Northwest Yunnan Revisited (Part One)
Although my home in Hong Kong is very near to sea level, recent travels have taken me to high altitudes in both the U.S. and China. Last week I wrote about my recent visit to Boulder, Colorado, a very attractive mile-high city I had not visited for some 30 years. This week I am reminiscing about my recent visit to the Northwest part of Yunnan Province, a very enjoyable return visit with my wife and daughter, for the first time in just over 10 years.
We went back to visit Lijiang and Shangrila. Shangrila is the new name (since 2002) of what was called Zhongdian when we last visited. It is located on the Tibetan plateau at an altitude of about 3,300 meters (almost 11,000 feet). The local authorities renamed it based on the Shangri-La of American novelist James Hilton’s creation in the 1939 novel (and subsequent film) “Lost Horizon”, describing a remote valley where people live in peace, health and harmony with extraordinary longevity.
Based on what I saw of the “before” and “after”, this was a very clever rebranding exercise.
For some reason, I seem to visit Yunnan once about every ten years. As I wrote in this blog in April (“Do We Look Japanese”), my first visit, with several fellow American publishers, was in 1989. My second visit, with family, was in 1999. So with another decade having passed, this was my third visit.
One of the inevitable results of frequent travel in China during these past 30 years is that you become blasé about dramatic change simply because you have become accustomed to seeing it again and again, constantly, consistently, almost everywhere you go. It’s especially obvious in urban China, but rural China has also undergone dramatic change. There is a risk of not noticing the subtler changes, like changes in peoples’ thinking, because the external, physical changes which catch the eye are so impactful.
My first impression of Northwest Yunnan this time is that compared to even ten years ago, it is virtually unrecognizable, with the exception of major geographic features like snow-capped mountains, forested hills, terraced agricultural fields, etc.
Beijing, Shanghai, and most large Chinese cities have undergone huge and highly visible changes in the past 10-15 years, but the changes in Lijiang are even more dramatic in some ways. Like all socio-economic change, they bring both opportunity and challenge.
Even ten years ago, Kunming was changing quickly, starting with a brand new 6-lane highway from the airport to the city, and new buildings under construction in every direction. The old style. wooden shop fronts and traditional style. crenellated tile roofs were quickly being replaced by concrete shop houses with metal shutters and doors. New fluorescent chartreuse plastic pay telephone booths dotted the streets, in that now seemingly ancient era when there was still plenty of demand for pay telephones, now effectively replaced by the massive surge in mobile phone usage.
Back in 1999, during an after dinner stroll, my wife and daughter and I were surrounded in a very friendly manner by a phalanx of members of an informal English self-study group called “English Corner”. This particular branch, one of many in Kunming at the time, gathered in Cui Hu Park certain nights each week to practice spoken English among themselves, eagerly drawing unsuspecting native speakers into their web as the opportunity arose.
“What is your name?” One asked me.
“Where are you from?” Asked another.
“Please tell me, sir, how can I study in America?”
“How developed is the field of computers in America?”
“How is Hong Kong since 1997?”
“Sir, you speak English very fluently.” And so on…
Although the phenomenal interest in studying English is still going strong all over China, the novelty value of seeing foreigners on the street is now a thing of the past in most places.
Kunming airport is a great deal larger, busier, more efficient and better-managed than it was, with good, clean facilities, well-designed and stocked shops and restaurants, and free baggage carts (not the case in 1999). They also seem to have done a fairly good job of cleaning up the aggressive taxi touts of days past. And a massive new airport is under construction not far from the existing one.
As was the case in our 1999 visit, we flew from Kunming to Lijiang. On that first visit, Lijiang’s first commercial airport was brand new, was located about 15 minutes from the center of town. It was diminutive in size, but it opened the door to a greatly increased flow of visitors.
Lijiang was then a tiny, quaint little town. There were tourists, although mainly foreign backpackers. In the old section of town, a handful of internet cafes had opened, and a few traditional looking restaurants offered some western fare like oatmeal cookies, pizza and sandwiches. Members of the Naxi minority tribe and other tribal folks wore their colorful garb then, as many still do; although quite a few have moved out of their old town premises and rented them to Han Chinese migrants for shops and restaurants.
丽江古城：比过去热闹多了，但美丽依旧 / Lijiang old town: more crowded, but still charming
On my recent visit, a flight delay leaving Kunming meant that our approach to Lijiang’s airport was in darkness. The expanse of street, building, and city lights visible from the air made me think we must have made a wrong turn and were approaching a much, much bigger city than the Lijiang I recalled.
Wrong. Lijiang’s central area now boasts a population of some 100,000, and its total population, including the 4 adjacent counties, is 1.28 million. The explosive development of tourism has been an economic magnet resulting in enormous inbound migration to this picturesque town, of Han Chinese as well as minority people from country villages.
In 1996 there was a serious earthquake in the area. Around that time, Lijiang received about 3,000 tourist visitors a year, mostly foreign backpackers. By 2009 — not quite 15 years later — Lijiang’s tourist arrivals had soared to more than 7 million visitors per year, mostly domestic Chinese tourists. From 3 thousand to 7 million in less than 15 years! That is a staggering pace of growth.
丽江悦榕庄 / Banyan Tree Lijiang
The drive from the new airport to our hotel, the lovely 122-room Banyan Tree Lijiang, was less than one hour. There’s quite a bit of traffic now, including a very healthy population of tour buses.