Lijiang old town was, for me, one of the most pleasurable places in the world to stroll around and lose oneself in.
With a history dating back over a thousand years and a crossroads for the old packhorse routes that once brought silk and tea to the western world, the town is a crisscross of picturesque narrow streets and waterways, all connected by a multiplicity of bridges.
The architectural style is a mixture of traditional Nakhi style, with intricately carved wooden beams and mud walls, and elements brought in by Han Chinese. Particular care is given to window carving and it’s possible to buy these trellis-like features (which contain so many elements from the natural world especially birds and leaves) for one’s own western house.
(I wish I’d bought some frame sizes with me!)
Lijiang is also a venue for young Chinese from the big cities. Girls love to come here and dress up in ethnic clothing and for fashionistas it is a rapidly growing centre for alternative ways of making oneself look beautiful. Lijiang is truly a characteristic honeymoon location, redolent with the perfume of true love and the promise of blissful marriage. For more on this feminine slant see Francesca’s post at
Lijiang has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997 and much has been done to restore its buildings, especially the mercantile mansions, to their former glory.
Even the old Christian church has been restored, though a stern sign states that anyone found preaching there will be duly attended to by the authorities. Religion and the State play a cautious game with each other here and it was only with the advent of the economic reform programme in 1978 that the Chinese themselves were able to celebrate their new year once again after the end of the disastrous ‘cultural revolution.’
Here is a picture of the decaying centre that once dictated to the pleasure-loving Lijiangese how they should act and think. Notice its completely alien (for the area) form of architecture.
The best way to visit Lijiang is just to immerse oneself in the maze of streets and canals and savour the delights of the shops, the charm of its buildings and the motley crowds that throng it. Unlike some other countries I’ve travelled in, one doesn’t in any way feel like standing out and, indeed, one wishes one had mastered something more of the language because there are so many conversations one is certainly missing out on… But a smile will immediately establish some form of social contact, of course.
I’ll let these photographs speak of the charm of the old town itself.
It should be mentioned that many of the older inhabitants of Lijiang old town have found that it’s worth their while to let out their ancestral homes to outsiders willing to pay higher rents, and instead move to a flat in the expanding modern Lijiang which encapsulates most of the old town and, regrettably, is lowering its water table and threatening many of the waterways with extinction.
This is a real pity and reminds me of a similar situation with Venice whose ‘genuine’ population has almost halved in the past twenty years because of the lure of higher rents offered by outsiders for a place in a unique city. Although I live in an area which has seen depopulation I don’t feel quite the same way in Longoio. If I hadn’t bought our little house it may have lain empty for years and eventually fallen into ruin like so many others have (indeed entire villages have) in other parts. In Italy the young want to move to the cities, both for more job possibilities and social activities. Maybe one day, those city dwellers will dream of returning to the villages to recapture a quality of life they have lost in the urban sprawls.