Shuhe -- Lijiang's oft-overshadowed sibling. Rough stone-cobbled streets, grey slate roofs and shopfronts of dark wood. Wooded hills rising behind, and all thru it streams and channels of clear rushing water. For an hour of daylight each morning before the crowds arrive it's perfect. I walk the streets in the quiet and watch banners of intricate Chinese calligraphy float and snap in the breeze.

Shuhe is a confection, of course, the waterways rough stone mortared over cinderblocks and PVC pipe, and the 'ancient' buildings mostly built in the internet age, but it's a deeply pleasing one in that quiet hour nonetheless. By 10am the streets will be full of day-trippers taking joyrides on broken ponies and being wooed into shops by girls in local minority costume hoping to make a sale of Pu'er tea or silver or any of a hundred other assorted varieties of tourist junk.

Not that it matters to me: I'm not the target market. A lone laowai going back and forth on various minor errands, anonymous and mute and mostly just trying to get my gear in order before I set off tomorrow, north over the pass at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and down the winding road to Daju at the far end of Tiger Leaping Gorge. 

I pass the day anxiously packing, repacking and re-repacking, and in the evening my little guesthouse in an alleyway off the main street throws a dinner for the guests in the central courtyard. It's huoguo: hot-pot (of a kind), a salty broth to which is added tofu and mushrooms and veggies and curiously unidentifiable-as-individual-parts-of-the-animal chunks of bony, black-skinned chicken. We drink watery 2.5% Dali beer and sticky-sweet Yunnan dessert wine and twilight paints the sky indigo as the lanterns glow red in the dusk.

I speak no Chinese, but I feel warmly welcome. The other guests are from Tianjin and Guangdong and from Chengdu, and they make round after complicated round of toasts, drinking beer from tiny glasses after each one. The bubbling hot-pot steams voluminously in the dark as the night cools, and as the alcohol continues to flow a guitar is produced, and I find myself, at considerable insistence from the other guests, singing 'Knockin On Heaven's Door' in my inept tuneless tenor.

Not that it matters: everyone loves it. I say goodnight as the other guests trickle away and go snuggle beneath the heavy blankets in my room,  thinking I start tomorrow, I start tomorrow, I start tomorrow. Years of thinking about and planning this, and somehow finally it's here. No more days to live in between, the time machine of life delivering me right to the doorstep of the moment. 

I start tomorrow.