Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Streets of Lijiang

An article I wrote for http://www.cgrooves.com/, an online expat magazine in China.

The Streets of Lijiang

Lijiang, located in northwest Yunnan Province is rich with cultural heritage and has one of the best preserved “old towns” in all of China. The highlight of Lijiang, and the main reason most visitors travel to the area, is the Ancient Old Town of Lijiang. It is one of the last places a foreign or domestic visitor can experience the historic culture and city life of old world China just like in the movies.
Marble Bridge in Old Market Square
The Old Town was constructed in the late Song Dynasty, more than 800 years ago, while “new town” was built around 50 years ago. Old Town consists of 3.8 square kilometers of beautiful cobblestone streets and intersecting waterways, and is home to numerous cultural minorities including the Naxi, Bai, Lisu, Pumi, Yi, Tibetan, and Miao. The Naxi people, descendents of ethnically Tibetan Qiang tribes, are historically the majority population and have called Lijiang home for over 1400 years. Naxi had the largest influence over Lijiang’s architecture, unique layout, and cultural heritage and comprise 58% of the city’s current inhabitants. Due to its preservation and long cultural history, Lijiang’s Old Town was listed as a World Cultural Heritage City by UNESCO in December 1997, becoming China’s first cultural heritage city and possibly its finest.
Canals of Lijiang
The entire Old Town is a museum in its own right. Dubbed the “Venice of the Orient”, Lijiang is a complex web of canals and waterways transversed by cobblestone streets and over 350 marble bridges. The main water source is Black Dragon Pool (Heilongtan) which extends its fingers to every corner of Old Town. The cobblestone streets branch out from Sifang Jie (Old Market Square) in four directions, providing visitors with a nice jumping off point to explore and possibly get lost among the narrow and countless networks of streets in Old Town. If you do find yourself lost in Lijiang, merely follow the water upstream and you’ll find your way back to Sifang Jie. Along the way you’ll be able to gaze at the traditional Naxi wooden houses with sloping tile roofs; ornately carved wooden doors and archways; the hidden squares and gardens; and engage with the wonderful people of Lijiang. The main streets are lined with open air cafes and countless stone benches where you can sit and enjoy a book or simply people watch. Although the streets are busy with tourists almost every day of the year, if you start exploring early or late in the day, you’ll be able to find some peaceful spots. The farther you get from Sifang Jie, the less likely you will be bombarded with tour groups and their infamous flags.
Black Dragon Pool Park
If wandering along the streets of Old Town isn’t your cup of tea, there are numerous places to see and explore in and around Old Town Lijiang. Among the highlights are Lion Hill Park’s Wanggu Tower, the Mu Family Mansion, and Black Dragon Pool Park.  Wanggu Tower, a recently built five story wooded pavilion located at the peak of Lion Hill park, provides the best panoramic views of the peaked homes of Old Town and the natural surrounding scenery.  

To the north of Old Town is Black Dragon Pool Park. You can easily spend an afternoon there exploring the many pavilions and temples, wandering amongst the willow trees and beautiful gardens, or relaxing by the jade green pond. The view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xueshan) from the park is one of the most photographed spots in southwestern China. Among the most famous pavilions in the park are Deyue and Five-Phoenix (Wufeng). Not to be missed within the park are two museums; The Dongba Research Institute and the Museum of Naxi Dongba Culture both of which house Naxi cultural artifacts.
Within Old Town, one of the most famous spots is the Mu Family Mansion, the former home of the local chiefdom for 22 generations. The Mansion is fashioned after a mini Forbidden City and is a maze of courtyards and residences set among some of the most exquisite gardens in the region. The Mu Family Mansion is a great place to relax and get away from the crowded streets of Old Town.
Naxi Musicians
Finding a place to stay in Lijiang is relatively easy as there are over 700 Naxi guest houses in Old Town alone. The best places to stay for nighttime action are directly off Sifang Jie. At night Lijiang’s bars and restaurants come alive with boisterous travelers from around the world. If you aren’t interested in spending your night getting drunk at the local bar, you can enjoy a traditional Naxi concert by the Naxi Orchestra at the Naxi Music Academy or at the government run Dongba Palace. Old Town boasts an exhaustive list of caf├ęs and bars serving up Chinese, Western and Westernized Naxi cuisine. However, if you are looking for traditional Naxi food, it’s  best to wander out of Old Town and find street vendors selling Baba, Lijian’s local specialty of wheat flatbread, served plain or stuffed with meats, vegetables, and anything you can imagine.
Lijiang’s Old Town is a destination not to be missed. The minute you set eyes on Lijiang you’ll feel magically transported back in time with its whimsical old world beauty. Look past the crowds and you’ll feel and see the old world come alive all around you.   

1 comment:

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