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Eight essential destinations for a fully-rounded trip to this historic town in the far west of China.
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I had long wanted to visit China’s Yunnan Province since moving to the country. One of my expat buddies took a trip to this fascinating and diverse region and returned with rich tales of mountain trekking on the Tibetan border and motorbiking through the jungles on the Burmese border. Intrigued, I immediately put it on my list of places to visit. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to visit the region myself.
Below I’ve compiled a list of the eight crucial places to visit.
- The Old Town of Lijiang
Old China hands say that Lijiang’s old town, Dayan, hasn’t been truly the same since the 1996 earthquake that killed over 300 people and destroyed much of the city. After the disaster, the government invested millions into the town’s tourist infrastructure and reconstruction. The town was made a UNESCO site in 1999, compelling the construction of an airport to service the tourist trade.
Although it’s undoubtedly touristy and the crowds can be a little overwhelming at times, it’s still a pleasant place to stroll over the cobbled streets and through narrow alleys lined with wooden buildings in the shade of willow trees.
2. Wangu Lou
This 108 foot tower is a recent construction, located at Lijiang’s highest point, offering a spectacular panoramic view of the old town and the surrounding valley.
3. The Mu Family Mansion
This site on the south side of the old town isn’t really a historic artifact but more of a monument to one of the region’s most important families, the Mu, who ruled the area until 1723 when they were ousted by the conquering armies of the Qing Dynasty. The buildings seen today were built after the earthquake on the ruins of traditional housing. In this open-air museum you can see different Chinese architectural styles, including Han, Naxi, Bai and Tibetan.
4. Black Dragon Pool Park
To the north of the old town, this is where you’ll find Lijiang’s most heralded photography spot, with the Deyue Lou seemingly floating on the pool, the immense and snow covered Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. When I visited, the peak of the mountain was sadly obscured by clouds.
There’s also a research institute here where Naxi dongba shamans work translating religious texts, a museum where you can learn more about Naxi culture and a set of buildings, including the Five Phoenix Hall, transplanted from what was once Lijiang’s biggest monastery.
5. The Outskirts of Lijiang
Accessible by a short bike ride, or an even shorter drive, you’ll find numerous sites of interest worth visiting on the outskirts of Lijiang.
Baisha was the capital of the Naxi kingdom in the Middle Ages, before Kublai Khan’s conquest of the region for the Yuan Dynasty. In the dusty wooden Liuli temple you can observe 14th century frescoes that offer a fascinating glimpse into the pantheistic religious fixations of the medieval Naxi.
A few miles to the north of Baisha in the small village of Yulong is another temple, the Beiyue Si, dedicated to the Naxi protector deity , Sanduo, who typically wears a white hat and carries a spear. The same family has managed the temple for 1,000 years.
Further north on the side of a mountain is yet another temple, Yufeng Si. This temple is a lamasery complete with flags and prayer wheels alongside an ancient camellia tree.
6. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
You can hire a private car in Lijiang that will take you to the scenic area in the vicinity of this spectacular mountain. You can take a cable car up 4,506 meters for a close-up look at the high-altitude glaciers. I opted out of the higher cable car since the summit seemed fogged out and went for a lower one that leads to a gorgeous meadow, goats and furry yaks grazing in the shade of the snow-capped peaks.
7. Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
If you’re up for it, this two-day/one-night trek should be the highlight of your trip to the region around Lijiang. It’ll take several hours by bus to get here from Lijiang and then it’s a short hike up a recently built road. From here the hike really begins and it’s a tough start, a grueling series of switchbacks straight up a grassy slope, but the views of the snowcapped Jade Dragon Snow range towering over the River of Golden Sands are unbeatable.
While traversing the rugged terrain, including the infamous 24 bends, you’ll pass through charming villages like Nuoyu, Bendiwan and Walnut Grove. From the latter you can descend down to the river itself and get a look at the rock where, legend has it, a tiger evaded the pursuit of hunters by leaping the gorge at its narrowest point. Today, there’s a suitably rickety suspension bridge leading to a large rock where you can observe the raging torrents up close.
8. Shangri La
This town’s real name is Zhongdian but it was changed to Xianggelila in 2002, recalling the fictional Lost Horizon paradise. The name aside, this town is definitely worth visiting for the spectacular Songzanlin Si, an immense Tibetan monastery, home to over 600 monks. The temple was built 400 years ago but destroyed during the Cultural Revolution before finally being rebuilt and reopened in 1981. You can get great views over the ever-expansive surrounding countryside from the top of the temple.
Zhongdian/Xianggelila is actually the capital of one of China’s little-known autonomous regions, Diqing Tibet. The atmosphere of the region definitely feels Tibetan. As you ride the bus out of Lijiang into the area, examples of quintessentially blocky Tibetan architecture begin springing up. Shop signs in Zhongdian are inscribed in Tibetan, simplified Chinese and sometimes English.