Lijiang: the Ancient Town by the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains

It would be easy for anyone to say that Lijiang, the beautiful city in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, is almost too pretty for its own good. Since it would be easy, and there’s no need to overcomplicate things, I’ll start by saying it: Lijiang is almost too pretty for its own good.

Lijiang, Old Town Market Square

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What began 800 years ago as one of many trading posts in the ancient “Tea-Horse Road”, a commercial route linking the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces with Tibet, Burma and India, is now a 1.2 million people city that receives 5 times as many visitors, mostly Chinese, every year.

To make matters worse, these millions of Chinese tourists are starting to be joined by increasing numbers of foreign visitors, attracted by the undeniable charm of Lijiang’s tidy and well-preserved Old Town. In 1997, its location in a fertile valley set against a dramatic backdrop of mountains, its multicultural heritage and its unique water supply system earned Lijiang the inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

If you go to Lijiang, all its attractives will be obvious right away. The well-preserved architecture of the Old Town, with its elegant wooden builidings, suffered severe damage in an earthquake in 1996. But the local government came up with a new set of crafty regulations. “You want to open a business or a shop?”, they told its citizens. “Fine. But first you have to restore your house to its original appearance”.

People on the streets of Lijiang Old Town

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Nice terrrace café in Lijiang

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And it worked. Today, Lijiang’s Old Town is a maze of charming, cobblestoned squares, streets and alleys lined with immaculate shops and stalls all following a unified architectural style. I find it kind of lends the city an air of theme park, but it’s so quaint and beautiful that it’s hard to find fault in it.

The innumerable canals and waterways crisscrossing the Old Town add immensely to Lijiang’s unique charm. And of course, some unimaginative idiot had to nickname Lijiang (as probably dozens of similar cities in the world) “the Venice/Amsterdam of Asia/China”. Wherever you go in the Old Town you will see a canal and, of course, stone bridges.

It is quite easy to get lost in the maze of similarly looking streets of Lijiang. There’s people, food stalls, handicraft shops and restaurants everywhere. You just need to remember that the river is split into three branches right at the north entrance of the city and flows north to south. So if you get lost (and I did, while walking back to our guesthouse with a friend), you just have to look at the nearest canal and see in which direction the water flows. Well, it’s not that easy, but it will help you find your bearings at least.

The Black Dragon Pool is easily the most scenic spot in Lijiang. When I was there, it didn’t look its best (notice the tarp-covered pavillion undergoing renovation, on the left) and it still looked gorgeous. The impressive Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range was shrouded in clouds and barely visible in the background, but it still looked gorgeous (skip to the end for another view). In short, it’s a gorgeous place, no matter how you look at it.

Stone bridge and pavillion at the Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang, China

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Statue of warrior on horse, Lijiang

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The Naxi and other nationalities of Lijiang

As hinted by the photo above, Lijiang also owns its status to its multicultural heritage. People of 10 of China’s 55 national minorities live here. The Naxi nationality accounts for about two thirds of the population of Lijiang and its region; but there are also many people from the Bai, Yi and Tibetan minorities, among others.

The two young women in this photo are dressed in traditional Bai costumes, and were there as a tourist attraction.

Bai women at the Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang, Yunnan

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There were women of all ages dressed in traditional costumes all over the Old Town, asking for money in exchange for a photo, and maybe also preparing for some public performance.

Young woman wearing traditiona Bai dress, Lijiang

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This girl was posing in a way that looked staged, and was being photographed by some guy with a top-of-the-line DSLR camera and zoom lens, so I’m not sure if it was some sort semi-professional shoot. Whatever it was, I smiled and asked for permission, and neither objected to my taking some pictures. The resulting images look kind of cheesy, but nice, don’t you think?

In Lijiang’s main square (had to be: there was a KFC, a Pizza Hut and a McD’s), the atmosphere was buzzing and festive. I run into a group of old people wearing traditional Naxi dresses (as you can see, totally different from the Bai dresses) and performing one of the less dynamic dances I’ve ever seen; basically, they were just walking around in a circle, to the rhythm of a slow and repetitive tune. It was kind of dull but interesting. I wish I’d shot some video footage because they looked so funny and endearing.

Women wearing Naxi traditional clothes, Lijiang, Yunnan

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Bai women wearing their traditional dress, Lijiang

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Just as these two Naxi ladies looked adorable. We couldn’t understand each other, but smiling and gesturing was enough.

Old Naxi ladies wearing traditional dress in Lijiang

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The Naxi Dongba script: a unique pictographic language

The cultural traditions, arts and crafts of the Naxi are called Dongba. The most unique aspect of the Dongba culture is its pictographic script, which comprises around 1,400 symbols, most of which are pictograms. Apparently, today it’s only used by priests in ceremonies and rituals, but in Lijiang many guesthouse and shop signboards are written in three languages: Chinese, English and Dongba. Or it could be Geba, another Naxi script which mixes Chinese characters with simplified Dongba pictograms. Comparing the characters in this mural I found in the Old Town with those from the page I just linked to, it seems to be Geba.

Naxi Dongba or Geba script on a wall, Lijiang

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Whatever they are, I was impressed to find out that the Naxi script is the last hieroglyphic language still in use in the world. Although it is now on the verge of extinction, in the last few years the Chinese government has set in motion several initiatives to stop this striking language from disappearing forever. Let’s hope they succeed.

As you would expect in such a major tourist destination, there’s food everywhere. Be careful if you go to one of the nicer-looking places with live music and terraces overlooking almost idyllic canals, as prices will be on the expensive side for Chinese standards. Speaking of expensive, don’t be deterred by the price of yak dishes (three or four times more expensive than other meat dishes) and try one: I had a yak stew and it was delicious.

Fried rice, Lijiang

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Food court in Lijiang, China

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Food shop attendant smiling, Lijiang

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Restaurant in Lijiang, Yunnan

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Women at street food stall in Lijiang's Old Town

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Nice terrrace café in Lijiang

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If you want to see a more ”authentic” part of Lijiang, head just outside the Old Town, or towards wherever you begin to see the crowds thin out. It won’t be as pretty, but to me, it’s much more interesting to be in a place where you’re not surrounded by other tourists and travellers.

Roll call on the streets of Lijiang, China

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Lottery shop in Lijiang, Yunnan

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Small restaurant in Lijiang, Yunnan

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Woman at street food stall, Lijiang, China

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Lijiang is one of those places that is well worth visiting, no matter how big the crowds (let’s just hope they don’t get much bigger in the future). It has culture, history, beautiful architecture, good food and stunning natural landscapes on its doorstep. It’d be foolish to pass up the opportunity to go and enjoy everything it has to offer.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Here’s a bonus tip. If you are into hiking, make sure to go on a 2-3 day hike in the nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge, where you will have a closer view of the striking Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. I may write something about my hike soon and post some photos, so stay tuned!

Jade Dragon Mountains from the Tiger Leaping Gorge upper trail

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What do you think? Have you been to Lijiang? Does it look like a place you’d enjoy? Let me know in the comments, and do share this post if you enjoyed its content.

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