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Riding the buses » China, Cultural travel, Travel itinerary » Lijiang, China, an ancient town in a dramatic landscape

Lijiang, China, an ancient town in a dramatic landscape

China’s province of Yunnan is one of the world’s must-see destinations. The “mobs” are starting to go there so be sure to stop in if you’re in the neighbourhood. That may not be as difficult as it sounds for the province borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

To its north is Tibet and it’s from there that a series of high mountain chains branch southeastward across the province in a fan-like fashion. The result is sharp differences in landscape, from precipitous mountains to canyon-like valleys.

The province is also known for its ethnic diversity. This is not the sort of place where you feel intrusive visiting minority villages because minorities are all around you. There is also lots of interesting history because for centuries the area was a caravan stop for those travelling to and from Tibet.

Lijiang is both a city and a county in Yunnan. It’s also one of the most visited places in the country. Three ancient districts in the county of Lijiang were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997, primarily because of their blended architecture representing several cultures that came together over many centuries. They are Old Town Lijiang, called Dayan District, Shuhe Town that is 7 kilometers away, and Baisha Quarter, which is a further 5 km north.

Just about every foreign traveller I met who had been to Lijiang complained about the crowds. This shouldn’t put you off for you can easily stay outside the city if that suits you. I stayed in a B&B outside the Shuhe walls, which was an idyllic spot run by a young man who was born and brought up in Hong Kong, studied at the University of Toronto, and is now a ‘cheerleader’ for the current Chinese government. His English is excellent and we had many lively discussions about the country.

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Old Town Lijiang is a romantic place, filled with a maze of lanes and not at all crowded when I was there. The atmosphere was gay, with people doing group-dancing in the park and proud domestic tourists getting their photos taken in front of just about everything. What is so special  about Lijiang are the canals. The city was built where the Jade River divides into three and a complex water-supply system of canals was established that still functions today. 354 bridges were built across them so it became known as the City of Bridges.

The Naxi and Tibetan peoples are the largest minorities in Lijiang. Much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1996 but the traditional Naxi-style houses were remarkably earthquake resistant.  So when the government rebuilt the town it used traditional Naxi architecture. Today Lijiang is considered to be the best-preserved ancient town in China!

It’s easy to ride a bicycle between the three towns. Instead, I hired a taxi for a few hours to take me around for I was recuperating from my trek in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Baisha is small and the real-thing with the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range as a backdrop. It’s the perfect place to spend an hour or so at one of its quaint cafes. I indulged in some artwork. Shuhe town is different again–efficient and friendly; I found myself quite lost there, which was no great surprise for I was regularly lost in China. I particularly enjoyed my visit to the Tibetan cultural centre.

The drive up to the Tiger Leaping Gorge is an eye-opener to China’s poverty. Many people walking or working along the side of the road were incredibly dirty. They reminded me of those I’d seen outside Hanoi whose houses were built on a coal mine and where black coal dust covered the road. It was that kind of dirt. My host later told me it is one of the poorest parts of China, a place where people don’t have a change of clothes.

It certainly was far from the shine of Shanghai.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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