Lijiang: the South door to Tibet.
This story tells how instead of getting on the public bus that from Lijiang arrives at Lugu Lake – the homeland of Mosuo people, last matriarchal tribe, – we trusted a crazy driver and reached the lake only after ten hours of vicissitudes.
From Dali to Lijiang
We leave Dali to reach Lijiang in a comfortable minivan packed with German tourists, their flip flips and a some Yunnan campesinos.
The driver is annoyed because we are five minutes late. I stare at him with a guilty sight, but we really had a mandatory task to accomplish: Feng had to paint her nails black…
We didn’t tell to him. And anyway he regains his cool when he sees our 160 kuai settled the day before (Lily, the lovely owner of our hostel, booked the tickets for us the night before).
The ride Dali-Lijiang – about four hours of motorway – flows quietly with Feng that takes improbable pics from the window and the driver that strikes up Tibetan pop songs.
Once in Lijiang, we lose ourselves within the maze of alleys called “Oldtown,” a pedestrian neighborhood rebuilt with the clear intent to bring a huge amount of tourists between paved streets, houses of wood and stone, canals surrounded by flowers, small waterfalls, and even a mill. It looks like… a Disneyland for (not that) happy couples.
I mean, everything is really nice; in Lijiang, every stone is in the right spot and I’m not surprised at all this is one of most popular destinations among Chinese tourists. However, I’m not at ease in a place where every house has been transformed in a restaurant, souvenir shop, or both. I enjoyed it much more Dali, may be less elegant, certainly dirtier but at least authentic. In Lijiang, I don’t even feel like taking some pics…
Then, maybe as a punishment for my laziness, it starts to pour down and we spend the late afternoon in a small bar of the old town, drinking tea and writing absurd postcards. We conclude the day with a dinner of vegetables and meat sticks (串，chuan = stick, a very explicit Chinese character).
From Lijiang to Lugu Lake
Back to the hostel, the International Youth Hostel, we book two seats for a minivan. The girl at the hostel tells us that we will reach Lugu Lake in about seven hours. From our dull point of view, the minivan offers several advantages, with respect to the public bus:
- We don’t need to bother looking for an Internet connection (often a problem in China) and verify the timetable of the public bus.
- The minivan will wait for us only two minutes walking from the hostel.
- The driver will let us to Lige, the village on the bank of the lake where is our next hostel. The stops of the public bus keep being a mystery.
The morning after we wake up at six a.m. and arrives at the meeting point on time. What a shame that at the last moment Feng decides she needs some white bread with eggs before traveling and disappears before I can chain her up on the seat. The driver gets mad at me but since we hadn’t paid yet he decides to wait for us.
Feng comes back ten minutes late singing and trotting with her bread. I stare at her with a homicide sight but I don’t say anything. She makes me a big smile and asks:
“Shenme?” As for Ulysses’ sirens, nobody car resist to Feng’s smile, not even the driver (be careful with Chinese girls guys…). Anyway, everybody is happy now… Let’s go!
We are seven on the minivan. Me, Feng, the driver, and the other two happy couples. I’m the only one with big round eyes but I don’t complain.
Better the Chinese than the German with flip flop : P two hours of dirt road and twenty kilometers later we stop for the firs pee break. Here is the read that is waiting for us:
“At least we got tarmac…” I think. But it’s still soon. About noon, the driver makes us a proposal that ends up in a ten minutes discussion where I don’t understand absolutely anything. There is only a thing that I get: they reached a decision without even asking the opinion of the stupid white devil (that is me). I ask some explanations to Feng, which explains to me:
“The driver told us that we have to pay a fee to enter the lake territory, one hundred kuai. However, he knows a secondary road that bypass the entry gait. And he only wants fifty kuai!” I’m not happy at all:
“Wait, let me understand. Are you telling me that we are going to follow this guy in a mule track for saving five euros? And please, do not talk about secondary roads because this one is already more than secondary…” I cannot say why, but I don’t trust this driver.
“Yeah, I’m not that enthusiast either,” she tells me “Wait, I ask again.”
And here we are into another long discussion in Mandarin but nothing changes. The drivers is really stubborn (he’s thinking about the 300 kuai he can earn…) and the others travelers are with him. me and Feng are the only ones that are not convinced but we decided to follow the majority. I tell myself that after all the driver came recommended by the Youth Hostel, he must know what the hell is doing. As it often happens, I was wrong…
The drivers tries to squeeze between the truck and the ravine.
In the meanwhile, two happy family and their respective minivan had joined us. The drivers are all friends of our driver, not really something that makes me feel safer. At some point, we turn right and start to climb the mountain in order to bypass the entry of the lake. Till when we find a nice surprise: the road is closed because of some work. In fact, they are building the road. maybe I think:
“Cool, now the driver will understand this is crazy and will come back to the main road.” However, the neurons carrying my thought cannot reach my brain on time cause the driver, still thinking about his three hundred kuai, accelerates and points right between the blue truck and the gavine (see picture above).
It rained all night, the result is that the minivan starts to skid and we have the impression to fall right on the gorge. I don’t know how, but the driver is able to stop on time. I’m really angry now. I insult him in Italian – my Chinese doesn’t allow such an elaboration – and get out of the car taking Feng with me.
This is the perspective from my window.
