Perched at bottom of the Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, this remote town in southwest China’s YunnanProvinceis a show-stealer for its amazing landscape and rich culture. Nestled in a valley ringed with snow-capped mountains, springs, lakes and frothy rivers, nature’s touch extends into LijiangCounty. The OldTownis full of cobbled streets, crisscrossing canals flowing with water, swaying willow trees and gaily-hued blossoms. Every so often, a bridge–stone, wooden, flat, arched, roofed pops up and along it trundles local folk in traditional dress.
Over 22 different ethnic minorities have made Lijiang their home, amongst them are the Lisu, Pumi, Bai, Yi, Tibetan, Miao and Naxi. People of Lijiang are like vibrant butterflies: cheerful, busy and visually stunning. The market squares and alleys are peppered with locals in their individual ethnic fashions, ornaments and hairstyles. Local customs, architecture, spiritual beliefs, language, arts and craft are influenced by ethnic diversity and are rich with symbolism and creativity.
Lijiang’s ancient old city has preserved its charming antiquity despite the modern changes sweeping through China. Old-style architecture and pathways are rebuilt along the original model after an earthquake in 1996 damaged sections of the town. In individual enclaves, pebbles and smashed tiles are arranged symbolically to denote happiness or good fortune. Rooms are built beside running water for a soothing effect. Doors and windows sport decorative woodcarvings of phoenixes, legends and nature. Pathways, barely two-shoulders wide, are crammed by two-storey shop-houses, inns or private residences all built in the traditional style. Cobblestone streets are free of vehicular nuisances and the maze of back alleys offers innumerable possibilities for shortcuts and scenic surprises.
Although the town grew from humble nomadic origins, there’s little that’s transitory or mercurial about Lijiang. Several houses, streets, monasteries and bridges have been there since the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. At the heart of the OldTownis Square Street. Centuries ago, it was the central bazaar where mountain tribes, Tibetan and Han traders and farmers briskly bartered yak butter, poultry, grain and linen. Today, this ancient crossroad for trade continues to hum with mercantile activities; business is open everyday. On sale are a variety of handicrafts, from homemade griddlecakes to handpicked tea leaves from Yunnan’s hills.
Lijiang’s people adore learning and the arts. They’re the bookkeepers of the ancient Dongba scripts. Called “sijiulujiu” in the Naxi language, meaning “signs on rock and wood,” these eloquent drawings depict the history of Naxi culture, their religious rites, folk tales and legends. Over 20,000 volumes of Dongba sutra, painted on wooden tablets, are scattered around the world, but many are still lovingly preserved in Lijiang’s sacred monasteries. Amazingly, this one-of-its-kind pictographic language has not been simply locked away and forgotten. The Naxis deep appreciation for culture and their roots ensure that it is still used within the community today.
In 1997, Lijiang became the first Chinese hill town to earn a World Cultural Heritage status from UNESCO.