A night on the tiles in this World Heritage-listed playground leaves Erin O'Dwyer feeling surprisingly refreshed.
We arrive in Lijiang fresh from a few days in the stunning mountain countryside that surrounds it. As our four-wheel-drive traces the banks of the Yangtze River and descends through the valleys of the Qianhu Mountains, the setting sun casts the landscape in a misty shroud. Every few dozen kilometres we spot another house light. They twinkle at us from the other side of the ravine, studded in the side of the darkening cliff. Among us, a mood of serenity and awe sets in. In remotest China, the population is sparse, and road travel has its own rhythm.
A few hours later, we are jolted back to reality when we pull into Lijiang's Old Town. It's Saturday night and the mood is anything but sombre. The snaking cobbled streets are choked with travellers, and people spill out from the bars and cafes. A night on the town is not my first preference, but it's our last chance before we travel onward, and after almost a week in a quiet guesthouse on the edge of a pristine alpine lake, my two travelling companions are keen for some action. Our mission? To sniff out the best of Lijiang's nightlife.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed city, in China's south-western Yunnan province, is best known for its charming canals, weeping willows and two-storey mudbrick houses built into the hillside by the Naxi minority. Some canals, dating 800 years, are still in use, and the gentle sound of water is a constant in the Old Town.
Because Yunnan shares borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, Lijiang has long been an outpost for explorers and travellers. It was a trade centre for tea and silk, and a meeting point for the dozens of ethnic minorities who lived in the mountains around it.
Tourist numbers to Lijiang have doubled in the past year, from 4 million to 8 million. It's not hard to understand why. The city has a mild climate and relaxed air that makes it more like south-east Asia than mainland China. It's a place of blue skies and warm days, with snow-capped mountains just on the horizon. The markets overflow with subtropical fruits and high-country mushrooms.
More to the point, China's domestic tourist trade is booming. Lijiang has become one of the most sought-after travel destinations, and the newly wealthy middle class are pouring in. And like every freshly minted tourist hot spot, there's a buzzing nightlife to match.
We start on Lijiang's bar street, Xinhua Jie, where red paper lanterns jostle with Red Bull plastic flags. Nameless drinking dens face off across the ancient canals, linked every so often by an arching timber bridge. Inside one bar, on a small stage lit with fluorescent strobe lights, two dancers are dressed in traditional ethnic costumes. They perform a cabaret of sorts, quick-changing through a colourful assortment of tribal garb from the various local minorities. To our Western sensibilities, it's quite astonishing. Akin to a performer in blackface singing My Boomerang Won't Come Back. But at bar after bar, we find the same thing. And the Chinese tourists love it. Tables are packed with students on holidays and, in some places, groups of thirtysomething single women. Across China, Lijiang is known as the place to find love. Sadly, the available women vastly outnumber available men.
We move to a bar with a timber mezzanine floor. Below us, effortlessly working the crowd, is a young DJ in cowboy boots, skinny black jeans and black jacket with brightly coloured tassels. He pulls a couple of unlikely singles from the floor and gently pushes them into a drinking game. It's supposed to end, I suspect, with passionate kissing. But the girls chicken out and scurry back to their seats. I wonder, perhaps unkindly, how they managed to get up the cobbled streets in those heels.
Next, we move on to Lijiang's new town. The nightclub, a favourite of those in the know, is dark, loud and cavernous. A Britney Spears concert plays on a life-size screen; on a dozen small platforms, exotic dancers in metallic hot pants and cat's-eye make-up writhe and quiver. Here is where the real seduction happens. We sit at the bar and my friend Dave is quickly approached by one of the dancers. He's certain she is a prostitute and waves her away. On my other side, a young man sidles up to our friend Mei. And behind me, at a nearby table, a group of men dressed all in black smile and nod. Dave and I are the only Westerners in the place, so our presence makes us quite a curiosity. We order drinks and enjoy the buzz.
Our next stop is an all-day, all-night Korean-style bathhouse. But it's after midnight and it feels as if we are the only ones there. Dave is ushered into the male facilities and, in the female sauna rooms, Mei and I are given towels, robes, slippers and little cosmetics packs. We luxuriate in the steam room and hot tubs. The white-tiled facilities are impeccably clean, and uniformed staff are on hand for anything we need. After an hour, we head to the massage room. We are guided into black leather recliners and given a menu of bar snacks and spa treatments.
The bathhouse is in the tradition of the Korean jjimjilbang, open 24 hours and often used as cheap overnight accommodation. The idea here, too, is that we will stay the night. I'm slightly uncomfortable, as I am in most bathhouses. Even in the most professional establishments, I can't help feeling the slightly sordid note. I'm not at all reassured by Dave's presence. He's horizontal with his eyes closed, wearing a white robe, white slippers and an eye pillow. Before long, he's gently snoring. My massage therapist arrives and I'm soothed by her strong, confident touch. I give myself over to enjoying the treatment and eventually I nod off, too.
Next morning, I wake to find Mei and Dave asleep beside me. In neighbouring chairs, a couple of young workers are dead to the world, too. I can't shake that slightly sordid feeling, and I shower and dress quickly. But as I push my way through the glass doors downstairs and into the bright sunshine outside, I find myself feeling fresh and rejuvenated. In a nearby tea house, I order the local specialty, baba, which is a warm flatbread filled with vegetables. It's the best early-morning end to a late night on the tiles that I can remember. Even better, I'm clean, pampered and ready for the day.
Across Asia, Chinglish signage provides English-speaking tourists with no end of amusement. But Lijiang really does take the cake. In the Old Town and in surrounding districts, the signs are not just clumsy English translations; rather, they don't make sense at all. They are everywhere and they are hilarious. We find ourselves reading them aloud wherever we go.
Some of our favourites from Lijiang's Old Town:
"Civilised behaviour of tourists is another bright scenery rational shopping."
"Enjoy the cool under the tree beautify the homeland on us."
"Less footprints, more aroma."
"Grass is napping, please don't disturb."
Getting there Cathay Pacific has a fare to Kunming for about $1570 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Hong Kong (about 9hr) and then to Kunming (2hr 35min); see cathaypacific.com. Return flights from Kunming to Lijiang are about $400 return, including tax, on China Eastern Airlines; see www.flychinaeastern.com (it might be cheaper online). Australians require a visa for tourism for a stay of up to 30 days.
Staying there Huama Hotel has comfortable Chinese-style double rooms from $50, including breakfast and helpful English-speaking staff. Huama Street, Lijiang; see lijiang-hotels.com/en. At the other end of the spectrum, there is Pullman Lijiang Resort and Spa, with rooms from $150 and a spectacular indoor-outdoor bathhouse, Shuhe Old Town Entrance Road, Lijiang; see pullmanhotels.com.
Bathing there Crescent Moon Spring Spa is open 24 hours, Flower Horse Street, Lijiang; phone +86 888 555 0333. Cost of entry free, but you must spend at least 100 renminbi ($15) on treatments.
Partying there Lijiang's own celebrity pop queen, Yang Erche Namu, is well known across China as a singer, reality TV regular and author of the best-selling Leaving the Kingdom of Daughters, her story about growing up in the Mosuo minority, one of the world's last matriarchal societies, in nearby Lugu Lake. Namu now runs a restaurant and bar in Lijiang's Old Town, open nightly. If you are lucky, the star herself will challenge you to a karaoke duel. Namu's Bar, Building B15, 16 Yuhe Street, Lijiang Old Town, +86 888 518 9092.