Monday, April 5, 2010

Tourist Central

Walking the cobbled streets of old town Lijiang you soon realise that the town is no longer real. Every single grey stone building is either a hotel, shop, restaurant or guesthouse. It's a big town and it's in great condition, as you'd expect for a a town on the UNESCO's World Heritage List. There's an eight quid 'protection fee' for entering but what's to protect? Our guesthouse is a lovely courtyard building with small but perfect rooms (a four-poster bed, stylish bathroom), balconies, decorative wood-carved finish etc. It's all new. Restoration and reconstruction might be the same word in Mandarin. No-one asks us to pay the fee, so we don't. The town is lovely, with streams running through, hardly a satellite dish to be seen, the streets are spotlessly clean. But the streets are busy, busy. Our guidebook reckons on 4 million visitors a year, with 700 hotels to accomodate them. The owner of our guesthouse is a Singaporean businessman. He was here during national holidays in October 2008 when over 15,000 tourists were without a bed for the night. He decided then to invest in a hotel.

We've a few chores to do and the place is very comfortable, so we stop a couple of days. The weather's mixed and cloud sits on Snow Mountain (great name) to the north. We have different options to head northwards. Not far away is the infamous Tiger Leaping Gorge where the Yangtze passes through a very narrow and deep gorge. We could cycle through it except, surprise, surprise, the road is being reconstructed. Then we get an e-mail from a Spanish cyclist, Salva, who has ridden a back road to the far end of the gorge, crossed the river, and continued up to Zhongdian on a back road that sounds beautiful. There is also a tourist road directly to the gorge, but it costs 16 quid each to use and we're too tight. We can't decide what to do, so we delay our departure a day. Ahhh, the freedom to be able to do nothing. It turns out well - we learn that the gorge road is passable, though we may have to carry our bikes over landslides, and the day we leave it's sunny and clear. We take the main highway, an easy ride on new tarmac, with a very long descent to the Yangtze. We finally get to see Snow Mountain. It is a mountain with snow. At the gorge entrance the fee is waived due to the road works. Hooray.Next morning we set off down the dusty road through the gorge. It's said that walking the gorge is the best way to experience it and we can't argue otherwise after a dirty and slow ride for the 22 kilometres to the guesthouses at the other end. But we still enjoy the dramatic scenery with the river crashing through the narrow gap below, and on the far side the sheer cliffs shooting up into the sky above. Of course, there's all the drama of Chinese roadworks as well for the whole length. Various teams of workers are chopping bits of the hillside away with explosives, diggers and drills, whilst others are building up the side that drops vertiginously down to the river. The workers are living on site, which means plastic tarpaulin tents strung up on narrow stretches. Labourers break and sift rocks - men and women together. The old road has disappeared under the endless landslides and constant rumble of overladen trucks full of rocks, gravel or sand. We amble carefully along, waiting whilst a landslide is cleared, or sprint over broken ground whilst men drill a rockface overhead. There are a few locals using the road and some tourists in minibuses.

We're pretty grubby when we reach our guesthouse, and it's been a very slow ride, but we're happy that now we've got through the gorge we can continue along the back road to Zhongdian. We sit and chat away with the other tourists. Amazingly it seems that only one person out of about twenty has actually walked here - the rest rode along this horrible road in minibuses.......

1 comment:

David McGrath said...

check out ben voyage on the crazy guy website. hes found a stunning way through the region. best of luck with the ride. i really want to get back out and ride some mountains now im back at home.