A ghost in Lijiang

Late in 1996 I arrived in the village of Lijiang, in the province of Yunnan in western China. Yunnan is famous for its tea, its architecture, and for its mountains that rise up to the Himalayas. I think I came in on Christmas Eve by bus from Szechuan. The bus station was well lit by electric lights, and as I looked at my guidebook to think about what I would do next, I met a Chinese opera singer who sang me a traditional song on the platform. When he was finished, he wished me well and left by taxi.

Looking out from the platform, I saw that everything was dark, and I was at a loss as to how to get to the village, or even to know where it lay. I stood with some Chinese business travellers and waited. A man came around wearing some kind of uniform and yelled at us. A few people moved out into the blackness and disappeared. I had no idea what to do. Gradually, I saw a dim yellow light coming through the night toward me, and as the light came closer I saw it was a beautiful woman with a kerosene lamp.

She led me and a few others out into the blackness. She said some things in Chinese which I could not understand, and then looking at me spoke in English. As we went along a stony road she held out her lamp and told me that the village had been decimated by a major earthquake a few months before. Many people had died. There were no electric lights anywhere in Lijiang. Many of the modern buildings in the village had collapsed, but she offered to guide me to an ancient inn that had been built from timber in the 15th century. It had survived, as had many other traditional structures.

I made my way in the darkness over narrow paths and stone bridges. I heard water churning underneath me in the night. We came through streets cobbled with stone that were completely dark save for the occasional glimmer of candles in high windows. I thought the woman was like a ghost, leading us by dim lamplight wherever she might.

It turned out that the young woman with the kerosene lamp worked at the inn she was leading us to. She opened an ancient doorway and I stood with a group of travellers in an a courtyard. We were checked in and made our ways up to a  room where we slept on simple mats. I spent several days wandering in the village, drinking oolong tea, and walking the winter hills nearby.

On New Year’s Eve, I played cards with the woman and a German man who was travelling through China barefoot. We went to bed early. The barefoot man and I had asked the young woman to guide us to a place where we could catch a bus that would take us east to the high mountains of Yunnan the next day.

Early on New Year’s Day she appeared in my room, holding her lamp. We shared a simple breakfast by candlelight, and afterward she led me and the barefoot man through the mysterious and profound black morning. Snow was beginning to fall, and dung carts were coming back in from the fields. I think about her, the village, and of the barefoot man all the time.