China Travelogue – 19: Lijiang Ancient Town

Posted in Travel at 4:15 by RjZ

Wikipedia describes “threats” to Lijiang old town like this:

“The influx of tourists that followed the inscription of the Ancient town of Lijiang onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list has had dramatic effects. Many of the former inhabitants of the ancient city have had to move away due to rising costs of housing and food items, only to be replaced by tourist establishments. The growth of these tourism businesses is largely uncontrolled.”

Yup. That about covers it. The Ancient town is the name for the tourist center of Lijiang. It is gorgeous. The 800 year old town has been restored to a fairy tale chinese village. Narrow cobblestone streets lead to dozens of bridges arching over streams from the nearby river rerouted through the town. Locals still use the little streams for washing (although, fortunately no longer for sanitation.) Buy a map upon entry to the town, but it won’t do any good. Streets wind and criss-cross everywhere. The only way to navigate is to wander. And absolutely every turn is worth a photograph.

It’s one of those places that just can’t be missed and it really is a pleasant place to stay for a few days in spite of the pressing tourism, but let’s face it, if you’ve been reading this blog for even a little while, you know I am no Paul-Theroux-adventure-traveller—I really am just a tourist, even going to lengths to defend the tourist’s plight—but today’s Lijiang may be going too far.

Lijiang Ancient Town

The town owes its success to being on the cross roads of the tea trade known as the tea horse road. Today, identical looking tea shops make up nearly every fourth store front in town. In between them are other tourist shops, clothing, souvenirs, and restaurants, most of which equally similar. Whatever you do, don’t use a tea shop, or souvenir bell store, as a landmark to guide yourself around town. The architecture and layout of the town make it a jewel, but it just as easily could all have been made by a talented set designer. Entrepreneurial Chinese have pushed out every other authenticity to make way for their tea shops and the narrow streets are no match of the throngs of tour groups disgorged by the constant flow of busses outside the pedestrian-only center.

Walking through town is a shoulder to shoulder affair and even early morning can be tough as the Chinese, and their expensive cameras and tripods, take shots of other photographers all trying to get the best morning light.

I could never really decide if I liked Lijiang. It is beautiful. It is easy–with nearby sights, simple tourist infrastructure, and plentiful restaurants. I definitely enjoyed renting a bicycle again and riding around the high plain on the edge of the mountainous Yunnan provence. Still, reading that towns such as as Dali and Zhongdian (re-named Shangr-la by the Chinese authorities….) could possibly be worse, made it very easy to relax and enjoy the nearby scenery and not bother to press on further. “I get it,” I thought, “I definitely don’t have to rush off to another movie set.” Those cities are probably equally gorgeous but, after listening to the reports of other tourists, equally fake and ridiculous too. China is full of contradictions. Lijiang is just one of the prettier ones.

At the airport: Yoghurt, 5 RMB, cookies 4 RMB, crackers 3 RMB
Taxi from train to Kunming airport, 10 RMB
Bus to Lijiang, 15 RMB
Map of Lijiang, 6 RMB
Nice dinner, 52 RMB
Hotel, 100 RMB/night

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