Ancient Towns of Baishu, Shuhe and Lijang: The path from Squalor to Beauty and then to Disneyland

It is dark as the pavement turns into cobblestones under our car’s tires. A few minutes later, the suicidal microvan pulls over and we scramble out. Sorry, says the driver, he can’t get us any further into the ancient town of Shuhe, it’s a pedestrian zone. No problem, we smile to our Tibetan Clint Eastwood, as we shake hands and wish each other the best. Yvonne’s parents go away looking for a hotel. They don’t take us with them; a hotel would try charging white people more.  So, Yvonne, Gen, Jordan and I sprawl in a restaurant. Like all the other local establishments, the place is open to the elements.  A copious amount of hot oolong tea helps us to temper the fresh air at just above freezing temperature.

A few minutes later Yvonne’s parents come back glowing with pride. They found a hotel for twenty dollars a night that would satisfy even the most demanding customer, i.e. my pregnant darling. As we walk inside, Yvonne approves and everyone breathes out in relief. The hotel does combine charm, cleanliness and comfort; unfortunately, like all the other inns around, it is also a good place to for winter survival skills training.

We drop our belongings and walk outside, into a frosty night. The streets are devoid of tourists, but everything is open, stores, restaurants and travel agencies alike. We don’t know what to make of the town; enjoyment and annoyance mix in equal proportion. Over the next three days, we roam the streets, back alleys establishments and museums of Shuhe, Lijang and Baishu. I formalize my feelings and I decide to write an essay on the three phases of an ancient town development in China.

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An ancient town starts as a rundown squalid place, forgotten by everybody except the local denizens who stubbornly cling to their ancestral homes, land and the way of living. Then, the UNESCO or Chinese government or both discover the town. A restoration process starts. As funding and outside assistance come in, the town rises out of the ashes towards its original glory improved by the twenty first century utilities and sanitation. The locals fix their dilapidated houses and convert them into restaurants, hotels and stores. The town has variety, richness and authenticity. Every house is different, stores sell actual crafts, tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants offer local fares, the locals are friendly and are excited to actually have some income and see new people. More adventurous and less moneyed tourist types start trickling in, curious and bright-eyed.

Then, the town becomes famous. Guidebooks, internet sites and tourist agencies recommend that visitors come and sample its unique charm. Tourist buses rush in, the land prices increase and the original residents are pushed out by the tourist businesses and the real estate developers. Bit by bit, the town loses its original richness and variety as it turns into a plastic fake, a tourist Disneyland. The restaurants grow large and loud; the hotels lose their unique charm and turn into money making sleeping accommodations. The stores turn into chains selling souvenirs, low quality clothing and poorly made shoes. The remaining locals become predatory towards tourists.

Our trip through the ancient towns of Dali, Shaxi, Shuhe, Lijang and Baishu allowed us to observe every stage of this transformation.

Shuhe is at least eight hundred years old. It was built by Naxi people long before Imperial China’s influence spread to this area. Long rows of two story houses blend together along narrow streets. Several hundred year old arching stone bridges cross a few meter wide canals. Open squares give access to sun and provide space for local vendors to sell fruit and grilled food. One afternoon, Yvonne and I spend three hours in one of these squares, luxuriating in the delicate warm rays of a winter sun. Yvonne sketches and I write.

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The water in the gutters and canals is sparkling clean. There are numerous doll-like bridges, all of them different. Red lanterns hang on every house, varying in size for a human’s head to an elephant’s one.

Simple but delicate wood carvings are plentiful; aged and new alike. There are carvings on windows, doors, walls and railings. The brown, yellow, red and white color scheme makes the place feel warm and inviting. Chinese dragon roofs adorn larger and more important buildings but they look friendly and funny look rather than pompous and official. Following Chinese landscaping tradition, everything is paved with cobblestones; trees and bushes grow in pots.

My Chinese Vernacular Dwelling textbook classifies Naxi dwellings in a dozen different types including “Three Terrace Houses with One Screen Wall, quadrangle residential with 5 small yards and horse mounted house with lapped corner joints.”

