Lijiang, China is what I want China to be. It’s quaint cobblestone paths wind around where buildings were built, instead the other way around. There are no high rises, honking horns or pollution. It is the China of years past, the China you are more likely to see in kung-fu movies than in real life. Tourists flock there seeking an “authentic” experience; the reality though is that it’s as authentic as visiting a Native American-owned casino expecting to see the tribe’s traditional ways. Lijiang appears so perfectly timeless because it was made that way…recently.
Much like the traditional hamlets of Nara, Japan or Pingyao, China, what you see aren’t thousand-year old buildings. In fact, your emotions and eyes betray us, this isn’t an untouched piece of history, this is a recreation built in the past decades. As much as tourists want to see that city that history forgot, the residents want, and deserve, modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing that the old, often dilapidated, structures need to be replaced. While they have retained the historic architecture and street “plan”, new, not old, is the reality.
Irregardless of the vintage, Lijiang is an idyllic setting. Built in a valley on the edge of the snow capped Himalayas, it is the cultural end of China and beginning of Tibet. It has greeted travelers on the TEA HORSE? road for thousands of years. As it is near the Chinese end of this trading route various groups decided to settle here, each bringing pieces of their cultures that became ingrained in the fabric of Lijiang. Whether the city looked like it does today or not, walking its historic streets you can understand why people would want to settle here; especially after crossing the Himalayas on horse and foot.
There is something seemingly special about wandering through the “past”. We imagine that life was different, simpler more aesthetically pleasing and slower paced. The scenery, natural and architecturally, relaxes people. Thousands of Chinese tourists descend on the city seeking a refuge from the fast paced metropolises, wandering, shopping and eating until finishing off their day with a dozen grossly overpriced beer. I am sure they, like me, find leaving Lijiang difficult, even if we know it’s not as historic as it may seem, it’s a special place.
WHEN YOU GO:
- Make sure you hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge, an easy, stunningly beautiful hike about two hours from Lijiang. Learn more about the hike here.
- Arrive via train from Kunming. The ride from Kunming is a beautiful four hour ride. For the more adventurous and time-rich, taking the bus from Chengdu, through the real traditional Tibetan villages of Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces, is supposed to be an unforgettable experience. Be prepared for the fact that in these small towns absolutely no English is spoken…it’s that authentic.
- Eat a “family” or “staff” meal at your guesthouse. Many of the guesthouses and other employers feed their staff delicious local foods. Not only is it an affordable dinner, but you get dishes that you would have no idea how to order…that you’ll love.