South of the Clouds: Lijiang, Yunnan, China

Lijiang YunnanA UNESCO World Heritage site, Lijiang is a funny one. It was demolished by an earthquake in 2006, just before it received the UNESCO status. It was subsequently rebuilt, and retained its protected status even though most of the buildings are replicas of the originals.

Despite — or perhaps because of — its new-old architecture, Lijiang is actually pleasing to the eye. Narrow, cobbled streets wind through a labyrinth of wood and stone buildings with up-swept roofs. The best part are canals cut into the stone roads, filled with rushing water that tumbles down from nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (a “snow mountain” in China is one that is covered in snow year-round). Several wells in the town center also contribute clear blue water to the canals. Stone and wood bridges cross the canals – three of which are channels of the Jade River. According to the UNESCO website, Lijiang has 354 bridges.

%Gallery-112457%Bear in mind that though the town is beautiful, it’s also in China. It can feel a bit like a Disney conception of what an older China might look like. It’s also one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists, so it can get extremely crowded.

What to see and do

Getting lost in Lijiang’s old town can be a real pleasure, especially if you wander to the fringes. The center of the is filled with stores selling the usual Chinese tat, but as you move away things get (slightly) less touristy. Here you’ll be able to escape most of the hordes of tourists and see a bit of day-to-day life: a Naxi woman doing laundry in a canal, or school children released for the day in a mob.

Just outside the north gate (Beimen) are two large water wheels (and by the way, the Pizza Hut across the square from the water wheels has the best restroom you’ll find in town… ). These are modern constructs but are fun to watch nonetheless (where does the water go?). At night they are lit up, and the square is filled with minority dancing.

Within walking distance along the Jade River is Black Dragon Pool,with an oft-photographed scene that you’ll often see in promotional photos of Lijiang. A clear pool is framed by an arched bridge and then topped by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It’ll cost 80 yuan (about $12) to get in, and your ticket allows you access to a few other (rather unexciting) sites around Lijiang.

A quick taxi ride out of town is Shuhe, a another “protected” village like Lijiang. In fact, it really just feels like a smaller version of Lijiang, though slightly less crowded. Shuhe was also a stop on the ancient tea-horse caravan route, and was an important leather-producing village. As in Lijiang, the river is divided into channels that flow along each street. The water is clear, but — as if to remind us that this is indeed still China — garbage and a dead pig slumped under one bridge when we visited (see photo gallery).

How to get there

A high-speed rail connection just opened from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, to Lijiang, making the journey a fairly pleasant overnight ride. It’s definitely preferable to the bus, though bus is the best way to connect to either Dali or Shaxi.

Because Lijiang is popular with Chinese tourists, there are plenty of flights to and from Beijing and Shanghai. It’s also a short and inexpensive hop from Kunming.

For more about Gadling’s travels in Yunnan, click here.

Our trip to Lijiang was partially funded by WildChina, but the opinions expressed here are 100% our own.