The drivers start to confab between them. The “official” road is the one we can see below the ravine, they explain to us. With my hands, I tell them I will climb down walking instead of follow them through the “secondary” road with all these brain-damaged people that risk the life of their children for the seek of saving fifty kuai. The Chinese look at me as I’m crazy:
“Why are you angry? We are saving fifty kuai, you should be happy…” they seem ask.
Whatever. In the end, everybody decides to climb down walking. The drivers will go back, pass through the gate with their minivan and recollect us after the paying checkpoint: they were born on Lugu Lake and don’t have to pay the (in)famous one hundred kuai.
Tourist that would like to die on the way to Lugu Lake… Furio is smiling now.
Half an hour later we are again on the minivan. The driver point in front of us:
“We are almost there, the lake is behind these rocks.”
He’s telling the truth. The only particular is omitted is that to arrive “behind these rocks” we still need three hours of hairpin bends. They are still building the street, there is no guardrail and the driver is hungry: a deadly combination that made us risk our life every time he decides to surpass a truck in a bend…
Then we arrive. Lugu Lake welcomes us with a wink.
Lugu Lake: between the grassy sea and a legendary playboy
After the ritual pics and the adieu to our travel companions we tell the querido driver to let us in Lige, the village of our hostel, the Youth Hostel. The name is so original that in the only Lige there are two hostels with the same name…
Lugu Lake: Lige Village.
We check-in and then go looking for a bit of local flavor, that is dinner. The task is not that difficult as all the restaurants are aligned along the only street of the village, a tiny alley that borders the beach. We discover that in Lige people eat barbecue. Period.
We sit at one of the street restaurants. They all offer the same spit-roasted pork and chicken meat with vegetables, mushrooms, and eggplants you can comfortably cook on the barbecue you find at the middle of your small table… a paradise!
Exploring Lugu Lake
The morning after we wake up early to find a car or something for exploring the lake that, looking closer to the map, resembles to a bear paw…
As usual, as long as you pay finding a solution is easy. We contract a woman willing to drive us around the lake with her minivan. However, she wants three hundred kuai, a bit too much…
This is when Feng, a wonderful girl, goes back to the hostel and recruits four aspirant Indiana Jones so that the price decreases to fifty kuai per person.
So let’s go (even if is pouring down)!
We enter Sichuan province and stop several times. Everybody got the same illness: photography.
How to resist? Even if it keeps raining the landscape is just… too much, difficult to describe with words or with a capture-light-machine…
The Grassy Sea
We pass through Xiao Luoshui and Zuosuo (where I buy the bus ticket that the day after tomorrow will allow me to reach the north of Sichuan) and arrive at Caohai Qiao (Grassy Sea Bridge), also known as the Walking Marriage Bridge. We shamelessly cross it without getting married.
In fact Mosuo people don’t get married either; the walking marriage tradition is a ceremony where the Mosuo girls choose (or change) their sexual partner.
At the end of the bridge, there is a small market where one of our fellow travelers buys a giant toad to make his girlfriend happy: they will eat it for dinner if, they explain, they will be able to kill it. It seems that toads are among the most difficult edible animal to slaughter (their words, not mine), especially because of its characteristic to squirt blood everywhere as soon as you pierce it.
The border between Lugu Lake and the Grassy Sea.
We then let the electric green of the Grassy Sea and come back to the sullen blue of the lake, which mirrors a capricious sky.
We reenter Yunnan going through Luoshui, where the South East Asia immigrants pretend to be Mosuo prostitutes and end the tour of the lake with a (well deserved) dinner. What do we eat? Roasted meat and eggplants, of course.
The legend of Zhaxi
The waitress, who looks like Moby, is trying to get Feng’s attention with some fantastic pearls such a:
“Hey meinu ni de yingyu bu tai hao ma!”
that I would translate as “Hey miss, your English is really bad!”
to which Feng answers with a spicy:
“Is your English any better?”
“Shide,” (that in this case just means “yes”), managing to never speak only word of English along all the evening.
It’s during this funny exchange that Feng realizes we are eating at the restaurant of Zhaxi, the legendary playboy of Lugu Lake.
She tells me how Zhaxi became the most famous Casanova on the West side of Kunming:
“His name is Zhaxi, but people call him the Prince of Mosuo. He’s famous for his beauty and his Ars Amatoria. If you ask him how many girls he had, he will show a pearls bracelet and explain to you that every time he conquers a new woman he adds a pearl.”
It seems that right now the bracelet contains one hundred eight pearls. We ask Moby if it’s possible to meet him (I know it’s a giddy request but, well, whatever) but he tells us that Zhaxi is out.
Ah ok, now people say “he’s out”… My opinion is that he’s probably trying to enter the underwear of some matriarch.
A cruise on the lake
The day after flows quietly between a bike ride and a boat “cruise” with a Mosuo woman (half an hour for twenty kuai).
At night we enjoy the traditional Mosuo dance (it’s the video at the beginning of this article) and then we are ready for sleep as tomorrow we need to wake up at six. Destination: Emei mountain, the giant Buddha in Leshan, and, finally, the pandas!
To know more about Mosuo people and their traditions read Mosuo, the last (almost) matriarchal tribe.
Photo Credits: Photos by Sapore di Cina