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This is not one to miss

Why you can’t afford to miss Lijiang on your trip to China

I arrived in Lijiang half way through my trip to China this June, directly after visiting the thriving metropolis of Chengdu. Chengdu is an expanding mega-city with Sichuan tradition woven amongst the skyscrapers. The city enjoys a warm humid climate, perfect for the languid Pandas of the region’s wilds and their outstanding research bases. My final night before journeying onwards to Lijiang was spent sampling Sichuan hot pot - boiling hot soup stock packed full of chillies and black peppercorns. I dipped an assortment of meat and veg into the shared vat and boiled them to create an intensely hot and aromatic flavour. Let’s just say that describing it as delicious would be an understatement. I left Chengdu the following morning, my senses thoroughly assaulted by the busy social culture, the humidity and the heady spices of the night before, I almost felt I had been steamed, not unlike a Sichuan dumpling. I was unsure of what Lijiang would hold, each city so far had presented a completely different flavour – I was hoping for something refreshing, a bit milder perhaps.

Lijiang is what you might imagine China to look like if you ended up there in a dream. The flight, around an hour and a half from Chengdu gently descends until you take a glance outside and realise you’re flying through a valley with cloud and snow-topped mountains on either side.

Exiting the small airport takes a matter of minutes and I’m met by dazzlingly bright sunshine and the bluest sky, I can tell we are at higher altitude, and it’s much, much cooler - I’m told that Lijiang stays relatively mild for most of the year and gets plenty of sun. A quick drive past verdant green tobacco farms takes you to the edge of Lijiang. The urban area is home to only 220,000 residents, microscopic by Chinese standards. The population is split between new Lijiang and The UNESCO heritage site of ‘Old Lijiang’ - the pedestrianized labyrinth stocked full of boutique shops, street food vendors, traditional markets and bustling plazas all covered by the iconic tiled roofing.

My case was taken over the cobbles by rickshaw to the nearby Wangfu hotel. The Wangfu is a charming property with creaking wooden stairs and well-appointed rooms with patterned shutters. Courtyards decorated with oriental sculptures and water features provide peaceful sun traps to enjoy a cold drink. The hotel is located in the old town, just a few minutes from the south gate and the traditional local market and is only a 15 minute walk from the hustle and bustle of the main square. The location couldn’t have been better, close enough to explore everything but nestled in a quieter corner, where you can retreat for some tranquillity.

lijiang hutong shops

I’m  given a large brown-paper map of the old town and told to go and explore. I set off and take the first turning to get onto the main high street, 3 minutes later I arrive back at the front of my hotel.. on the second attempt I found the right street and headed for the centre. Almost every available shop front is open for business in Lijiang, selling a wide-range of products from fine jewellery and silks to chargrilled meat skewers and fresh fruit. The main square is a throng of activity, different minorities showcase local dancing depending on the day of the week and invite on-lookers to join in. There’s an assortment of places to eat and drink - some are tucked away on quaint rooftops where you can watch the sunset over the tiled roofs and mountain backdrop, while other venues open onto busy streets filled with live music, ranging from Whitney Houston covers to more traditional instrumental numbers. After polishing off a delicious bucket of fresh fruit I decided to head back but instantly realised that I haven’t created a trail of watermelon seeds on route to show me the way home and I am, in fact, completely lost. If it wasn’t for my wrong turns I wouldn’t have found the towns oldest Buddhist temple and this sublime view:

view over Lijiang

Some 8 million tourists make their way to Lijiang over the course of the year and during the peak seasons the population of the town can double. I travelled in June, a shoulder season before the Chinese school holidays. Off the main streets I found legitimately quiet areas, quiet enough to hear the babbling water along the canals, quiet enough to perch on one of the 300 original stone bridges for the perfect photo opportunity without hassle. To avoid the crowds I would advise timing your visit to avoid the summer holidays, and to get off the beaten track by getting lost down random ginnels in random corners of town. Alternatively escape the old town all together to discover the fascinating surrounding countryside. The following morning starts with a tour to the Black Dragon Pool Park, a stunning public garden at the north end of the old town. The water of the pool, the park’s centre piece, boasts crystal clear fresh spring water from the mountains that runs down into the town, powering the famous waterwheel. The water is so clear it produces a near perfect reflection of the Jade Dragon snow mountain that towers over the town and acts as the Naxi minorities’ holy guardian. A wander around the park gives you a glimpse into local life as several large groups, a mixture of old and young were practising Taichi. Some locals glide along with the ambient music, perfectly in-keeping with the setting at the water’s edge surrounded by mountains. Other Taichi beginners start with a relatable lack of grace, stumble and trip but no one bats an eyelid or disturbs the tranquillity.

