I went to Lijiang with my mum and dad about 10 years ago. I remember wandering through crisp, calm, night-time streets trying to find my hostel, marveling at the other-worldliness of the architecture. Everyone except me had gone to bed. Not this time. My diary of the trip from Dali to Lijiang includes the phrase “spring break on Bai Jiu.” Tijuana with Chinese characteristics might be an alternative characterisation. From the roof of our hostel in the Old Town, discordant strands of ultra-loud karaoke and disco beats overwhelmed any romanticism.
We descended from the roof and entered the maelstrom. Fragile as ever after a long day cycling – bereft of purpose except finding food – we were soon part of large crowds. There is an entrance fee for the Old Town, £8, but after 7pm the ticket booths are not staffed.
Two things stood out.
- The Old Town is a shopping mecca. In fact, it is basically a shopping trap. Half an hour into our tour and half-way down a very, very long road lined with shops, there were two potential routes. Go all the way back. Or carry on for another 15 minutes.
- A lot, if not most, people weren’t there to look at the architecture. Heaving bars with scantily-clad dancers and pumped-up MCs were full of gyrating young folk alternating between tables obscured under dozens of empty beer bottles and small, packed dance floors. Six beers costs £120, no joke.
I don’t have any problem with any of this at all – no need to get sentimental about getting lost in the freezing cold. But as a symbol of the boom in Chinese domestic tourism it was pretty compelling. Chinese tourists went on 4 billion domestic trips in 2015, up from just over 1 billion when I had visited 10 years before. The wonderfully reconstructed streets of the 800 year old town were still there but it was very different. It was a shift in demographic more than anything though. A small number of retired, middle-aged Western couples had been replaced by a huge number of recent Chinese graduates and newly wealthy 20-somethings with money to burn.
I preferred Dali. The Old Town blends with the new town organically, rather than serving as a hermetically sealed shopping unit, meaning that you are never trapped for too long. We found a great coffee shop and a cool place selling locally-brewed craft beer. Previously widely seen as a Western backpacker town, I counted 9 westerners in 2 days on packed, packed streets, not least the main drag – “Foreigners Street”.
It was a Chinese backpacker town now. Coffee shops, bars, galleries and boutique stores owned by young arty types from the east lined the streets, rented I imagine from the local residents that had moved out of town. And returning to our hostel, young hipsters selling mobile phone cases sat on the floor at the side of the road. I got the impression they were doing all they could to resist a 9-5 back home (or maybe I should say an 8-7).