Picture, if you will, that vision of ancient China you’ve always had. Tiny stone streets that weave their way from one plaza to another, passing endless Chinese-style buildings with that oh-so-distinctive style of roof. Now what if I told you I was standing in the midst of a Chinese town that looked just like that vision and seems to go on forever?
This is Lijiang (pronounced Lee-geeawng), one of Yunnan’s star attractions for the simple fact that, unlike the majority of China, its old town, dating back some 800+ years, is still entirely intact. In fact traditional architecture is such a rarity in today’s modern China that UNESCO saw it fit to declare Lijiang’s old town a World Heritage Site (the 5th of my trip after Laos’ Luang Prabang and Wat Phu, as well as China’s Emei Shan and Leshan’s Grand Buddha).
This place takes the “old town” elements of Yangshuo and Shangri-La that I found so charming and magnifies them by about 100. The area is simply massive and it is remarkably easy to get lost wandering its blissfully car-less streets and back alleys (in fact, Lonely Planet flat out states “you will get lost,” a very true statement). A network of tiny canals intersperse themselves throughout the streets and locals can still be seen washing vegetables, dishes and clothes in their waters!
Lijiang was originally a Naxi minority village and the seat of the town’s former leadership under the Mu clan has been renovated and opened to the public as a museum. You can still see Naxi folk wandering the town in their traditional garb, though I suspect this may be more for the tourists (who, of course, have countless opportunities to don the same traditional garb for the sake of photos).
Unfortunately, it’s those very same tourists that kind of ruin the seeming fantasy-land that is Lijiang and those infamous Chinese tour groups come here in droves. As such, every single store front in the massive old town is a shop, restaurant or hotel. Like any major tourist destination, there seem to be only about 6 different varieties of stores. In fact, you see so much repeat merchandise that it becomes difficult to believe that, though someone is sitting before you carving away, the carvings in their store are not mass produced.
Fortunately, Lijiang’s many back alleys provide a veritable escape from the hordes and there are spots where you can find near isolation. But even rare isolation does not help the fact that after a mere 24 hours in this town, I feel ready to move on. This place is overwhelming, yet after a while it all starts to look the same. Lijiang is a beautiful place, but sadly it has become a victim of its own success.
Tomorrow it’s further south to another highly touristy town called Dali!
P.S. After my rather zany visit to the Emergency Room, I am feeling considerably better. Thanks for all your concern!