Elope to Lijiang

Of all the places we visited in Yunnan, there was only one which had its own theme tune. In all the little music shops around Dali and Lijian we saw young women playing bongo drums, almost always to the sound of the same piece of music. It is a short, repetitive local tune whose name translates as Elope to Lijiang.


Lijiang is a city in the northwest of Yunnan province, near the border to Sichuan. Lijiang is located in the northwestern portion of Yunnan and borders Sichuan. It is in a region where the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau converge. Lijiang is famous for its UNESCO Heritage Site, the Old Town of Lijiang. The city really came to the attention of the world in 1996, following the Lijiang earthquake.

The 1996 Lijiang earthquake occurred at 7:14 p.m. on 3 February near Lijiang City. The shock measured 6.6. It triggered over 200 landslides in the surrounding mountains. According to authorities, up to 322 people died and more than 17,000 were injured, about 358,000 buildings were destroyed, and 320,000 people were made homeless.

Reconstruction assistance from the provincial government and the World Bank was used to restore traditional streets, bridges, and canals. Many high-rise buildings in the area were torn down and traditional single-family dwellings were constructed in their place. These efforts played a major role in Lijiang’s efforts to achieve the World Heritage Site designation by UNESCO.

The town has a history going back more than 800 years and was once a confluence for trade along the old tea horse road. The Lijiang old town is famous for its orderly system of waterways and bridges. The old town of Lijiang differs from other ancient Chinese cities in architecture, history and the culture of its traditional residents the Naxi people, therefore people there are called 胖金哥 and 胖金妹 (pàng jīn gē, pàng jīn mèi, male and female respectively). The town was ruled by the Mu Family during the portions of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, a period of nearly 500 years.

Several people had warned us that the old town is very commercialized, with touts and hotel owners trying to exploit tourists as much as possible. It is also necessary for all visitors to pay 80 rmb towards the upkeep of the town. We still wanted to see the area and were told that the old town of Shuhe was a much nicer place to visit than in Lijiang old town itself.

Greater Lijiang includes Dayan, and two villages to the north, called Baisha 白沙 and Shuhe 束河 respectively. It was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List on December 4, 1997.

The Baisha Old Town was the political, commercial and cultural center for the local Naxi people and other ethnic groups for 400 years from the year 658 AD to 1107 AD. In ancient times, the Baisha Old Town used to be the center of silk embroidery in the southwest of China and the most important place of the Ancient Southern Silk Road, also called the Ancient Tea and Horse Road or Ancient tea route.

Shuhe Ancient Town is a small, isolated village in the foothills of the mountains, below the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, four kilometers to the northwest of the Old Town of Lijiang. It is it is a well-preserved example of a town along the ancient tea route and one of the earliest settlements of the ancestors of Naxi people.

We had a taxi tide from Lijiang train station and at first were struck by how quiet the modern housing areas of Lijiang that we passed appeared to be. We then turned onto dirt tracks and cobbled roads, past horse drawn carts and mud brick barns. It really did seem as though we were moving into the past. We then came to a single lane road and got stuck behind vehicles trying to turn around, as vehicular access further up was blocked. From there we walked along the lane and up a rugged alley, to our hotel.

Seeing the street we were living on, my girlfriend was not happy. She is not someone who likes to rough it, preferring places that are more modern and developed, whilst I was ecstatic. Inside, the hotel and the rooms looked lovely. It was a small boutique hotel, more like a guest house, with only about 5 or 6 rooms. The only drawback was that the sound proofing of the rooms was very poor and the children in the next room were very rowdy.

Accommodations in the area are varied, but most are boutique hotels run by individuals and families. These boutique hotels are in old traditional houses converted to rooms, courtyards, and gathering places, and designs all trend to traditional Chinese sensibilities. They are often within the town in areas inaccessible to vehicles and can be quite tricky to find. They are ideal for backpackers, but you can’t easily drag suitcases along some of the roads. There are new high end hotel and condominium developments on the edge of the town, both here and at Lijiang old town, so there is a definite push to make the destination one for all tastes and not just young adventurers.

We were staying on the opposite end of town from the main entrance in a part of the town that was less developed. It has no street lighting, so it gets very dark and quiet in the evenings. Fortunately it is in the west of China and because all China uses Beijing time the sun sets quite late in Yunnan. Most of the houses in Shuhe are either hotels, restaurants or shops.

It was pretty common to see groups of people being led along, pony trekking through our part of the old town. This also meant that you had to keep an eye out for horse shit on the road. In the middle of the town there is a series of small canals and a large pond, which is the center of the restaurant district. In the evenings the bars here are the only part of Shuhe where there is anything going on. The restaurants are not that expensive, by western standards, but might seem fairly pricey compared to most of China. One little cafe we found sold western food, but the prices seemed very high to us for a small, greasy spoon cafe. For example they charged over 100 rmb for spaghetti.

