Lijiang was the final stop on my Southern Tour, and though I was excited to be visiting one of the major tourist destination of China, my body and mind were both showing the signs of exhaustion. Two weeks of travel isn’t so long, but the the level of physical activity that I had been doing each day seemed to finally be catching up. My legs hurt, my knees hurt, and for the life of me I couldn’t stay focused on anything that I tried to do. Nonetheless, the trip went on.
The Lijiang Old Town in known around China for it’s ancient feel and excellent climate. I felt like I was living in a set from the Lord of the Rings. It was significantly colder here than I had expected, especially after the perfect temperature that I found while traveling in Dali. Lijiang sits at 2600 meters elevation, so I shouldn’t have been caught so off guard by the frost that covered the rooftops when I went out on my first early morning walk. After spending so many months in the claustrophobic cloud that is Beijing, it was great to be in a place where the air felt crisp and didn’t make my lungs burn.
The Old Town is a preserved ancient village in the center of a larger city. It is closed to vehicle traffic, which is a nice change from almost everywhere else that I have been. All of the streets are paved with the same ancient stone slabs that have been used for hundreds of years prior. Years of weather and millions of footsteps have polished them glass-smooth and they are deadly slippery, even when they aren’t wet.
When people speak of Lijiang and the surrounding region, they almost always talk about the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a towering peak just outside of the city that stands high enough to remain snow capped year round. Although I never ended up climbing this one, I was very happy to have many clear days of viewing from a distance. Sitting completely on it’s own in a large valley, it has a very unique look, and I immediately saw why people have been drawn to it for so many years. Just to the opposite side of this mountain sits the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, frequently, albeit erroneously, touted as the deepest gorge in the world. Once again, I hear it is amazing, but I just didn’t have the time or reason to go on this particular trip.
On one of the days, I climbed to the top of Elephant Hill, a relatively small foothill just outside of the Old Town. On my way up, I pushed past groups of young Chinese students, huffing through the thin air and encouraging one another not to give up. I would periodically pass a group of much older Chinese, all of whom looked as though they were suffering. Many people get off of the plane and go directly into this kind of activity, something which I strongly discourage. 2600 meters isn’t crazy high, but it is enough to make you feel very ill if you haven’t taken a day at a slower pace. Then again, we have things to see!
At the top of the hill there is a two story tower that provides a great view up the length of the valley. I climbed up and took a moment to catch my breath. Way down below, I could see a road that I would soon be following by bike, and tried to imagine what it would be like. Out in the distance I could see the base of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. If I followed it up, I could see the start of changes in the growth zones, then the arrival of rock and snow. I tried to imagine the people standing on the platform high up near the top. There is a chairlift that goes up this mountain, but from where I was you couldn’t see any of it. No people, no chairlift, no tourist center- From a distance, it was untouched.
I have always liked the way in which elevation appears to manipulate the scale of the world below you. Things always seem to be more accessible, more within reach. Between the base of the mountain and where I was standing there are at least eight villages, but from the top of the hill I had no sense of how much space there was in this valley below me. An inspection of the map would show that it is about 20 kilometers from this vantage point to the entrance to the mountain. There is some great beauty in the way the elevation simplifies the world. From the top, I have always felt that the places down below make much more sense.
The next day I rented a bike and began my ride toward some of the villages as part of a project that I was working on. I began this journey on the road that I had observed from the hill the previous day. It was a fantastically long ribbon of pavement, and I was immediately reminded of a drive I once took through a high pass in the Rocky Mountains. Even as a kid, I was enthralled by the idea that I was in a valley in the mountains, a field in the sky. I rode at a much more relaxed pace than I had done a few days before, and spent much time looking at my surroundings. There wasn’t much traffic, and almost all of what passed me where tour buses. I could see the road way out in the distance where it climbed a hill and then disappeared, and found myself caught with severe wanderlust. I hope to return here and ride this road to it’s end, at least someday.