Built on a mountainous plateau over two kilometres above sea level, the Old Town is a picturesque ancient city crisscrossed by canals in the heart of Lijiang city in Yunnan province. Lijiang is famous for its mild and comfortable climate and very laid back lifestyle. The Old Town in the heart of Lijiang is one of the top tourist sites in south east China and a must see site when you travel through Yunnan.
History and background
The Old Town was first built over 800 years ago in the late Song (960-1279) and early Yuan Dynasties (1271-1368) and fully assimilated into the Chinese empire by Kublai Khan in around 1253. The Old Town became a major political, cultural and economic regional center during the Yuan Dynasty as a staging post on a trade route called the Tea Horse Road or Southern Silk Road.
The Old Town is one of the few cities in Chinese history that never had a city wall. The reason for not having a wall is that the name of the Naxi Mu clan that ruled the Old Town for over 700 years meant trapped behind a wall. To avoid this fate, the Mu clan made sure that the Old Town never had a city wall.
The Mu clan leaders were politically very astute and kept on good terms with who ever held power in China. This enabled to the Old Town to prosper over the centuries and avoid wars, revolutions and fighting that damaged and destroyed so many other ancient Chinese cities.
On the 4th of December 1997 the Lijiang Old Town was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Since then the government has invested heavily in Lijiang Old City as a tourist center resulting in the extensive and what many tourist call excessive development and commercialization.
The Naxi are the dominant minority in Lijiang and one of the main cultural attractions in the Old Town. The Naxi are one of China’s most interesting ethnic groups or minorities and mainly live in the Lijiang County, Sichuan and Tibet. Based on China’s year 2000 census, the total number of Naxi is around 310, 000. Approximately 270,000 live in Yunan (Lijiang), 40,000 live in Sichuan and a very small number live in Tibet.The total number of Naxi
The Naxi are of Tibetan descent and traditionally had a matriarchal society where rulers were male and woman were in charge everything outside politics and much what went on in politics. When you are in the Old Town, Lijiang city and the surrounding areas, you will see many of the older Naxi women dressed in their colourful traditional outfits.
Traditionally Naxi women did all the hard work while men were free to indulge in more sophisticated pursuits, such as poetry and music. You can still see much of this tradition in practice when walking around the Old Town with local Naxi women working in stores and restaurants while the males tend to relax and socialize.
Naxi culture is very relaxed and laid back which is part of the charm of Lijiang and one reason why Lijiang was elected as one of the laziest cities in China in 2004. So if you want a really laid back peaceful traditional Chinese city to visit Lijiang and the Old Town are ideal for you.
Buildings, attractions and things to do
The Old Town is the physical and cultural center of the surrounding Lijiang city and covers an area of 3.8 square kilometres. The Old Town is dominated by water and crisscrossed by streams flowing down reticular aqueducts fed from the Black Dragon Pool that is the town’s water source. Willow trees grow along the banks of the aqueducts and over 300 bridges join different sections of the Old Town.
The houses and structures in the Old Town are built with Naxi minority architecture that incorporates Han, Bai and Tibetan styles. Buildings are typically placed closed together along narrow lanes and cobbled streets with many twists and turns running along and over canals. You can easily feel that the Old Town is a maze when you walk through the smaller lanes and lost tourist dragging suitcases over the cobbled streets looking for their hostels is a common site in the morning.
The Old Town is dominated by Lion Hill to the west, the Black Dragon Pool to the north and the Square Street or Sifang Jie which is a town square in the center of the Old Town.
Apart from wandering through the Old Town’s lanes which will not take more than a few hours even when they are crowded which is most of the time, there are a number of other enjoyable things to do and attractions to visit that I have listed below.
Black Dragon Pool – After the hustle, bustle and crowds of the Old Town, the tranquil and charming park and pool system that makes up the Black Dragon Pool is great to visit. The Black Dragon Pool should take you half a day to explore and if you are lucky, you can see a Naxi performance on an ancient stage in the park.
Mu Palace – This is the home of the Mu Clan that ruled Lijiang for 22 generations and the grounds and buildings are great to visit. You can enjoy yourself for one to two hours wandering through the grounds and admiring the classical buildings that some people compare to Beijing’s Forbidden City. The Mu Palace is my favourite part of the Old Town.
Wangu Tower- This is a five storey tower built on the top of Lion Hill in the Lion Hill Park on the western side of the Old Town. The tower itself is modern and has no historical value but it does have great views of the Old Town and Lijiang city. The park is 15 hectares in size and fun to walk around.
Restaurants & Bars – The Old Town is full of restaurants that offer dishes from all over China and many western dishes. The prices of meals around Square Street, the larger lanes and the center of the town are over priced and you can find much cheaper restaurants with delicious Chinese dishes in the south eastern section of the town.
The Old Town has a very active night life dominated by numerous bars that normally host live music and do not close until midnight when the whole town shuts down.
Shopping & Buy Dried Beef – With out exaggeration, over half of the buildings in the Old Town are shops that invariably sell goods such as clothing, jewelry/trinkets and dried meat. There are very few bargains but some of the things you can buy there are interesting and reasonable value.
Dried beef is one of the most popular goods you can buy with prices commonly ranging from 90rmb to over 120rmb a kilogram. There is one shop in the Old Town that wholesales dried meat for around 40rmb a kilogram and the only place I would buy dried beef from. They are at 125 qi yi jie ba y ixia or 七一街八一下125号 and their telephone number is 1336 8888 545
Despite its charm and beauty, the Old Town does have its down side that can leave you feeling disappointed and frustrated. It is over commercialized, over developed, extremely crowded, very noisy and over hyped.
The Old Town has an incredible history but you will not see much of this with the few historical sites surrounded by a sea of shops, restaurants and bars. The crowds start in the morning fed by a constant stream of tour buses and don’t give up until late in the afternoon. Surrounded by crowds and queuing to cross bridges in the busier areas is a common occurrence. Many locals complain that since becoming a world heritage site, the Old Town has become excessively commercialized and you can see this walking around the town.
In the end Lijiang’s Old Town is a great place to visit, has excellent sites and is thoroughly enjoyable. Just be prepared for noise and crowds and don’t expect the dignity and serenity normally associated with many of China’s other ancient sites.
Flights to Lijaing from the larger cities such as Beijing are available but tickets are very expensive. The best way to get to Lijaing is to fly or catch a train to Kunming then catch an overnight train from Kunming to Lijiang. The cost of the train ticket is around 160rmb for a sleeper, the train leaves Kunming at night and arrives in Lijiang early in the morning.
Unlike other ancient towns such as Zhouzhuang, there is no entry fee or tickets for Lijiang’s Old Town.