While my mental deficiency prevents me from fully appreciating this undoubtedly outstanding scholar classification, I enjoy tremendously how every house is unique and rich in details, especially as we continue our Shaxi tradition of visiting local hotels. It’s off-season and every hotel wants customers; besides, the locals are overwhelmingly friendly and warm. We get an enthusiastic reception everywhere. Since my Mandarin vocabulary, is effectively limited to three words, “hello”, “good-bye” and “thank you”, Yvonne does all the talking. I can only smile till my mouth hurts.

Accidentally, I drag us into the most expensive hotel around here and we immediately get a private tour by a local girl bursting with energy and dying of boredom. As she drags us around the place, she keeps calling Yvonne’s mom “my older sister” to Flossie’s bemused annoyance. The girl is in love with the hotel, and she venerates the owner. The house used to be the private residence of a rich merchant family. Recently, the owner turned it into a hotel; from the girl, we get an impression that the most esteemed gentleman didn’t do it out of a lowly love of money, rather he wanted to share with the people the amazing splendor of his ancestral home.

The inside layout of the place reminds us Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water house. Everything is carefully planned; every object is picked with a great care and it is placed with a purpose. Nothing clashes; furniture, paintings, pottery, sculpture, water and greenery work together to form a space that’s both grand and invitingly warm. The place is designed as a secret garden, every time we walk around a corner, we gasp in admiration at a new space, a classic Chinese landscape painting, a room, a dark aged bookshelf with ancient looking manuscripts, the most elaborately carved ashtray I’ve ever seen. Following classic Chinese tradition, the building is designed as a square around a courtyard. Water flows out of a few foot high fountains and gurgles quietly down a stream, passing a few sculptures on the way. Prolific vines and bushes make the light turn green. A collection of old armor and weapons faces the bar, so that real men can drink and imagine themselves on a field of battle.

The girl shows us the guest rooms. Instead of numbers, each room is assigned a name such as “first wife”, “second wife,” and all the way to “twelfth wife.” Hmm, rich Chinese men did tend to have more than one wife, but twelve seems a bit excessive for me. For a hundred dollars a night we can get the first wife’s room; it is the only heated accommodation in the town and it has a personal Jacuzzi. Yvonne looks at me inquiringly, should we rent the place? She has known me for eleven years and three months; I’ve been complaining about undersized bathtubs fit only for dwarves for exactly that same period of time.

Finally we get out, overwhelmed to the hilt. Over next two days, we see at a dozen or two more hotels; none of them is in the same league as the first one but I would be happy to stay in every one of them. Shuhe residents have mastered the art of tasteful creative clutter. The hotel courtyards weave chairs, couches, woven furniture, swinging benches, ink drawings, paintings, sculptures, small pottery, human size pottery, multitudes of cushions, flowers, bushes, vines, trees and staircases into a place where even eternally restless I can lounge for hours. Many hotels have little ponds with fat colored coi carps slowly moving in red, orange and spotty circles.

Locals don’t like cutting trees, so in several hotels, tree branches grow through staircases and people climb around them.

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One hotel has a few abstract expressionist paintings hanging around common space and in bedrooms. The bedding color scheme matches the paintings or vice versa, I am not sure. I like the exuberantly cheerful and happy pictures and Yvonne asks a girl at the hotel, where they come from.

“Oh, it’s a guy working here. He is not a famous painter or anything,” the girl replies somewhat defensively.

“Who cares? He is a good painter, please convey him my complements,” Yvonne translates my request as we leave.

All the hotels, including the most expensive ones, have modestly unassuming entrances; it’s only when we step in, the beauty and comfort of the inside space surround us. In many years of traveling, I’ve never seen so much beauty available for only fifteen to thirty dollars a night. A couple years ago, Yvonne and I traveled around southern Spain, also in winter. Shuhe reminds us about the houses in Seville and Jerez de la Frontera. The Spanish have the same culture of blank outside walls enclosing an inside space created for warmth and intimacy. Shuhe is much more exquisite though, both in the quality of the individual pieces and the overall layout.

So far, I’ve been babbling with happiness describing Shuhe. However, premonition tinges my enjoyment with fear and sadness. As we wonder around the town, we can clearly see how it has been shifting from the phase two, Beauty, towards phase three, tourist Disneyland.

