Lijiang is a well-known destination for culture, with its maze of cobbled streets, rickety traditional buildings and canals. However, it’s not all about history, for there are more things to do in this time-locked place than just soaking up the atmosphere.
HOME OF THE NAXI
Famed for its scenic beauty and culture, Lijiang is an ancient city located on a 2,400m-high plateau in China’s Yunnan province. Situated at the base of the massive Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, it is home to the Naxi people who are related to Tibetans but have their own distinct language and culture.
One of the ethnic minorities of China, the Naxi are generally very welcoming to visitors. Making a living off livestock, farming and handicraft, they have a matriarchal society with traditions that date back hundreds of years.
Lijiang’s old town is a great reflection of the area’s history. It has managed to keep its architecture and customs intact and is a great place to go to get a taste of what life was like hundreds of years ago, although there are a few more bars playing modern tunes around nowadays. The three oldest districts of the city – Dayan District, Shuhe Town and Baisha Quarter (collectively known as the ‘Old Town’) – were declared UNESCO World Heritage areas in 1997.
The town was built where the Jade River Splits into three, and the people took advantage of this to build a water system that runs throughout the town. The intricate web of canals, with Black Dragon Pool (Heilongtan) as its main water source, provide the entire city with water for all their needs, from drinking to washing and cleaning of streets. The city is also peppered with about 350 bridges, some dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The UNESCO listings brought in a flood of tourists into the area, and as a result, it is common for the narrow lanes of the old city to be packed with visitors at peak periods, usually around summer (June to September), when the weather is warmest and prices are doubled. The best way to get to know the rich history of Lijiang is through a homestay at a traditional Naxi home, where you can learn their customs and traditions that date back hundreds of years. It’s also a great way to try Naxi food, like yak milk tea and yak steak. While you’re there, it’s worth navigating the maze of streets – some so old that the cobblestones shine like marble from the many years of foot traffic. You’ll find many shops selling everything from handicrafts to the local staple of dried yak meat. While it’s easy to get lost, the centre of the Old Town is the Square Street (Sifangjie), with 4 streets (and their countless lanes) radiating from it.
A popular site is the Black Dragon Pool, a picturesque lake built in the Qing dynasty with a white marble bridge stretched across it. With the beautiful Elephant and Jade Snow Dragon Mountain as its backdrop, it is an iconic view of the city.
For nightlife, Xinhua Street has many of the most famous establishments. Music can be anything from club beats to reggae, and the experience of drinking in an ancient building is a far cry from the concrete constructions present in most cities.
SIGHTS, HIKES AND BIKES
There is plenty to do outside the city of Lijiang. You can rent a bike from downtown and spend a day visiting some of the small villages that dot the countryside. It’s a really good way to see the sights, as the roads are good and have little traffic.
One of the most popular attractions is the Jade Snow Dragon Mountain, about half an hour north of the city. The mountain is sacred to the Naxi, as their deity Sandou is the god of the mountain.
You can get a cable car to the top of the mountain to take in its snow-capped peaks at Glacier Park, or you can hike your way up along the trails to the 4,680m peak for a closer look at the glacier. If you’re there around November to early May, you can even go skiing at the Dragon Snow Ski Resort, a small place suitable for beginners and intermediate skiers.
One of the most iconic hikes in the world, the Tiger Leaping Gorge provides stunning views and a decent challenge to a fit climber. The hike up is a treacherous collection of bends, steps, twists and cliffs that will take a couple of days to complete. Many buses ply the route between the gorge and Lijiang, and you can spend the night at one of the various guest lodges on the mountain.
Tigerair relaunched their weekly direct flights to Lijiang, with a flight time of about 4.5 hours. Visitors to Lijiang Old Town are required to pay a protection fare of 80RMB, with additional fees applicable for visits to Jade Dragon Show Mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Tigerair flies from Singapire to Quanzhou from $199 all-in one way. For more info visit www.tigerair.com
PHOTOS BY: EUGENE SOH