Exploring Lijiang is like opening a Chinese jewel chest – each exquisitely crafted compartment leads to richer more dazzling sights.
Perched at bottom of the Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, this remote town in southwest China’ s Yunnan Province is a show-stealer for its amazing landscape and rich culture. Nestled in a valley ringed with snow-capped mountains, springs, lakes and frothy rivers, nature’ s touch extends into Lijiang Country. The Old Town is full of cobbled streets, crisscrossing canals, swaying willow trees and gailyhued blossoms. Every so often, a bridge-stone, wooden, flat, arched, roofed-pops up and along it trundles local folk in traditional dress.
Over 22 different ethnic minorities have made Lijiang their home. Among them are the Lisu, Pumi, Bai, Yi, Tibetan. Miao and Naxi. People of Lijiang are like visually stunning. The market squares and alleys are peppered with locals in their individual ethnic fashions, ornaments and hairstyles. Local customs, architecture, spiritual beliefs, language, arts and craft are influenced by ethnic diversity and are rich with symbolism and creativity.
Lijiang’ s ancient old city has preserved its charming antiquity despite the modern changes sweeping through China. Old-style architecture and pathways were rebuilt along the original model after an earthquake in 1996 damaged sections of the town. In individual enclaves, pebbles and smashed tiles are arranged symbolically to denote happiness or good fortune. Rooms are built beside running water for a soothing effect. Doors and windows sport decorative woodcarvings of phoenixes, legends and nature. Pathways, barely two-shoulders wide, are crammed by two-story shop-houses, inns or private residences all built in the traditional style. Cobblestone streets are free of vehicular nuisances and the maze of back alleys offers innumerable possibilities for shortcuts and scenic surprises.
Although the town grew from humble nomadic origins, there’ s little that’ s transitory or mercurial about Lijiang. Several houses, streets, monasteries and bridges have been there since the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. At the heart of the Old Town is Square Street. Centuries ago, it was the central bazaar where mountain tribes, Tibetan and Han traders and farmers briskly bartered yak butter, poultry, grain and linen. Today, this ancient crossroads for trade continues to hum with mercantile activities; business is open every day. On sale are a variety of handicrafts, from homemade griddlecakes to handpicked tea leaves from Yunnan’ s hills.
Lijiang ‘ s people adore learning and the arts. They’re the bookkeepers of the ancient Dongba scripts. Called “sijiulujiu” in the Naxi language, meaning “signs on rock and wood”, these eloquent drawing depict the history of Naxi culture, their religious rites, folktales and legends. Over 20,000 volumes of Dongba sutra, painted on wooden tables, are scattered around the world, but many are still lovingly preserved in Lijiang’ s sacred monasteries. Amazingly, this one-of-its-kind pictographic language has not been simply locked away and forgotten. The Naxi’ s deep appreciation for culture and their roots ensure that it is still used within the community today.
In 1997, Lijiang became the first Chinese hill town to earn a World Cultural Heritage status from UNESCO.
FOOTLOOSE IN & AROUND LIJIANG
Forget your Ferragamo shoes. Lijiang’ s sights are best appreciated by strolling through the Old Town. That could mean a whole day pottering through the enclaves of handicraft shops and back lanes and sampling steaming Lijiang cakes from a hot grill. Start off the day with a sumptuous breakfast at the hodgepodge of cafe along West Canal and Xinhua Street.
First thing you notice is the town gurgles with water. Everywhere, canals bubble with the crystal clear waters of Lashi Lake and Black Dragon Pool, located at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The locals practice a sensible three-part system to manage water use. Water is diverted from canals into three ponds. The uppermost pond supplies drinking water. The middle one is for rinsing vegetables and the last pond downstream is used for laundry. On either side of the canals, local children splash their feet in cool water and women rinse the morning laundry. All of which adds to the restful, homely atmosphere in Lijiang.
There are as many bridges as there are waterways. Over 350 bridges of stone or chestnut wood span the canals of Lijiang, creating a poetic and idyllic setting. One of the most scenic bridges is double-arched and found at the eastern end of Square Street. Built in the Ming dynasty, it’ s known as the Bridge That Mirrors Snow because its waters reflect the mystic peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The largest stone bridge is 92 feet(28m) long. Also built during the Ming dynasty, it was once the conduit for the village chief to travel from his Lijiang home to the nearby Buddhist grounds. Lion-head sculptures, one of which lost its head during the Cultural Revolution, adorn the stone railings. Each bridge has a story to tell. Baisuifang Bridge was named after and son centenarians who once lived in that lane, while a rich man who desired a son built Wanzi Bridge.