Tucked away on one of the old streets, next to a place selling beautiful hand crafted leather goods was a tiny little tofu stall. It had featured on the tv series A Bite of China, as is shown by a screen above the stall which showed the episode. The tofu there was very nice and quite cheaply priced. One of the shop owners that we met nearby told us that she went there for food twice every day.

Another place we really enjoyed was a small ice cream stall, selling ice cream flowers. The owner was from the north-east of China and told us that she had gone to Italy to learn how to make ice cream into the flower shapes. Chatting with her we learnt that most of the shops in Shuhe were not owned by locals, but from people who had come from other parts of China. The buildings were still owned by locals, who were able to live very well on the rents that they collected. Her rent was 20,000 rmb a month, whereas the rent for a typical apartment in China’s working class areas is under 1000 a month, but can be much more in the middle of big cities. A two bedroom apartment in a fairly nice, central part of Shenzhen is typically 4-5000 rmb. She also told us that the rent in Lijiang old town was twice as high as Shuhe. This goes some way to explaining why the cost of food in most places here was so high.

Owing to its low latitude and high elevation Lijiang experiences a mild subtropical highland climate. Winters are mild and very dry and sunny, summers are warm but often rainy  and damp. We were lucky to have mostly dry weather, except for one evening. As someone from Britain I found the climate to be very pleasant.

In the area around Lijiang there are a few popular attractions, but most of them as not as nearby as you might expect. The Tiger leaping gorge is 2-3 hours away to the north. The white water table land is a couple of hours further north, along very poorly maintained roads. Lugu Lake is home to the Mosu minority (China’s only matriachal society), and what has to be some of China’s most spectacular scenery, by there is a seven or eight hour bus ride up and down mountains on narrow dirt roads to get there on a good day and the roads are virtually impassable during the rainy season.

The places that you can easily reach from Lijiang, other than the places immediately around the old town, are the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Lashi lake. By far the most popular is the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which is the southern section of the Hengduan Mountains, is located 15 kilometers north of Lijiang, is a national-level scenic area. It is covered in snow most of the year and on a clear day offers wonderful views of the surrounding area.

Because of the altitude visitors are required to have oxygen bottles, in case of altitude sickness. These cost around 25 rmb near the old town, but are sold for 100 rmb on the mountain. The park which includes the mountain is a nature reserve. Access to the park around the mountain costs 120 rmb, but if you want to go up the mountain you need to get the tourist bus to the ropeway, for 20 rmb, spend an additional 180 rmb to get the cable-car up the mountain and then join the line of tourists struggling up the steps to the peak of the mountain. The Impressions of Lijiang show is held twice a day below the mountain. It is said to be spectacular, but tickets cost from 190 per person, with higher priced tickets costing much more depending on your seats. As we arrived on a hot but slightly cloudy day in the summer when the mountain was shrouded in cloud, but lacking in snow, we decided not to bother.


Lashi Lake, or Lashihai, on the southern slope of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is only 6 miles from Lijiang Old Town. It is part of the Lijiang – Lashihai Plateau Wetland Nature Reserve and is a paradise for migrant birds, with thousands of them stay here over winter every year. It is also the origin of the Ancient Tea Horse Road and a popular spot for pony trekking.

The Ancient Tea and Horse road was part of the Ancient Southern Silk Road, which started from Burma, crossed Lijiang, Shangri-La County, Tibet, journeyed through Iran, the Fertile Crescent, and ultimately to the Mediterranean Sea.

Hai literally means sea, but several lakes in Yunnan seem to have Hai as part of their name, such as Erhai, Lashihai and Chenghai . It is actually a lake cut off by Lashi Dam. Lashi is a word in ancient Naxi language, meaning a “new desolate dam”.

Because of the lake, the wetland nature reserve was established in 1998. Now Lashi Lake is famous for viewing migrant birds by boat and also experiencing the Ancient Tea Horse Road on horses. The best season for seeing birds is in December. Annually, 30 thousand of about 57 species of birds come here during winter. Among them, nine species are endangered, such as the bar-headed goose, black-headed crane and Chinese Merganser. Even when there are no birds, boating is still worth trying due to the beautiful scenery around the lake.

Our hotel manager arranged tickets for us, which included a taxi ride to and from the lake, canoeing on the lake and pony trekking along the old tea road and lunch for 190 per person, which seemed like a pretty good deal.

The pony trekking train takes you past some small villages, through woodland and along a small section of the old tea-horse road. It is a good 30-40 min ride each way. At the top there is a viewing platform and a path up to another viewing area, which offer nice views of Lashi lake and the Jade Dragon snow Mountain beyond.

