30am and I was out taking photos of the old town before hundreds of Chinese tourists descended. Like I said, it was personal ... it was me versus them. I knew the tour groups would have the numbers on their side however I had time, though the sun wasn't playing fare. The sky, within a lot of my photos, became bleached and I tried many different camera settings to bring it back to reality; some settings were successful but each took time.

At first the cobbled streets were almost deserted; the roads were a little uneven and, with Lijiang's huge footfall, the stones had become shiny reducing grip. I focused mainly on the big tourist areas knowing that, when the crowds came, I could venture off into the side streets. Everywhere you looked the old, grey, Chinese roofs dominated and, with bright green trees located in strategic places, the scenes provided good photo opportunities. I walked this way and that, getting lost numerous times, until I'd covered the main areas. As I walked shops were opening that were barred shut only thirty minutes ago.

I couldn't ignore my stomach any longer; my guidebook had two locations marked for 'great cake' though, within the windy streets of Lijiang, both took time to find. I settled on 'Well Bistro' as they looked open whereas 'Don Papa' didn't. One lady was washing the floor when I stepped in; however it seemed not to matter as she smiled at me and showed me to a table. The cake was cheap but the hot chocolate wasn't; unusually both were served at the same time making a pleasant change. I had little choice in what cheesecake I could opt for and no berries, or cream, accompanied the cake. Still the cake was pleasant enough but not as good as Dali; the hot chocolate gave the same story and I soon paid and left. I continued my photographing by concentrating on the outskirts of the old town. Unlike Dali – where it's new town is located 18km away – Lijiang's new town surrounds it's old so, when a new looking building came into sight, I knew it was time to turn around.

The time was 10am and empty roads I'd walked down only an hour ago were full of people. I tried to take photos but it was getting increasingly difficult, and increasingly time consuming, as I had to wait for people to get out of my way. Around 11am I gave up; I put my camera within my bag and walked for a while heading towards my hostel. This morning I couldn't find my McLaren baseball cap; as I'd walked around the old town I kept trying to retrace my steps and, by the time I found myself at the front door of the 'YHA' hostel (where I booked my train ticket), I knew that I'd either left it here or it was within my dorm. The lady recognised me instantly and apologised greatly due to overcharging me; it turned out that my train tickets cost £15 less than she'd asked for (therefore costing £65) and, as a result, she stood there fanning 135 Yuan. I laughed and took the money knowing that it would be going back to her very shortly; I booked myself onto a day trip to the Tiger Leaping Gorge for tomorrow.

Departing at 7:50am I arrive at a guest house three hours later. Tina's guest house is only a forty minute walk from the gorge and, with the last bus back to Lijiang leaving at 4pm, I should be able to have three or four hours looking around. I gave the lady 110 Yuan and she laughed as she received the money back. As I stepped out of the hostel I popper my head back around the door and inquired into if anyone had found a baseball cap. She searched her wooden reception desk, first scanning left and then right, before showing me a very dirty looking McLaren cap; I smiled and acknowledged that the cap was mine.

Back on the streets of Lijiang I was going to go back to my hostel but, with my baseball cap found, there was no reason to. I went back into town for a quick bite and pondered what to do with the afternoon. First of all I had to purchase snacks for tomorrows trip and then I'll visit the 'Mu Mansion' before climbing up 'Lion Hill'.

I left my hostel, placing my food for tomorrow within my locker, and walked in the direction of 'Mu Mansion'. Little did I know that the white gate I'd photographed earlier was the entrance to said mansion. The crowds had grown and so, apparently, had the entrance price; my guidebook stated that it should cost thirty-five Yuan but there, in black and white … and in English, read 'entrance sixty-five Yuan'. Two questions ran through my head; firstly was the mansion worth £6.50 and secondly was it worth visiting with the tour groups that were bound to be inside. With a no to both questions I left the site, however I felt intrigued wondering what was behind those big white walls. My guidebook stated that the gardens were impressive and maybe on Sunday I'll have a look. For now I departed in the direction of Lion Hill.

Just like every tourist attraction within China finding the entrance presented many problems. I spent half an hour walking in the direction of said hill only to find my way blocked; eventually I found an entrance gate which asked for fifteen Yuan. £1.50 seemed a more logical price for an attraction and so I paid the amount before being told to head left. The entrance fee would have been worth it, just for the view, but being practically the only one up the hill was an added bonus. Below me sat thousands of ancient Chinese roofs that were positioned at all angles hiding any roads from view. The scene below seemed one of tranquillity however I knew anything but would be occurring on those narrow streets. I took many photos enjoying the fact that I had full control over the viewing platform. After this I head along a path that seemed to go into a wooded area. As I walked I turned my MP3 player off; the only sounds I could hear were the birds within the trees and my feet as they leap-frogged one another. This was the first time I'd witnessed total silence within China and it was joyous. Sadly the path didn't last long. I stood on a patch of dry earth with rocks, and trees, positioned sporadically all around, there seemed to be a path above me and so I hiked up to that and followed it back the way I'd come. This path lead to a twenty-two meter high pavilion which looked out of place; sadly a few people were within this area, including a small boy who was crying due to being scared by the peacocks caged to the left.

Before entering the pavilion two smaller shelters were positioned either side of the path; one with a bell and one with a drum inside. Neither held much interest and so, with a quick photo, I went inside the dark pavilion and passed a ticket inspector who was uninterested if I had a ticket or not. I walked up many flights of steps with some barely lit; once at the top a small, squared, wooden platform presented itself. Windows were positioned all the way around with glass that wasn't clear enough for photos. Luckily some panes had been removed and so I took a couple of shots ignoring the small, tacky, souvenir stalls set up behind me. I didn't stay long and I soon found myself back at the entrance; a few spots of rain had begun to fall and so I quickened my pace towards my hostel.

Not enough rain was falling to warrant an umbrella, however even the slightest bit of moisture made the shiny cobbled stones slippery. My pace declined as I found my full concentration was focused on where I was standing; once back at the hostel I got myself, and my computer, within the common room before thunder could be heard. Seconds later a torrent of rain fell from the grey skies above. Lijiang doesn't seem to be as 'hippy' as Dali and, in the seat opposite, sat a genuine, normal, traveller from Israel; we chatted as the rain poured, both focusing on our own PC's from time to time. It's great to be surrounded by real travellers again and I fear, in two days time, this important aspect of travelling will fade as quickly as it had come.

Neither of us witnessed the rain stopping; the Israeli left for food as I looked outside the window to see blue skies once more. I was deeply into my work and so I remained seated until the early evening. With the tour groups on their way home I went in search of food before returning to my hostel; I wasn't that tired but I needed an early night. Tomorrow I had to be up by 7am … I had a tiger to see!

Toodle Pip!

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