The first night we ate at a mediocre restaurant, at which two of our party (Maya and Ezra) wisely decided to leave and eat elsewhere. During dinner we survivors (Ryo from Japan, Marieke from Holland, and myself) noticed an unusual sound coming from downstairs. Dear god, please no, not…karaoke? Leaving the restaurant we were surprised to find that no, this was the restaurant’s singer-guitarist.
Walking down the street we soon learned something odd and scary about Lijiang’s aural atmosphere. Every cafe, every bar and restaurant had a singer-guitarist. In many Chinese towns, it’s unusual to find one, let alone fifty. Here it was mandatory. As if one restaurant discovered years ago it could bring people in by hiring a singer, and now every restaurant feels it must have one to compete.
The second night we made reservations at Mama Naxi’s. Naxi is the ethnic minority of this area, pronounced nak-hi or nashi. Mama Naxi’s serves dinner at a specific time. There is no menu. You need reservations, you pay in advance, and you eat whatever they cook. But they have no singer-guitarist.
There was only one table at Mama Naxi’s. Everyone sat together. And to my surprise, there at the table sat two of my fellow guests from Sunny’s Guesthouse back in Yuanyang, including my roomie Jorieke.
Jorieke had just hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge and eased our fears about the trail. Well, except Maya’s. Maya was afraid of heights. I had told Maya that the author of the book I was reading was afraid of heights and survived Tiger Leaping Gorge. I gave her the chapter to read, hoping it would alleviate her phobia. After reading the chapter, she returned my phone (yes, I read books on my phone) and said no way in hell was she going.
Jorieke then pulled out her camera and showed us a video of Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was taken from atop a narrow mountain trail, looking directly down at a river approximately twenty-seven miles below. If there was any doubt left in Maya’s mind, this defenestrated it.
At dinner we met also a Korean named Baen, and two Frenchmen, Manny and Pierre, who said they were about to play at a local bar, Freshman Cafe. I was a little hesitant, but they were very talented, and I found that Lijiang performances are much more enjoyable when you’re inside the bar than outside being ambushed by two dozen competing crooners.
They sang mostly in French, and some Spanish; I told them I wish I could understand more of their lyrics. “No, you don’t,” Manny assured me. They wrote their songs knowing most of the audience wouldn’t understand.
“What about when you sing for French audiences?” I asked.
“French people love songs like that.”
After their first set, a dour-looking singer-guitarist took the stage and played a melancholy version of Billie Jean so heartbreakingly beautiful it made you want to slit your wrists, although I’m not sure that’s the mood the club owner was going for.
The owner, it turned out, was sitting across from us. Baen, the Korean from Mama Naxi’s, introduced me to him; he was also Korean. I added a Korean keyboard to my phone so Baen and I could communicate via translation apps. Some big shots then walked in the bar and the owner excused himself to cater to them. Maybe, I figured, they were party officials.
“Who are they?” I asked Baen.
When the French duo went back on for their second set, I bid the others farewell. With or without Maya and Ezra, I had to get up early to conquer the Gorge.