We almost didn’t make a stop in Lijiang — and oh what a tragedy that would have been. Lonely Planet paints this place as an over-run tourist nightmare, which undoubtedly it can seem like at times. But there’s a reason why so many tourists flock to Lijiang — it’s an incredibly charming and captivating place.
Back on the K-Train (Kunming to Lijiang)
I’m not sure if I stressed this enough in our China Survival Guide, but if you can finagle a hard sleeper for a day-trip on a K train it is FAR more comfortable than spending any amount of time in hard seat car. We found the sleeper cars to be far more spacious and stress-free for long journeys. It seems that rather than fill every nook and cranny of aisle and chair space (remember, they oversell K-trains like crazy), passengers seem to cram themselves throughout the various berths on sleepers, leaving the aisle a bit clearer, though there are certainly exceptions. We found the jump seats in the aisle to be our personal preference, given that we were guaranteed a window and small table.
If you’re lucky, you’ll occasionally be treated to one of the train attendants offering a demonstration and sales pitch for some amazing product. This time, it’s a super-absorbant towel that can absorb the volume of water in the open-top plastic bottle sitting on the table in the photo above. We know this because the very eager and animated attendant demonstrated this with a significant amount of flair as the train barreled down the tracks at over 100mph, swaying from side to side and lurching violently back and forth every so often. How Lori managed to stay dry through the show is beyond me. But we certainly stayed entertained, even if Lori’s expression says otherwise.
Old Town Lijiang :: Crown Jewel of Yunnan Province & Party Central
Old Town Lijiang is kind of like Pingyao, but not really. It’s a pretty old city established some 800 years ago which has been added onto and further developed in the intervening time. Like Pingyao, it is an incredibly well preserved UNESCO world heritage site, but that’s really where the similarities end. Lijiang is a mountain town, surrounded by lush green hills and sheer jade peaks. Unlike Pingyao’s fortified gridded town center, Lijiang is a mishmash of winding alleyways that take a couple of days to figure out. The old town drapes the soft-sloping hillside of Tiger Hill, and if all that weren’t charming enough, the streets are permeated by a vast network of picturesque canals. Oh, and since we’re in Yunnan Province, the people are incredibly friendly, good-humored and down-to-earth.
We stayed at Mama Naxi’s Guest House, which is really THE go-to place for foreign backpackers coming through Lijiang. It’s the type of place that Lori and I couldn’t get enough of while in China — Reasonable rates, friendly family atmosphere and lots of travelers from all over the world coming and going. China can be a lonely place to travel as it can be hard to find budget lodging popular with English-speaking travelers in many places, and Chinese backpackers, on the whole, seem to speak only very basic English if any at all. In places like Beijing and Xian, there are so many budget options, and it is easy to end up somewhere half-empty with very little travel vibe. But Yunnan Province towns are a bit different, given that — despite an over-abundance of accommodation options — all the foreigners seem to flock to one or two key places. In other countries, I’ve loathed such places dreaming of the more authentic (or at least non-foreign) alternative. In China, however, we pined for places like Mama Naxi’s.
Mama Naxi, herself, is incredibly friendly and gracious. She greets each guest with a big smile (and a banana) upon arrival. There is a good travel desk that can answer many (but not all) of your questions regarding travel to Tiger Leaping Gorge and elsewhere. The restaurant is also good (definitely a good place to meet other foreign travelers), though we opted to find our own food in one of the town’s many tasty eating establishments (you’ll see why in the Food of Lijiang post).
Mama Naxi’s GH does however receive a few dings against them for being on the costlier side of things (with shared bathrooms) and also the location can be quite difficult to find on your own. To their credit, they do suggest on Hostelworld to give them a call upon arrival so that they can send someone to meet you, but we missed that memo. Instead, we spent an hour wandering around Lijiang’s twisting streets at night in the pouring rain on an empty stomach with our heavy packs searching for the place.
In smugness which is sadly becoming increasingly characteristic of the Lonely Planet brand, LP China encourages readers to chuck the map and basically meander around aimlessly until you eventually end up where you want to be. This advice is utterly ridiculous when you actually want to take LP up on one of their suggestions (which always somehow sound sooo fabulous) and also would like to find the place within the next couple of hours. A woman at a random hostel gave us a much better map than the one in LP which we used religiously the first two days of our stay. After that, yes, you can get around fairly easy, but Lijiang is by no means an easy place to quickly find your bearings. We stayed there for four days and there are still some historical sights which we were never able to find.