Only twenty years ago, the town of Shuhe was a rundown half-forgotten place. It was not as bad off as Shaxi, but the time of its power and wealth as a capital of Naxi kingdom had long been gone, only the shabby palace of its former kings was left to remind of its former exalted status. Then, the Chinese government started investing money into restoration. Three former capitals of the Naxi kingdom, Shuhe, Lijang and Baishu joined the UNESCO World Heritage list. Funding, fame and tourists started coming in.

As with Shaxi, the first inflow of money, together with strict construction policies, brought restoration and beauty to the downtrodden communities. Then, the tourist establishments and the real estate developers started squeezing the locals out.

The town of Shuhe is divided by a river; it’s less than fifteen meters wide but it separates two worlds. The development of the west side of the town started earlier and it was more aggressive and the difference between the west and the east is striking. On the west side, identical stores sell identical tourist crap. The buildings are shinier but also less detailed.

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The restaurants are larger and louder, with Chinese pop music stars whining and yapping about love and loneliness at a fifty decibel noise level. As I am walking on the cobblestones of the main street, along an ancient water canal crossed by a low stone bridge, and the red lanterns hanging off the ornate two storied wooden buildings diffuse the golden light of the setting sun, I can see, smell and feel in my mouth the taste of garishness.

As I cross the river into the smaller, eastern part of town, the taste of garishness fades almost completely. Symbolically, the cheesiest and most annoying touristy activity is happening in the middle of the bridge, separating the town. A conveyor belt of wedding photography is running full power. The bridge is quite famous, old and historical, and every simpering young bride wants a picture of her and her metrosexual broom be taken right there.

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There are up to three couples being photographed at a time. Yvonne begs me to stand in the back and make feminine poses right as the photographer shoots. I refuse; Yvonne sulks. We walk towards the less developed part of the town.

There are more residential buildings and smaller streets. People wash their laundry in the river and a few old women plant, water, weed and sell whatever they grow in the tiny bright green patches next to their houses.

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A store sells furniture and wooden carvings; some of them are museum quality pieces. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photography.

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I stare at a sculpture of an old sage with a flute in his hands and loose boobs hanging all the way down his belly; three joyfully dancing portly Tang dynasty beauties remind me of Renoir. There is at least one art studio with several painters and sculptors working. Bars sell raw grain liquors out of ten liter jars that only locals can consume, but even they seem to prefer tea. In the evening, I drop order here a shot of sour plum brandy. With the help of a google.translate app on my Iphone, the barman and I have a typing conversation about life, Universe and everything.

This is probably how the western Shuhe looked five years ago; not anymore. Modern China is a very dynamic society; the two stage transformation seems to take less than twenty years.

As we are walking around Shuhe, I am still not fully aware of the observations that I’ve just summarized. It takes us the next trip, to the town of Lijang, for my thoughts to crystallize inside my slow brain. The ancient town of Lijang is a better known and more popular destination, for Chinese and international tourists alike. It is much bigger than Shuhe. In fact, it was so overwhelmed by tourists that the local government started enlarging the original old town by constructing more historical looking buildings on the outskirts of the historic area.

A famous river flows through Lijang, and a famous eight hundred year old bridge crosses the famous river. A few hundred feet tall hill grows out of Lijang ancient town, adding more charm to the place. The hill is topped with a park and a nine story pseudo-historic pagoda that has more glass than wood. It was built in 1997, as a Chinese answer to Cinderella’s Castle Disneyland challenge. Yvonne actually gags when she sees the building up close; such is the power of true art.

We wander around Lijang, where everything looks the same and tastes like plastic, except for a few leftover buildings tucked deep inside the narrow dead end alleys. As I envision the future of Shuhe and Shaxi, a wave of sadness washes over me.

