Some 150km north of Dali through numerous Bai and Yi hamlets, roads make their final descent from the ridges to a plain dominated by the inspiringly spiky and ice-bound massif of Yulong Xue Shan, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Nestled to the southeast among green fields and dwindling pine forests is LIJIANG, capital of the Naxi Kingdom, whose centuries-old maze of winding lanes and clean streams, wooden wineshops, weeping willows and rustic stone bridges are alone worth the journey here. Lijiang is by no means an entirely traditional, undiscovered haven, however, partly due to a devastating earthquake which destroyed a third of the town in 1996. Having invested heavily in rebuilding, the government now aims to profit through tourist development, and while restorations have been largely tasteful where carried out, Lijiang’s Naxi seem often marginalized as players in a cultural theme park. They deserve better: the Naxi are descended from a race of Tibetan nomads who settled the region before the tenth century, and until recently a matriarchal society, they brought with them what are still considered some of the sturdiest horses in China, and a shamanistic religion known as Dongba. A blend of Tibetan Bon, animism and Taoist tendencies, Dongba’s scriptures are written with unique pictograms, and its pantheistic murals still decorate temples around Lijiang, a good excuse to explore nearby villages by bicycle. For some background reading before you leave home, try to find the exhaustive, two volume aAncient Nakhi Kingdom of Southwest China by eccentric botanist-anthropologist Joseph Rock, who lived here back in the 1930s.
While Lijiang and nearby villages are good for an easy few days, there are more ambitious trips to consider west to the small town of Shigu and Weixi, or the excellent two-day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge due north of Lijiaug. Farther afield, those heading east into Sichuan via the rail head at Panzhihua or remore Lugu Lake have the chance to delve deeper into regional cultures.
Oriented north-south, Xin Dajie is Lijiang’s three-kilometer-long main street. Just about everything west of this line is modern, but east, behind Lion Hill’s radio mast, is where you’ll find the old town, known locally as DAYAN. It’s not easy to navigate around Dayan’s back-streets, but as there are less particular sights Flits hardly matters. While you wander, try to peek in around the solid wooden gates of Naxi houses. These substantial two-storey homes are built around a central paved courtyar, eaves and screens carved with mythological figures and fish, representing good luck. Family houses are very important to the Naxi – Li jiang was formerly organized into clans – and marry people spend a large part of their income maintaining and improving them.
All roads into Dayan lead to its core at Sifang, the main marketplace. Well geared up to the tourists who come to buy embroidery, hand-beaten copper pots, and wooden carvings of hawks and cockerels, cheap restaurants around the square make it a fine place to stop and watch for older people wearing traditional dark tunics and capes patterned in cream and blue, representing the cosmos. North from here, Doug Dajie is lined with touristy, wooden-fronted souvenir shops (though you have to admire the work that has gone into these new buildings), while heading south takes you right into D,ayan’s maze, where you’ll encounter more locally oriented markets and charactertul streets. West, cobbled lanes lead up to views of tiled roofs from the fi-inges of Lion Hill, whose forested crown is topped by wooden Wangu Lou (Y15), an overbuilt, 22-metre-high pavilion. Below here, the southern part of Dayan didn’t survive the earthquake and has been replaced by a complex of weighty Qing-style stone pavilions and ornamental arches, all emphatically Hall Chinese and totally inappropriate for the town. Less at odds with local character, the southern boundary is marked by Baimalong Tan, an old, dragon-headed spring and washing pool in front of a small temple and tangled garden,
When you’ve had enough of strolling the streets, head up to Black Dragon Pool Park (daily 7am -late evening;Y20) on Lijiang’s northern outskirts. Less contrived than the average public space in China, the sizeable pool is also known as Yuquan (Jade Spring), after the clear, pale green water which wells up from the base of surrounding hills. With Yulong Xue Shan behind, the elegant mid-pool Deyue Pavilion is outrageously photogenic – in the early afternoon, you can watch traditionally garbed musicians performing Naxi music in the western halls.