Lijiang is incredibly picturesque. At every turn (and I mean this literally) there is a picture-perfect view of something, framed perfectly by an abundance of foliage, cobble stone, clear rushing water, horse and rider, water wheel, group of school children in uniform — you name it. But the most startling thing about Lijiang, perhaps, is that it is so incredibly CLEAN. No doubt, this place thrives on tourism. But a lot of pretty filthy places in China also do. Lijiang is just different. Within the old town, you will be hard-pressed to find any noteworthy amount of litter anywhere. It’s also very well maintained — not a cobblestone out of place, not a timber without a high laquer shine. Even the canals — for the most part — are squeaky clean. Yunnan, in general, is a particularly clean place, but Lijiang may be perhaps the crown jewel of cleanliness.
Horse and rider are common sights throughout Yunnan, but the tourist variety are quite common around Lijiang. Many can be found in the town square for the purposes of taking a short ride or getting a photo.
Lijiang is famous for its giant water wheels which welcome visitors at the north entrance to town. There are a few waterwheels scattered throughout the old town — some still in working order.
We spent a considerable amount of time one morning hanging out at our favorite spot for breakfast, N’s Kitchen (they have delicious brown bread and other hard-to-find goodies). During our time spent there we were serenaded by the young woman (above) sitting in the square outside playing the same song over and over for the three hours we were there. After enduring this, we thought it only fitting to get a photo of her, given that she played such a central role in that morning’s activities.
Like other towns around Yunnan Province, Lijiang hosts nightly circle dancing in one of the town squares. Pretty entertaining, but Shangri-la’s (Zhondian’s) takes the cake. Them some crazy folks up in those parts.
This photo needs no caption. I was walking by and looked over and there was the most pathetic and disheveled thing I had seen in a while. In fact, let’s make this an interactive post — let’s see who can post the best caption for this photo in the comment section. It’ll be interesting to see what y’all come up with. GO!
Get da Party Started :: Lijiang by Night
Ok, we really did not expect this. We expected hordes of tourists from what we had read and heard, but nothing like this. And this was supposed to be the “off-season.” At night, Lijiang gets crazy as tourists (99% Chinese) flood the main streets.
The good news: head any direction off the main drags and you’re back to sleepy mountain town. More good news: cars are not allowed in the old town. The bad news: Lijiang’s design forces you to contend with the masses to get most places in the town (certainly most places to eat), and motorcycles are permitted in the main pedestrian thoroughfares.
These photos were taken on a Friday night. Other nights were a bit more chill, but not by much. And when the rains come — LOOK OUT!!! The umbrellas come flying out left and right as the hordes refuse to take cover but rather opt for mass umbrella street fighting. COVER YOUR EYES!
Probably the most surprising aspect of Lijiang’s nightlife was strolling (or rather being pushed) down pathways passing the same sleepy cafes we passed by day turned raging centers of hedonism and utter weirdness. Lijiang, like no other place we’ve so far visited in China, attracts an incredible number of youth and young adults. When we first arrived, this was a giant mystery…that is…until night fell. Love it or hate it, the clubs are tightly concentrated around the main square — making it easy to imbibe and then leave it behind for soberer corners.
That particular Friday night we also got to see dozens of lotus candles being sent down the canals by small children and their parents. It’s kind of a bizarre setup they’ve got. Very charming — child carefully lights candle, parent and child walk down to canal, parent and child gingerly launch candle in stream, excitedly watch as it floats down, taking pictures and admiring the beauty of it all — until forty feet later candle abruptly disappears ove the edge of a small waterfall where the trash guy is standing with a net to unceremoniously fish the soaked paper lotus out of the water and throw it in the trash. But the seconds leading up to that last violent moment will live on forever in the memory of a child…I’m sure.
Lijiang from Above :: Tiger Hill
A nice (and cheap) outing around old town is a walk up to Tiger Hill. The hill is a substantial green space area in the center of town sporting an imposing contemporary Pagoda with great views. We also hear that a walk to Black Dragon Pool and Elephant Hill is very nice, but were too cheap to pay the entry fee. The entry fee into Black Dragon Pool itself is not much, but in order to enter you must also have paid the substantially costlier old town entrance fee (which no one is really required to purchase unless they enter a handful of tourist areas such as Black Dragon Pool). If it hadn’t been the rainy season, we probably would have done it, given that there are supposed to be incredible views of 18,000-foot Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. But this time of year, these views can be rare.