We visit Mu palace, or what Lonely Planet and tripadvisor.com mysteriously call Palazzo della Famiglia Mu. The authors must’ve been pretty high to place Lijang in Italy. The Mu clan ruled Lijang for more than four hundred years, throughout the Ming and the Qing dynasties. Their palace sprawls on a side of the hill; it is a grand wooden construction, with multiple buildings, pavilions, temples, gardens, an imposing entrance gate and an encircling wall. It looks a bit too pompous for my taste, but quite historical and authentic. Only a few days later, I learn that the original palace, where twenty generations of Mu clan had lived, was burned down by the Imperial authorities somewhere in 19th century. They decided that it was too luxurious and dangerously alike the Forbidden City. The palace was re-built from scratch just a few years ago.

I like the most a two story library, the favorite place of a Mu king, later elevated to a Bodhisattva status. Apparently, he liked reading so much that he had to become an outstanding warrior and general. This way, he could finish his wars quickly and get back to reading. At the age of thirty five, when his favorite wife died, he got equally tired of reading and ruling, so he abdicated and went in to the mountains to become a saint. His library no longer houses any books, but it does have a collection of seven feet tall slightly rusty weapons with bulky wooden handles.

Yvonne’s highlight of the day is dressing me as a Mu princess and taking a bunch of pictures of me posing with four Chinese girls. The girls are giggly and excited to have me next to them. They don’t realize how homely they look next to my radiant beauty.

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In the evening, we see the phase I of an ancient town development, the Squalor. We go to Baishu; eight hundred years ago, for a short time, it was the first Naxi capital. Afterwards, it went back to a blissful state of a rural paradise. The previous evening, Yvonne kept torturing tripadvisor.com till she found some excited references by Western tourists to Baishu being the most authentic Naxi dwelling of them all.

A cab takes us twenty kilometers away from Lijang and the driver unloads us to the center of Baishu, where the main street crosses with the only other street.

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The new cement paved road has not been replaced with authentic cobblestones yet. Free range pigs wander around, little children are playing in mud, and a few local men with wrinkled leathery faces sit on a low stone bench holding a slow quiet conversation. We look around confusedly and turn left on the main street. For half an hour, we wander around Baishu, observing authentic village houses in various states of disrepair, repair and construction. There are mud walls, brick walls, mud brick walls, logs, granite blocks, random rocks and wooden planks. Some walls have all of these elements combined.

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We also see spacious shiny new buildings being constructed more or less within the traditional architectural canons.

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We are trying to figure out where the money comes from; the consensus is that rich urbanites are betting on Baishu becoming the next Shuhe.

We walk back to the intersection, and past it. The other half of Baishu is quite different. It is still quite modest and one story white buildings. However, there are antique stores, guesthouses, and cafes, including fancy coffee shop Illy. The scattered English signs and menus include coffee, pizza and deserts such as cheesecake and tiramisu, at eight dollars a piece. There are some signs for traditional minority arts schools of weaving or embroidery. Antique stores have original interesting items and Yvonne spends half an hour looking at unique combination locks, snuff bottles, ink stands and such. I finally lose my shopping virginity and buy myself a small fat smiling Buddha. One day, many years from now, I will down sit cross legged, drink a beer or two, put my hands on my fat potbelly, relax, smile happily and achieve enlightenment, just like the little guy.

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It’s getting late and we need to get back to Shuhe, so Yvonne’s dad asks a local guy to give us a ride. The slightly drunk middle aged man is happy to make ten bucks and we climb into his microvan. On the way to Shuhe, the driver enthusiastically answers all our questions. Yes, he is local, yes his family has been living there forever. What’s forever? Well, he can count at least twenty three generations but it was probably more. Why was the place we picked him from so busy? Oh, every couple days, one family kills a pig and the whole village gathers at their house to eat one. Where are the new rich houses coming from? Oh, it’s all locals. People are making more money nowadays with small businesses. What kind of tourists come to the village? Oh, it’s all foreigners. Why? Chinese people like flashier things and they want to stay at fancy places; foreigners want to see more real things. A few years ago, they started biking to Baishu from Lijang, they liked the place. Some foreigners rented store fronts from villagers, hence western food and signs.

And yet again my thoughts are drawn towards the mysterious ways of authenticity. Please, I pray to my fat little Buddha, even knowing how useless it is, don’t let Shuhe into Lijang and Shaxi into Shuhe.

Baishu, I don’t care that much about.

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