Dragon pool park water

At the top end of the park are the museums and small exhibitions that pay homage to Lijiang’s unique culture. Lijiang developed as it was the perfect point to swap horses when carrying heavy loads long distances along the ancient southern Tea Trails. This meeting point and its position on the first bend of the Yangtze meant it became a melting pot of minority cultures who have always lived here together. The most famous of these minorities is the Naxi - the museums proudly display their Dongba culture with unique artefacts and displays. After this fascinating insight it is only proper to get out into the countryside and experience local life and meet some local characters in Baisha village.

On your way out of Lijiang discreetly situated in the heart of a Naxi community is the Songtsam Linka Lijiang. Featured as our character hotel for this location, the property is highly rated and rightfully so. The hotel is worth a mention for its outstanding décor and the ambience it creates. The interior is beautifully finished with heavy and dark woods along with hand-crafted bronze furnishings and a smattering of Tibetan artefacts from statues to fine embroidery. The interior is warm and cosy but at the same time elegant and minimalistic. There are subtle modern amenities dotted around such as a gym, spa, outdoor pool and under floor heating for the winter months. All of this elegance is tucked away within a local community providing you the opportunity to immerse yourself in day to day life outside the city.  

The Songtsam properties originated in northern Yunnan, where Tibetan culture meets Han. If you want to focus more on this region jump into our Panoramas & Pandas holiday where you can add a stay in Lijiang and an additional two nights in Tibetan Shangri-La.

Baisha was quiet on the day I visited, neighbouring Shuhe is favoured by domestic tourists which has meant Baisha retains its traditional community feel and is a great place to observe the little things that make up life outside the city. The village holds historic significance and the most famous of the Lijiang murals are held here. The murals show the different religious cultures of Buddhism, Lamaism, Daosim and the Naxi Dongba living together. They were painted by artists from all the different communities when Baisha was the political centre of Lijiang and are a great example of the mixture of minorities that coexist in Yunnan.

The town of Baisha is still dominated by the Naxi ethnic group and the community is home to a noteworthy travel celebrity. In 2018 Dr Ho Shixiu passed away at the age of 97 - The famous travel writer Bruce Chatwin had met and wrote of the doctor during his journey from Hong Kong to Lijiang and in 1985, Michael Palin followed suit in his 2005 Himalayas TV series. Dr Ho’s son is continuing his father’s work with infectious enthusiasm, a self-taught bombastic brand of English and a heart-warming desire to tell anyone and everyone about his family and their fascinating lives. His surgery is covered floor to ceiling in newspaper clippings and memorabilia relating to the families fame and the quasi-ambassadorial role his father has played for Baisha. Local residents use the doctor for herbal remedies and visitors are welcome to seek advice.  A book of business cards shows just quite how many people have been beckoned in to meet the Doctor and his family. The warm welcome and stories of a tumultuous past epitomise Yunnan’s charms.     

dragon pool park

After a leisurely wander we dived through a narrow doorway to a lovely little restaurant, a peaceful courtyard was the setting to enjoy a hearty lunch. My guide suggested the Yak meat with some extra spice, which was fresh, flavourful and filling.

The final stop on my tour was the Naxi Embroidery Institute, where local people are producing high quality silk stitch work. One of the instructors kindly showed me around and introduced her colleagues - some students and some masters. The process requires immense concentration, attention to detail and finesse and this is evident in the finished pieces, some of which can take up to a year to complete. The finished products range in size and detail, from depictions of pheasants, tigers and pandas to full mountainous landscapes. There was no pressure to buy and it was lovely to see talented people sharing their enthusiasm and passing on their expertise to future generations.

In conclusion, the stigmas about Lijiang are true, it’s busy in peak season and business interests from all over China have moved into the old town and set up shop, which is great for the savvy locals collecting their rent but not so much for the tourist seeking authenticity. However the old town retains its charm, the sheer scale of the site and the unique aesthetics of every street corner mean getting lost is a joy. The highlight of my trip was stumbling upon a rooftop perch with views over the rows and rows of tiled houses all packed in under the mountainous backdrop. You can soak up the history in the museums, enjoy some tranquillity and Taichi in the park and wander the old town for hours. The Old town has to be one of the most picturesque and easiest places to shop, eat, drink, relax, and get lost in China. And, if you are yearning for that authentic experience then be sure to visit the surrounding countryside to meet some local people and enjoy their hospitality.

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