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Courting doting young lovers and hopeful singles on the prowl is one of China’s last authentic ancient cities: Lijiang. Though largely unfamiliar to Westerners, Lijiang has become a beloved travel destination among the ever-growing legion of domestic Chinese travelers. The UNESCO folks also saw something special there, inscribing the Old Town of Lijiang to the World Heritage List in 1997 for the many features that distinguish it from China’s other historic cities, from the tile-roofed dwellings, each uniquely responding to the area’s uneven terrain, to its water systems, drawing water from the surrounding mountains via a network of streams. The still thriving Donga culture of the Naxi people, a Chinese ethnic minority with unique traditions and a deep respect for nature, means that exploring the old city is nothing like trudging through a museum. Lijiang wears its 1,000-plus years well: The street pattern and water system are unchanged and the stone pavements, bridges, dwellings, courtyards and arches are well-preserved. Rehabilitations, rebuilds and newbuilds are done strictly using traditional techniques and materials, thanks in large part to master conservation efforts by the Global Heritage Fund (GHF). The GHF and its partners also have demolished modern concrete buildings and stopped the exodus of Naxi people from their communities.
Equally compelling is what first strikes visitors upon deplaning — an enveloping 360-degree view of Lijiang’s very bright, fog-free and smog-less blue sky and gorgeous, undulating mountain range. Located in the northwestern part of the Yunnan province at the foothills of the Himalayas approximately 7,900 feet above sea level, Lijiang is home to a relatively small population and, since its primary industry is tourism, it has been spared from pollution-causing factories and the hustle of city life. In fact, many come to Lijiang simply to enjoy themselves, leaving behind those crowded itineraries in the crowded cities. It’s true that the secret of Lijiang is out — from 1997 to 2007, visitor numbers grew from about 1.7 million to 4.6 million, and the county’s population has grown from 200,000 to 600,000 — but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty left to love.
The Old Town of Lijiang offers a truly unique cultural setting for exceptional strolling and people-watching. Visitors can snag a seat at one of the canal-fronted restaurants, where huge windows adorned by red lanterns frame the city scene. Food is also a great way to get to know the local culture. Restaurants serve specialties that are a mix of Tibetan and Han cuisine, such as stir-fried morel mushrooms, yak meat, jidou liangfen (a block of grayish-brown jelly made from chick peas), fried white cheese, garlicky roasted whole carp and more. The butter tea I tried didn’t skimp on flavor as I feared — according to my guide, large servings are made using a washing machine which mixes the tea with butter, peanuts and salt for a beverage that is milkshake-level decadent, pairing well with baba (a puffy white Naxi bread ideal for soaking). Along the street, Naxi women sell snacks and goods. In matriarchal Naxi society, women are the breadwinners (though what they are offering might just be a heaping plate of deep-fried dragonflies).
The architecture is a culmination of Tibetan, Han, Bai, and Zang styles, translated by the Naxi to respond to their natural environment. Rows of simple tile-roofed, timber-framed, two-storeyed adobe buildings still serve as homes to approximately 4,000 Naxi families. Some, however, have moved out of the city center, making way for guesthouses, restaurants, bars and shops hawking blocks of tea, dried yak meat, silk embroidery, sturdy Donga paper, hand-crafted silverware and more. Buildings are designed to allow for courtyards, which complement the skinny stone alleyways, arches and many bridges. These meandering alleys radiate from the iconic Square Street, the town’s former trading center which is now a mash-up of traditional and commercial Lijiang. Local women dance and do exercises in native garb while merrymakers on holiday seemingly ooze out of a row of open-air two-story bars, set against a mountain vista. As is mandatory for any tourist destination, camera-ready culture immersions await. Referencing the old and difficult practice of training eagles for hunting are local men dressed in white goat fur who place eagles on the willing. Visitors can also pose with horses, an allusion to the local use of horses for traversing through the surrounding mountains.
The Old Town is an interesting expression of tourism’s effect on minority and immigrant communities, but for those who find the scene too commercialized and crowded, visit Shuhe Town, 2.4 miles north of the Old Town, as well as the relatively sleepy Baisha village, found at the base of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Both, along with the the Heilongtan (Black Dragon Pool) are also components of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation and offer intimate looks into the daily life of the Naxi.
To learn more about Naxi culture, the Museum of Naxi Dongba Culture features many examples of the pictographic Naxi language and others artifacts of Naxi daily life as well as spiritual life, where the Dongba, or shamans, are the leaders. Adjacent to the museum is one of the favorite spots of visitors to Lijiang: the Black Dragon Pool, located in Jade Spring Park. Here visitors can play mah-jong under blossoming trees, skip through shallow pools of waters, visit the tree-adorned Five-Phoenix Pavilion — a villa and family temple that dates back to the Ming Dynasty — or stroll the trail around the park. Unfortunately, the area has suffered from drought and the park’s pool — which famously flows in front of what is arguably the best view of the powder-topped Jade Dragon Snow Mountain — currently lacks water. According to my guide, a new aqueduct system drawing water from the mountain’s snows and glaciers is being installed in order to remedy the situation.
The water loss is not a total wash though — it’s an excuse to come back to Lijiang that’s more reasonable than simply falling in love.
Don’t MissJade Dragon Snow MountainLijiang boasts cleaner air and clearer skies than most of China, so its famous Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is easy to see throughout the area. However, guests can visit several plateaus to get even closer to the mountain’s highest peak, which is a staggering 18,500 feet above sea level. Yunshan Ping (Spruce Meadow) is around 9,800 feet above sea level, and is accessible via cable cars. At the entrance, guests who have adjusted to the altitude can walk the short, nature-filled path to the meadow, passing goats, walking under trees and taking in the season. Legend has it that during the time of arranged marriages, lovers took their lives here, earning the spot a romantic reputation. Today visitors write down wishes — ranging from good health for loved ones to a new Louis Vuitton bag — on pieces of wood tied with red string. The feeling here is anything but forlorn — visitors revel in taking photos with the mountain, and many rent local minority outfits, sold there, for the occasion. For Westerners, a local guide that can navigate the bureaucratic steps up the mountain is crucial.‘Impression Lijiang’At 11,000 feet, the top way to experience the local minority culture is “Impression Lijiang,” a performance directed by a trio that includes Zhang Yimou, a Chinese film and stage director who became internationally recognized for co-directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The outdoor stage wraps around the width of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and more than 500 non-professional actors, all local ethnic minorities, appear everywhere. Horseback men trot circles around and above the audience and musicians embedded in the seating area sing and play drums, but the most visceral moments come when the majority of the cast comes out in local outfits of various colors, zigzagging up and down the length of the main stage, some standing on the top edge of the amphitheater against the snowy mountain directly behind them.The one-hour spectacle captures fascinating insights and stories of the local minorities, as told by the minorities — the songs, dances and stories are those that have been passed down by their ancestors. A ticker tape translates some dialogue into English, but the beauty of the performance requires no translation.
How to GoAvalon Waterways’ “WCY – Enchanting China & the Yangtze River” itinerary visits Lijiang following a stop in Chengdu and prior to a Yangtze River cruise. Globus Family of Brands knows the destination well, having sent travelers to Lijiang for more than 10 years. The company discontinued the Globus trip that included Lijiang two years ago, but Avalon reintroduced the city to the company’s portfolio.“I brought Lijiang back in this Avalon package because it is one of my favorite places in China and something unique — the Naxi culture especially — that was missing from our portfolio,” said Ryan Droegemueller, product manager for Asia, South Pacific, East & Southern Africa for Globus Family of Brands.For specific dates and prices, visit AvalonWaterways.com.