Wondering what to do in Lijiang? Lijiang earned its UNESCO world heritage listing in large part because, until a massive earthquake in 1996, it was a picture-perfect example of a traditional Naxi village. However, the rebuilding process has taken its toll on tradition. Likely influenced by the money and tourist potential of its UNESCO designation, Lijiang old town has been rebuilt, with modern construction replicating traditional architecture. Still, as Lijiang continues its inexorable march toward embracing commerce at the expense of culture, there is magic and wonder to be found if you know where to look and what to expect.
Here are our three travel tips on what to do in Lijiang:
Visit the old town – Even if you hate tourist traps, if you are wondering what to do in Lijiang, you must reserve at least a day for visiting the old town. It is still a magical place, with its cobbled streets, colorfully adorned and wooden buildings, and orderly system of waterways and bridges (earning Lijiang the nickname of a Chinese Venice). Adding to the magic, the town’s backdrop is the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, clearly visible on cloudless days.
However, any semblance to the old-world appeal of the Lijiang that earned the UNESCO world heritage listing has suffered under a massive influx of hotels, restaurants, bars and shops all catering to tourists – of which the Chinese people make up the vast majority. There are shops featuring jade, tea, silver, Chinese art, Dongba paper, food of all sorts and, yes, the West African djembe drum (and what this has to do with Chinese culture is beyond us). In fact, it will not be uncommon to find dueling drum shops each featuring staff tapping out various rhythms to electronically produced songs. Odd, but true. But we digress.
Old town Lijiang is not unlike Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco in its tourist-trap draw; however, like Fisherman’s Wharf, if you look, you will find plenty of history and beauty amid the almost unimaginable concentration of shops and vendors. The maze of streets and canals of old town Lijiang invites you to get happily lost — and lost you will get. Hopefully, the sound of running water from the many canals will serve as a soothing backdrop to the press of tourism.
Be sure to view the Dongba symbol murals along the walking paths of the old village up the hill from the water wheels. These colorful symbols are an example of an ancient system of pictographic glyphs used by the Naxi people in southern China since the 7th century. These Dongba symbols continue to be used by the elders of the Naxi people, which makes this the only hieroglyphic language still used in the world today.
Spend a morning at Black Dragon Pool Park – From the main square and the water wheels in old town Lijiang, you can walk north along quiet streets and paths for about 1.5 kilometers to reach Black Dragon pool at the foot of Elephant Hill. The waters of the pool come from a spring fed by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain that serves as a picturesque and often-photographed backdrop to the pool on clear days.
Within the park are ancient monuments such as the Longshen Temple, the Deyue Pavilion, the Suocui Bridge and the Hanyue Stage. If you are lucky, as we were, you will find locals gathering to practice native dances, or playing instruments, in and around the stage, which serves as a bit of a community hub. Stay awhile and enjoy.
Discover real Naxi culture in Baisha Village — In the small village of Baisha just five miles north of Lijiang you discover a Naxi town that still looks much like Lijiang old town likely did before the reconstruction. Baisha is perhaps our favorite “what to do in Lijiang” destination.
Once a cultural, political and economic center prior to the Ming Dynasty of 1368 to 1644, Baisha village is more than 1,600 years old. Despite the history, this is thankfully a real village, not a tourist trap, albeit a bit of a tourist destination for the brave and adventurous. Residents know that tourists will show up, which is part of the deal of in part having a subsidized house there.
The back streets are quiet. As you wander, you will enjoy and treasure the slow, peaceful pace. On a corner in the main square, you will likely see older Naxi women in traditional blue embroidered tunics selling local produce, chatting, interacting with other locals and generally acting like what appeared to be gossip central.
In open stores, you will see Naxi men hammering away on copper pots, working on metal strips, or drawing calligraphy on paper. As you saunter among the stores, you will find they are filled with Dongba paintings and artwork, copper bowls, teapots and pans, antiques (many are replica we are sure) and more tie-dyed cloth (traditional in this area too) than we have seen outside of Berkeley during the flower power movement.
Wander the streets away from the main retail area and you see lodges and local dwellings that are built, according to our guide when we visited, in the traditional style of Naxi architecture. There is a walled compound with a central courtyard bordered by timber wings. The outside may seem simple and perhaps even worn, but inside is another story. If a door is open, tuck your head in to peek.
While you see many holding mobile phones or homes with satellite dishes, families still live traditionally, harvesting and storing food as Naxi people have always done. However, many who have lived there for many generations have done – how shall we put it? – very well for themselves.