The Town of Lijiang

The Town of Lijiang

Not far north of Dali is the town of Lijiang, which is a World Heritage site and one of the most beautiful towns I have seen. It is fabulous for its ancient houses and canals and bridges, not to mention a superb view of the mountains. The city is divided into Old Lijiang and New Lijiang, and the difference between the two is like night and day. From the top of the five-story Wan Gu Lou Pavilion on Lion Hill, the divide is very obvious, as if someone drew a line between the old city with its ancient houses and the new city with its concrete apartment buildings.

An earthquake measuring over 7 on the Richter scale hit the Lijiang area in 1996 and flattened much of New Lijiang. The traditional Naxi (local minority) architecture held up quite well, however, and the government rebuilt most of the county with the traditional wood and cobblestone architecture. The U.N. was so impressed by the survival of Lijiang that it placed all of Lijiang County on its World Heritage list in 1999.

The town merits the distinction. With its old wooden buildings looking into flowering courtyards, its narrow cobblestoned alleys, its artery-like canals and wooden bridges, and its local Naxi population in blue dress, Lijiang is a rare jewel. Its winding streets area delightful maze. It is truly lovely, and not only impressive because of its building architecture, but also because of its irrigation and canal system. A canal with clear, running water services almost every street. Several wells and pools – always in groups of three – are still in use. The first pool is used for drinking water, the second for washing vegetables, and the third for washing clothing.

The focus of the old town is Market Square, which has many streets leading into it and a bridge leading into a small gateway that leads up a narrow alley to a park on top of the hill. Small shops line the town’s streets, and there is a wide variety of handicrafts, including wood carvings and sculptures, chiseled designs of the town on wood pieces, jade jewellery, patterned shawls, traditional outfits made with beads, coins, and silver, tea and tea sculptures, and objects made of marble, silver, leather, and fur (coats, muffs, caps, and tail-skin caps in true Davy Crockett fashion).

Besides its wonderful alleyways and small squares, Lijiang is aglow at night with a soft yellow light that warms up the houses on the hillside and a red glow from the lanterns that hang from the town’s rooftops. Flower-shaped candles drift in the canals, casting mirrored reflections in the water. It is truly magical.

Since its inscription as a World Heritage site, Old Lijiang has become a premier tourist destination. It has not only brought millions of tourists, but also Chinese entrepreneurs, some of whom are pushing out the local Naxi stalls. This is threatening to change the face of the town. Large Chinese tour groups (and there are plenty of them!) invade the town, especially in the evening. They are recognizable because they wear the same color T-shirt or cap and their guide carries a flag or umbrella – very Chinese! The tourists can get a bit rowdy at night, when they sit in bars and drink heavily and start singing. By the canals, one group would sit in a bar and sing a song, and then yell, “Yatso Yatso Ya-ya-so!” That was the signal for the opposing group across the canal to start their song and respond in kind. It could go on for hours like that.

The attractions in Lijiang are expensive. For example, admission to Black Dragon Pool Park has skyrocketed from 8Y in 2005 to 60Y in 2006! The view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the five-arched marble bridge leading to pavilions in the lake are fabulous, though, as is the climb to the top of Elephant Hill with its commanding view over the city, which gleams in the sun’s early evening rays.