China Part 3: Old Towns

A typical tourist attraction in China is an Old Town. A generic tourist ghetto built up with modern-looking “ancient” buildings, restaurants and shop. Lacking in authenticity, old towns compensate with conformity and look brand new, as if they were built or very least renovated in the last five years. Thin on anything original or interesting, they are designed to efficiently extract tourist kuais. The novelty of old towns feels alright for a little, but wears off rather quickly.

The first old town we visited was in Dali. We were unlucky to land there right in the middle of San Yue Jie festival. A hotel clerk assured that it was the best time to visit the town, but I begged to differ. Every corner of the town was crowded with domestic tourists and it felt like a party we were not invited to. Long gone are the days since Dali was known as a hippy backpacker paradise. Nowadays it is a mass tourism powerhouse catered mainly to Chinese tourists. On top of that, the area around the base of the mountains is one huge residential development zone. So it is bound to get even more crowded in the coming years. It was like the horrible vision of what Pai might turn to. I sincerely hope it will never happen. On a more positive side, Dali’s mountains, lake and surrounding small villages were pleasant, but not enough to warrant a separate visit. The fengshui like landscape reminded of was Inle Lake, which it made me realise that Inle was not that touristy after all. All is relative indeed.

Next stop on Yunnan’s tourist trail was Lijiang, another ancient city. Despite the prior prejudice Lijiang turned out a much better than we thought. Unlike the grid like flat Dali, Lijiang is a chaotic maze of cobblestone streets, canals, bridges and hills. The majestic Jade Snow mountains serve as a background. Lijiang has got a character and it almost feels authentic and real, especially in the wee hours of a morning, before the tourist onslaught begins. And even after that it is alright. The city’s surroundings are stunning and can be easily reached by a local bus. The closest village, Shuhe, is a horrendous generic old town and shall not be mentioned again. However, if you venture further north up to the mountains, it will guarantee you an excellent day trip for the cost of a bus ticket. No need to pay entrance fees to walled gardens either. There is enough of free nature to enjoy.