“You chicken”, the boisterous lady says to me, “You chicken”.
This was some welcome to Lijiang. I didn’t know what to say. Here I was, only minutes off the bus and the owner of our guesthouse was insulting me.
But before I had time to muster up my meagre reserves of British pluck and strongly object, in the nicest way possible, Lara interjected: the lady means ‘check in’.
Such misunderstandings during our time in China have not been uncommon but this one was notable for one particular reason: this was Mama Naxi’s house.
The redoubtable matriach of a large guesthouse, set around two courtyards off one of Lijiang’s many alluring little cobblestone alleys, Mama Naxi’s fame must surely reach well beyond this ancient city, situated in the far north of Yunnan.
Located in a beautiful little street, bordered by a small, willow-lined stream and festooned with red lanterns Mama’s could cater for the affluent tourist. But, as a popular backpackers’ haunt it is no Hilton.
The rooms are filthy, the toilets unmentionable and the …. Our room was no better: cold and damp, with exposed wires, peeling and stained wallpaper, dirty bed sheets, a broken toilet and many slugs in residence.
But it has, as they say, its own charm.
We made the mistake of entering the common area at dinner time and found ourselves swept up and deposited at a time, squeezed in amongst hungry hikers before we had chance to even protest that we weren’t hungry.
Chaos reigned: rice flew everywhere as staff ladelled it out from big plastic tubs; dogs begged scraps off guests and endless plates of steaming, greasy stir fries were plonked down on the tables, their contents scattering onto all surfaces. ‘Please’ a young Israeli sitting at my table groaned, ‘ no more’.
The place is raining cats and dogs. Kittens play-fight in the yards, their parents dozing in broken old chairs, puppies yap excitedly and older dogs scratch themselves and leave little presents for unwitting backpackers to step in.
The witless young staff wonder about, the girls scowling and ignoring the guests, the boys on internet chatrooms and singing the occasional line, in broken English, from a soppy love song. ‘Oh babeeeee…’
Like all Chinese, they are always eating. If you’re lucky enough to get the information you need it’ll most likely be through a mouthful of noodles.
Papa Naxi, in an old jacket, mills about mixing up food orders, a cigarette drooping from his lip. It’s been a long time since he wore the trousers, if ever.
And presiding over all this, Mama Naxi rules the roost, barking orders and acting like some kind of oriental Christine Hamilton.
Nothing happens without the great lady. You want a bus? Ask Mama. Visit Tiger Leaping Gorge? Mama come.
You don’t have to wait long. Soon a loud, hoarse voice reverberates off the courtyard walls as the Mama returns. She sweeps and immediately you find your plans torn up and rebuilt the Mama-way.
She talks me through the logistics of visiting nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge, whilst applying a fearsome-looking salve to one of her pooches nether-regions.
Nothing seems to be a problem to Mama Naxi.
Except perhaps her grasp on the English language. Her choice of words is perplexing - ‘YousleepwithMama’ - her tone of voice overbearing - ‘‘Yousithavedinner.’
And, like Craig David, she has the amusing habit of referring to herself in the third person: ‘MamaTigerdriveyou.’; ‘Mamadinnergiveyou’.
Enthusiastic, hard-working, indominatable, Mama is a wonder. She shows genuine interest in your plans, welcomes back previous guests with open arms and showers leaving guests with hugs and presents. Whilst you are in Lijiang, Mama is your mother.
She is perhaps typical of the Naxi (pronounced Nashi), the predominant local ethnic group, where a woman is the head of the family and inheritance is determined by matrilineal descent.
Naxi women shoulder a great deal of the heavy work. In the streets of Lijiang tourists watch with wonder as stolid, stooped, elderly women, with weatherbeaten faces and rough hands carry huge bundles of vegetables and firewood on their backs.
They wear a rather splendid and prim uniform of blue apron, criss-crossed with white sashes and topped off by sturdy shoes and a battered old peaked cap.
As I type this two hesitant-looking young French backpackers poke their heads into the courtyard. Mama’s onto them in a trice, calling them over to her, picking fleas out of a dog’s fur and bombarding them with information. ‘Mamayouwannabustiger. Mamagiveyouroom.’, she rasps.
Thoroughly bewildered, they nervously whisper to each other at the gate, make their excuses and rapidly leave.
They’ll never know what they missed. Chickens.