On our way to the ancient cities of Dali and Lijiang, we set off by train once more. We booked soft sleeper berths again, but this car was a bit different. It was a double decker with soft sleeper compartments down below and VIP cabins above. The VIP cabin consisted of a double bed and fold out single bed. Not exactly sure how to reserve one of these cabins, Jodi vowed to look into it.

We’ve had some pretty good luck on sleeper trains so far; that is, until this trip We were accompanied on this leg of our journey by a fellow traveler from Hong Kong and a Chinese man. Things were ok until it was time to sleep; and we found out that the Chinese man was not the greatest of traveling companions. He suffered from sleep apnea. In his sleep, he repeated a sequence of events that began with snoring loudly three times followed by five seconds of no breathing and then gasping for air. This sequence repeated for 8 hours. Throw in some sporadic movements along with sleep talking, and you get the picture. He kept the rest of us awake. Even earplugs weren’t that much help against the gasps for air. Eventually, I managed to fall asleep and was startled awake with Jodi yelling we’d arrived in Dali.

Dali
There is something about cities with canals running through them that we like. We found Mendoza, Argentina, to be one of the prettiest cities we’ve visited with its street side canals keeping the city green. Dali, China, also used its canals to keep the city green and distribute water to its inhabitants, but their canals are more a source of art. The small stream curved its way down the center of Dali’s pedestrian-only streets, under stone bridges and around carved rocks.

Some of the ancient wall was restored, protecting the old city. Unfortunately, the walls cannot deter hordes of Chinese tourists from visiting the city on a daily basis. Dali is the first city where we encountered the impact of large Chinese tourist groups. Groups of 30+ people huddled around massive gates and in the old streets. To save our sanity, we often found ourselves wandering outside the tourist areas or into any alleyway that was empty.

There are many things to do in the area surrounding Dali to escape the crowds. On one day, we decided to take a hike in the nearby hills. We planned for this hike to be a training hike for the much-acclaimed Tiger Leaping Gorge trail near Lijiang. Chairlifts exist on either end of the 12km trail to take people up and down. We originally planned to climb to the top and take the chairlift down, but our hostel offered us a good deal which included both the chairlifts and free cab ride so we made a change to our plans. Reaching one end of the trail, we climbed into the gondola and up we went. I could tell Jodi was really nervous about the gondola, so I got a good laugh by commenting on the structural soundness of the contraption and rocking the car slightly to her cries for me to hold still. In not time at all, we made it to the start of the trail and immediately realized this would not be a training hike. The trail was a concrete, perfectly flat path. With no steps or incline, our hike ended up being more of a 12km (7 mi) walk around the neighborhood than a strenuous trek. But, the views down the mountain were great. At the end of the trail we boarded a chairlift, to Jodi’s delight, for the trip down. Tortured all the way down by a musak version of “Take My Breath Away” from the movie Top Gun, we wished the loudspeaker would blow out.

Lijiang
The ancient city of Lijiang is probably the oldest looking city we’ve seen. It’s easy to imagine what the streets looked like before modern times; they more than likely looked much like they do now minus all the tourist shops operating in old Naxi homes. Waterways and stone walkways dominate the atmosphere of the pedestrian-only ancient city streets. Naxi food stalls serving traditional meals are right along side souvenir shops with locally made silver jewelry. Lijiang is a great place just to wander and get lost. It’s easy to find your way back into town by walking opposite the stream’s current.

Once again, Chinese tourist groups dominate the main areas. Getting up early and hitting the streets before the buses arrived ultimately paid off for us though; we nearly had Lijiang to ourselves in the wee hours of the morning. But, as with any good thing, the peace eventually ended. By 8am the tourists arrived in hundreds, permanently cutting off the tranquility of the day.

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