You will see lots more local women than men in the street. That is because Lijiang conside mostly of the Naxi tribe. In Naxi tradition, women are the pillars of Naxi family life. They raise farm animals, brew wine, weave cloth and grind beans to make tofu and noodles. If they’ re not on their way to the markets or running errands, local residents adore sitting by the bridge to chat, knit,play chess or baby-sit grandchildren. The Naxis traditionally live in matrilineal families-a system that survives particularly in the Yongning area, north of Lijiang. Any children born of romantic liaisons belong to the woman, as does all property.
Buildings in Lijiang are a salve for eyes that have had enough of modern towns. Architecture here is elegant and practical, yet blends with the surroundings-townsfolk will be happy to point out the Han, Bai and Tibetan influences visible in each building. Each compound consists of three houses. A screen wall, painted with floral patterns or auspicious poems, completes the square. Ornately carved wooden widows and doors stand out against clean, plain walls. Long corridors link each house to the main courtyard, where families socialize in open-air comfort.
Peek past the main entrance of residential home to catch a glimpse of the tasteful interiors. Homes are spacious and airy. Courtyards are landscaped with rocks and potted plants. The artistic decor reels with religious, cultural significance. If you spot a roof eave in a fish design, that’ s Taoist for “Supreme Being”. Even the tiles on the ground are arranged to denote longevity, good fortune or peace.
Local homes sometimes double as work-shops. During the harvest season, entrances are transformed into golden gateways as the women harvest yellow-colored millet, maize, melons and pumpkins.
Not only do locals have a close relationship with nature, but also with education. Naxi Chief Ahja Ahde was legendary for his love for learning and sophistication, as a cultural relic, his palatial compound holds Buddhist and Taoist halls, a meeting hall, a pavilion of the Jade Emperor, a family ancestral temple, as well as a library containing a complete collection of Buddhist teachings.
Streets in Lijiang are rich in history. May 1st Street, site of the famous over-270-year-old Snow Mountain Academy, as frequented by scholars and politicians during the Qing dynasty. Naxis call this street “Gaoken.” meaning “Street of Private Schools,” The town’ s first young scholar, who successfully passed the imperial examination, sponsored the three-story building beside Bean Market Bridge.
At Xianwen Lane on Guangyi Street stands a famous bookshop visited by dignitaries and learned men. Above its entrance reads an inscription made by the Naxi chieftian in the Ming dynasty , which reads “tianyu liufang”. meaning “Go to read books” Galleries, arts and crafts shops also line the narrow lane. In the past, merchants from Dali rented houses along here, so the Naxis call Xianwen Lane” Jianlogo”, meaning” Street of Dali.”
Mishi Lane on Xinyi Street has always been a lane of commerce. Tibetan merchants from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces used to stay here, but now tourists rest their tired feet in its many teahouses and cafe At night, hover around Square Street, a favorite Naxi venue for merrymaking, song and dance. Operas are staged here during festivals. But you can catch ancient Naxi tunes by the Dayan Naxi Ancient Music Troupe nightly at the Naxi Music Research Institute on East Street, just north of the market square.
The musicians, some of whom seem as old as the ancient instruments they use, play a repertoire of ancient Taoist music dating back to the Han dynast. This unique music has been passed on through the generations in Lijiang. Using original instruments and playing authentic compositions, the musicians give you an opportunity to listen to history.
Several cultural and religious relics are found in Lijiang’ s neighborhood. Only 55of Lijiang’ s 200 famous murals, perfected by ethnic artists of Dongba, Tibetan lama and Han heritage, remain in the country. They are found in Great Treasure Palace, Dadingge Pavilion, Dajue Palace and the Colored Glaze Hall in Baisha Town. Above the Old Town is the beautiful Lion Hill, from which you can enjoy views of the town coming to life in the mornings, or slowing down to rest ay the end of the day. There’ s also the unique pagoda Wan Gou Lou, which is worth a visit-it’ s relatively new, but the spectacular workmanship and detailed carvings make if a wonder in its own right.
North of the town is Black Dragon Pool Park, where you find scrolls and artifacts at the Dongba Research Institute. The park also has stunning views. Not far away is Wufeng Temple. If you follow the winding trail upwards, you are headed for Elephant Hill. It takes about an hour to make your way up and back down again. Other monasteries around are the Puji, Fuguo, Yufeng and Wenbi Monasteries. If you have time, head for Tiger Leaping Gorge for some serious trekking and Lugu Lake-cradle of the Yongning Mosuo tribe.
A visit to the Yulong Xue Shan, which means “jade dragon and snow mountain.” offers expansive mountains views and snowy scenery. Local travel guides offer tour packages, though they’ re quite pricey. You can scale the 18,045 feet (5,500m) mountain on your own without much trouble. There are two chairlifts-the first one goes up halfway the mountain, while the second, the highest chairlift in Asia, lifts you up to 14,783 feet (4,506m). Don’ t let the stunning views of glaciers and peaks distract you too much- be aware of signs of altitude sickness; symptoms include dizziness. Hiring a van for about RMB130 is the easiest way to get out to the mountain on your own.