Some of the sights have grand names and stories to them, such as Beauty Spring, the Holy Well Source, the Cliff Dying for Love and the Seven Fairies Lake, but they are not so special. There was a small pool, fed by a mountain spring, which had been lined with concrete and a platform on the rocks above built, in order to make the natural waterfall look more dramatic. In reality, it just made it look fake.

The ride was very enjoyable, although I thought that the ponies were definitely far too small for someone like me, who is 6’4″. The value for money was also great compared to places later in our holiday where we were asked to pay over 400 rmb to have someone walk around a meadow, leading people on horseback.

The area around the lake seemed to be very popular for people taking wedding photos. The water of the lake was very shallow for quite a large section around the bank, where people were allowed to paddle. As well as the two man kayaks there were flat bottomed punts, where tourist groups were taken out by guides. It was a very pleasant way to spend a morning.

Our next stop was at Lijiang old town itself. The main problem we discovered about staying in Shuhe was that the transport links were so poor. There was a bus service which went close to Lijiang old town, but not to the old town itself. Surely there would be a lot of tourists wanting to visit both old towns, so the lack of a bus between them seems very strange. I can only assume that it is a deliberate omission, for the sake of local taxi drivers. The other big problem was that the buses to Shuhe stopped running before 6.00 in the evening. After that, taking a taxi was your only option.

We took a bus to the old town, getting off half a mile from one of the minor entrances. We then had to climb a slope to get to the old section, as we were close to the Lion Hill, which overlooks the rest of the old town. We stopped for lunch outside the old town, as we expected the prices to be much cheaper. Before we could get into the town we had to pass a checkpoint and pay 80 rmb each. The tickets we were given allowed us access for a week, as long as we did not lose it. There were checkpoints at every entrance and staff who were quite strict about checking tickets.

On the hill we passed a number of typical tourist shops and restaurants. The restaurants had signs about the great views they offered of the city, but they would not let you in unless you were a customer and the prices were very high. Just getting a drink was about 40 rmb.


Overlooking Lijiang Old Town is Lion Hill and at its summit is the Wangu Pavilion, which is a wooden building that stands 33 m  tall and boasts 10,000 dragon carvings. The pavilion was only constructed after the city got UNESCO world heritage status. From Lion’s Hill it is possible to view the entire Li River valley, including both the old city and new city of Lijiang and out at the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain on the horizon.

We approached the hill from one of the smaller gates. There is a 60 rmb fee each to access the hill, but like most things in China there is a reduced rate if you pay online. Unfortunately only the main gate had the facility to confirm the online tickets, so we had to wait around for half an hour for someone at the other gate to check that we had indeed paid and call our gate attendant to have them let us in. The pavilion also houses a display of Chinese art.

The Old Town is a maze of winding cobblestone streets. It is extremely easy to get lost as there is no grid, but each turn takes one to some new interesting spot, and it’s not hard to eventually find one’s way out of the maze and back to familiar territory. The layout of the town was established to conform to the flow of 3 streams in adherence to Feng Shui design, so there was water and waste disposal for the inhabitants. Traditionally one stream was used for washing food, another for washing clothes and a third for drinking. The water was a lot less clean than in Shuhe and we were quite worried to see staff in the bar district washing dishes in the streams.


The Old Town has fast become a destination for young Chinese artists, students, and adventurers. Most recently, it has become a favored Spring Break destination for students. “Bar Street” is a line of clubs with live music, dancing, and revelry. The Old Town has a multitude of shops, some a bit tourist oriented, but several showcasing handcrafts, individual artists, and local manufacturers of interesting personal products. There are dozens of restaurants, from snacks to high end dining. Some are quite expensive, but there are some little gems.

The town really is a maze and we found it very hard to follow the street maps. The main attraction in the town is the Mu mansion, which was home to the rulers of the town for 500 years. Again there is an extra fee for entry to the reconstructed buildings. Outside the north end of town id the Black Dragon Pool, which used to be included in the entry cost for the old town, but now had an additional entry fee. It is well known for the beautiful view it offers of the pool and bridge, with the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. Nearby the pool is the museum of the Dongba religion, which is a traditional Naxi religion.


One place that I would definitely recommend is N’s Kitchen. It is a small cafe, upstairs, overlooking a small courtyard area. The prices were surprisingly low, the portions were big and the quality was great. It is popular with cyclists, backpackers and foreign tourists. While we were there there were 8 customers and all of them were European. I have heard that it is also a great place for getting travel advice.

All in all, I thought that Lijiang was an interesting and pretty place to visit, but the streets seemed very repetitive, with the same things being sold in so many different shops. It is a very pretty city and it would probably take at least a full day to see everything of interest, but I preferred the atmosphere in Shuhe.

One place we did enjoy seeing was the pictogram mural. It was on a wall near the bar district and showed the Naxi language. There are apparently only about ten people left who can read or write this language, but quite a few signs around Lijiang include Naxi pictograms.



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