Lijiang is an oasis for the burnt out backpacker. After six weeks of nonstop travel, endless bus rides, late nights on the town and early morning rushes to pack, rapid sightseeing tours and too much street food, we arrived weary and drained into Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse for some much needed nurturing and mothering. Mama has a reputation around the inner traveling circles of China. Her name is whispered across pubs and communal rooms and her bent card is passed from hand to hand with declarations of affection and fond memories. Mama’s cooking is an acclaimed ritual and grumbling tummies will come from miles to sit on her squat wooden chairs in the dim lighting of her courtyard. It was of no discussion then that we too decided to visit Mama’s guesthouse, based in the center of Old Town Lijiang. Comfy beds, dark rooms, clean bathrooms, a loving Mama and Papa (yes, that’s what we called them), endless plates of food, free internet, and always a tiny kitty cat to nestle on your lap. Home sweet home…….except that Cara hates cats.
Mama Naxi is a Chinese version of Mother Teresa, an almost carbon copy of my own mother. Her loving heart and stark generosity was a refreshing change from many of our earlier experiences with the management of hostels and guesthouses. Mama, as was the common label to address her, was constantly buoyant and smiling, always passing out hugs and pats on the pat, and forever shoving food or hot tea in front of us. “No problem, no problem, Mama help you,” was her trademark as well as her infatuation with making us all fat with her excellent cooking.
Dinner was eight yuan ($1 US) and the plates kept coming and coming until you remove your plate from the table to stop the playful force feeding (still even then, Mama would try to place food in your empty hands….kind of yucky). Dinner time was almost like a circus. At spot on 6 o’clock, Mama shoved you into a childlike chair or send one of her beautiful young girls to knock on our door – “you come to dinner now” and then you were pulled clear across the courtyard to the kindergarten height tables. It was impossible not to enjoy yourself. There were individual bowls of rice that remained constantly full throughout the meal. The girls just wouldn’t let them get below the halfway mark and I certainly fulfilled my quota of rice for my lifetime. In the center of the table there were about eight to nine heaping plates of food. Everything from chicken curries, beef and veggies, broccoli and cauliflower, Lima beans, stir fried tofu, eggplant, pork, green beans, sautéed mushrooms, marinated chicken, and Chinese salads were placed in front of our widened eyes…..and it kept coming and coming. The plates were communal and we picked off what we wanted with our chopsticks (which I’m getting quite talented at using!). When one plate started to dwindle, it would be whipped away, rushed back to the kitchen and quickly replaced. Mama wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept us giggling away as she surveyed us like a hawk. If, at anytime we took a break or set down our chopsticks, Mama rushed over and started filling up our bowls once again, “Eat, eat, eat…Mama make good for you!” After dinner, we sat around for hours enjoying hot tea or the cheap 3 yuan liters of beer until it simply became too cold to sit outside any longer.
Breakfast, though only 2 yuan, was banana pancakes or eggs and tomatoes. Yummy for one morning but too greasy for several mornings in a row. Not wanting to hurt Mama’s feelings, we pretended to sleep in and then secretly ate on the street. There were some delicious pork buns down the street that felt somewhat more healthy compared to the deep fried pancakes. However……we were caught! Papa saw us munching away one morning, outside of the guesthouse gates. He waved and grinned, but we think he rated us out to Mama for she later reprimanded us for missing out on breakfast. We humbly apologized and we were once again seated at her little tables the following morning.
We became lazy in Lijiang and spent several days lounging in the sunny courtyard, playing with Mama’s cats, drinking tea and chatting with other travelers. One morning, with nothing else to do, we decided to accompany Mama to market while she shopped for the evening’s feast. With baskets loaded on our backs, she led us through the winding backstreets of Lijiang until we suddenly came upon the wild, colorful market – alive and bursting with festivities. She wound her way through the tumbling maze of fruits, veggies, and dripping animal parts to find her favorite hawkers, old friends she greeted with a pat on the back and, what I’m assuming was a “hello, how are you..how are Suzy and Billy?” …..or something along those lines.
Like a true, distracted mother, she sat us down on juvenile stools, bought us each a bowl of boiled bean dumplings and promised to be back in five minutes. Mama then disappeared into the crowd to finish her shopping without the ducklings following her. I’d like to say that our treat was yummy, but the dumplings were disgusting. They had the consistency of boiled fat, soggy and mushy and totally unappetizing. Though we were choking with each bite, we knew Mama would be disappointed if we didn’t eat them and we would be wasting her hard earned money. (Even the dog under the table wouldn’t eat them when we tried our hardest to feed the starving mut.) Mama returned and, when seeing our nearly empty bowls (good effort everyone), she piled in some more dumplings. We gagged at the thought of eating anymore but she refused to leave until we ate a few more bites of the horrid, pasty dumplings. With that feat accomplished and with green faces, we were then free to follow her through the rest of the market. Even then, she continued to shove food in our hands, apples, oranges…..I honestly don’t know where she expected us to put all this food. Perhaps it’s a common law that Westerners eat exorbitant amounts??!!?
The Old Town of Lijiang was fabulous. We spent hours sneaking through the cobblestone streets full of twists and turns and getting lost among the red peaked roofs and gushing canals. Around every sharp corner was another beautiful bridge and another friendly, blue capped lady selling her precious fruit. Whether or not we bought anything she shouted hello and giggled to herself, then went back to straightening her meager fruit selection. Everyone is happy here – the young, the old, the poor and the rich, all are friendly and helpful at a moment’s notice. Cara and I have indeed fallen for this little town.