We recently spent two days exploring the ancient city of Lijiang, China, a UNESCO World Heritage Site highly praised for its beauty and well-preserved architecture. Of the three cities we visited in Yunnan, we were expecting Lijiang to be our favorite. The whitewashed walls, sloping slate roofs and tinkling canals were certainly lovely, but once we dug below the surface it all seemed a bit generic and characterless. Whereas Shangri-la’s Old Town has managed to retain some of its authenticity, Lijiang felt more like a Han Chinese theme park than a truly unique Yunnanese town, and the loosely enforced 80 RMB entrance fee (13 USD) for the old town adds insult to injury. But that’s not to say the ancient city is without its charms.
Lijiang’s best attraction is Mu Mansion, the home of a former Naxi chieftain whose family ruled the city for nearly five centuries. The sprawling property was heavily damaged during the region’s devastating earthquake in 1996 and restored (or, some say, rebuilt from scratch) by the World Bank. The place is similar in design to Beijing’s Forbidden City, with a series of increasingly larger receiving halls in the center and living quarters along the flanks. The rooms are filled with antique furniture to give visitors a sense of how the family would have lived, although the arrangement is a little questionable; one room has a trader’s office on one side and a bride’s bedroom on the other. The scripture hall, itself a stunning three-story wood structure filled with more furniture, contains wonderful examples of Buddhist texts and volumes written in Dongba, the hieroglyphic language of the Naxi people. Built into the side of Lion Hill, the rear gardens are a peaceful retreat and offer lovely views of the city. But even at this historic site, restoration efforts appear halfhearted; the woodwork had recently been repainted, but no care had been taken to protect the ground and trimmings from getting splattered with paint. At least the 60 RMB entrance fee (10 USD) thinned the crowds.
Lion Hill looms above Mu Mansion and is accessed via a steep staircase off the old town’s main square. (Pass through the Kegong Archway and keep going up.) The scenic area is dotted with ancient cypress trees, flowers and even a peacock or two. Crowning the hill is a five-story wooden pagoda with colorful paintings for sale on each floor. Visitors who climb the creaking staircase all the way up will be rewarded with spectacular views of Lijiang and the surrounding area, though an overlook halfway down the hill provides an equally stunning photo op.
Lijiang means “City of Bridges,” and according to the World Heritage listing, there are 354 bridges spanning the ancient canals that weave through the old town like a web. Willow trees bend gracefully across streams and bells jangle as horses clop over cobblestones. The scene would be idyllic if not for the tourists in ethnic costumes striking ridiculous poses atop the bridges or riding horses down alleys too narrow to support the activity.
Beyond soaking up all the lovely scenery, we mostly wandered around the old town a little dejectedly, hoping for…more. The region surrounding Lijiang is supposedly the home of the Naxi people, but we saw little trace of their culture here. The few women in ethnic minority costumes were often either waitresses or tourists. Wildly popular with Chinese tour groups, Lijiang’s narrow lanes were densely packed with folks in matching hats following megaphone- and flag-wielding guides. Many picturesque canals were lined with rather dingy restaurants offering standard-issue Chinese food. The coffee served in a second-story cafe overlooking a pretty side street wound up more expensive than Starbucks. The same ten stores selling low-quality products seem to appear on every street. If there were shops promoting the region’s handicrafts or restaurants serving authentic Naxi cuisine, they were not in evidence.
Far more lively and unpredictable was the bustling market set up outside the old town’s southern entrance. Here, Chinese medicine doctors spread blankets on the ground covered with herbs and roots while dentists drill teeth a few feet away. Local farmers sell produce off the backs of carts, probably pedaled in from the field that morning, while fishermen show off the day’s catch in plastic buckets. Market stalls hawk everything from eggs and freshly butchered yak to rice and dried chilies. It’s a colorful place to explore and the least contrived part of town.
Have you ever visited a much-raved about locale and left feeling underwhelmed? Have you been to Lijiang and had a more positive experience? Let me know in the comments!