I’ve heard pretty scathing indictments of long haul bus travel across Yunnan and of course trains are my favourite way to cruise anyway so it made sense to take one of the many trains from Kunming to the mountainous town of Lijiang. Taking a sleeper made the most sense (there are a number to choose from) and it was made much simpler by my hostel sorting the booking for me. Excluding the small fee they charged, an upper berth was ¥141 (£16) for the 9 hour journey.
So I set off on what I thought would be a straightforward journey. As most reasonable people would assume, I guessed that the Kunming Railway subway station would take me to Kunming Railway station.
Nope. This is China.
The only options coming out of the subway station were one side of a busy motorway or the other side, neither of which had a pavement to walk along. I opted for Exit A which I think was right though I’m still not really sure. The railway station was kind of sign posted from here but involved a walk along the motorway, then going under a subway and then following another road before I arrived at the gigantic station. When I returned to Kunming at the end of the trip, I actually found the South Ring Road subway station to be more accessible. If you come out at Exit D, turn left and then literally walk down the main road (which is handily equipped with a pavement), you’ll reach the entrance to the train station.
Chinese train stations are like airports without the organisation. Swarms of people were fighting to get through the ticket checks, then fighting to get into the waiting room then fighting to get on the train. I don’t know how anyone travels during Chinese New Year. I finally boarded the train and set off towards Lijiang.
I arrived just over 9 hours later at the impressive Lijiang train station and was shocked to see it was still pitch black at 7.30am. Perhaps due to tiredness there was a moment where I genuinely thought I’d changed time zones. Despite the darkness I decided to venture taking the bus (¥1) to my hostel (the lovely Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse) so boarded the 18 – my old school bus funnily enough – which was heading in the direction of the old town.
Unfortunately despite the hostel having given me the bus stop to alight at, the only indication of the next stop was an almost inaudible murmur over the not-so-loudspeaker. By some miracle I managed to just about hear my stop and found my hostel with no help from technology – result! After a power nap and a shower, I was ready to see what Lijiang had to offer.
A tourist’s heaven, Lijiang centres around its impressive old town, a huge area filled with winding, cobbled streets and traditional Chinese buildings which have been converted into shops, guest houses, restaurants, bars… pretty much anything. There’s an ¥80 maintenance fee to be paid but when I was there in December I was never once asked for it in the old town. However, Lijiang is a place where you can see where the maintenance fee goes – it’s clean, it has pretty lavish public toilets for China and clearly a lot of investment has gone into making it look good. I paid the fee when I visited the Black Dragon Pool instead (see below).
You could spend days getting lost amongst the maze-like streets in here and my first day in Lijiang was spent doing pretty much that. I can only imagine how rammed it gets in high season but in December it was bustling without being too crowded. Among the fun games you can play whilst wandering is “Spot the Terrible Chinese translations” since all the shops and restaurants have an English name on the front. I think my favourite was “Medium Fat Convenience Store”. It’s also worth walking round at night when the old town takes on a different hue.
Just outside the northern part of the old town is the Black Dragon Pool, a beautiful park which is definitely worth a visit, even if it means having to pay the maintenance fee. With some very photogenic bridges, lakes and Chinese pagodas, the park would be a nice place to relax in and of itself but it’s made more majestic by the towering, snow-capped Jade Mountain looming behind it. The photo taking opportunities are endless and I enjoyed a good couple of hours just kicking back and chilling in this tranquil place. Definitely a must see.