A path runs around the shore between a spread of trees and buildings, passing first the cluster of compounds which comprise the Dongba Cultural Research Institute. The word “dongba” relates to the shamans themselves, about thirty of whom are still alive and kept busy here translating twenty thousand rolls of the old Naxi scriptures, dongba-jings, for posterity Farther around, and almost at the top end of the pool, is a group of halls imported in the 1970s from the site of what was once Lijiang’s major temple, Fuguo Si. The best of these is Wufeng Lou, the
Five Phoenix Hall, a grand Ming-dynasty palace with a triple roof and interior walk embellished with reproductions of Baisha’s temple murals.
Lijiang is three hours from Dali on the new expressway, or five hours if you take the older road (likely if yon get a rattletrap country bus).The airport lies 20km south along the highway. From the main bus station, a grey concrete block at the southern edge of town, a fifteen-minute walk uphill along Xin Dajie takes you past a shopping centre and the post office, then continues north past the Bank of China, the small North bus station and a statue of Chairman Mao, and towards Black Dragon pool Park. Walking and cycling are the main means of getting around – ask at your accommodation about bike rental. The old town is tough to find your way around – look out for prints of the hand-drawn English map, “Roaming in Lijiang” sold in tourist stores Y5). General information is provided by accommodation and tourist cafes (see below), while you can book tours of local sights through Laojun Mountain Travel Service (Tel:0888/5105618), at the intersection of Xin Dajie and roads into Dayan – count on Y300 a day for a car and driver, and from Y140 per person for day-trips to the mountain.
As a rule of thumb, buses leaving Lijiang for northern destinations depart from the North bus station, while other directions are covered from the main depot. Buses head in all directions: south as far as Kunming and Baoshan; west to Weixi; north to Qiatou or Daju (for Tiger Leaping Gorge), and Zhongdian; and east to Lugu Hu and Panzhihua in Sichuan. While the Sichuan routes have become popular alternative trails between the provinces, the Tibetan border beyond Zhongdian is only accessible to groups on tours. CAAC is in the western part of town on Fuhui Lu, or you can buy tickets from the travel agents outside the bus station; as well as frequent services to Kunming, there are also daily flights to Jinghong in Xishuangbanna.
Lijiang has plenty of places to stay, and it’s one place in China where families are encouraged to open up their homes to guests, so there are some great small places in the old town. Mid-range hotels in the new totown are legion, though there’s no reason to stay there – even if you have an early bus, it’s a very short cab ride to the station. The hotels below are all housed in Naxi-style buildings, some more authentic than others. Addresses are listed but they aren’t much help – look at the map for locations.
A Liang Guesthouse 110 Wenzhi Xiang
Tel: 0888/5129923. The best place to stay in Lijiang, this is simply a snug old Naxi courtyard house – one of a hundred “specially protected” buildings in Lijiang – with three upstairs rooms that the amiable family rent out at reasonable rates.
Inn of the First Bend
43 Mishi Xiang Tel:0888/5181688. An old backpacker staple. All facilities are shared and staff are friendly and professional. Rooms surround a central courtyard. Bike rental available. Dorm beds Y20.
8 Xinyi Xiang Tel: 0888/5102222. The upmarket option, a new, imitation Naxi building, in which the mostly Han staff wear Naxi costume all day. The location is good though, but it’s only worth considering if you absolutely must have your own bathroom.
Old Town Inn
Xinyi Jie Tel: 0888/5189000. Slightly more upmarket, a new, quiet, good-looking place offering rooms with and without a bath.
Old Town Youth Hostel
61 Xinhua Jie Tel: 0888/5188611. A new, accredited youth hostel, offering beds in rooms off a central courtyard. Small discount for YHA members. Offers bike rental. Dorm beds ?15-50.
Square Inn Off Sifang Square Tel:0888/5127487. Small, good value and well located at the heart of the old town. Dorm beds ?25.
Lijiang’s restaurants enjoy a good standard of cooking, though local treats are limited to baba, a rather stodgy deep-fried flour patty stuffed with meat or vegetables. The old towns inns (not accommodation) around Siftng marketplace are interesting places to wolf down ricepots, pork stews and dried ham dishes with locals; some have gone to the trouble of translating their names into English, such as “Welcome to Flourish Snack”. There are also plenty of tourist restaurants and foreign-oriented cafes in the vicinity of Sifang: Thc Camel Bar is the most conducive place for a drink. In winter, keep an eye open in the markets for the best walnuts in Yunnan, and bright orange persimmons growing on big, leafless trees around town – these have to be eaten very ripe and are an acquired taste.