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Holidays : China: Yunnan : Lijiang Attractions : The Ancient Town of Lijiang

The Ancient Town of Lijiang

At the foot of Yulong Snow Mountain in northwestern Yunnan Province is the ancient town of Lijiang. In the remote past, it was already inhabited with tribal people. In 1253, Kublai Khan, the Mongol chief, stationed his troops here on his southward march to conquer the State of Dali. For the next 500 years, to the early days of the Qing Dynasty, the place was ruled by a hereditary succession of chieftains from the Mu clan of the Naxi people, under the jurisdiction of the imperial court.

lijiang town

The town, screened by a mountain and facing a river, has no high walls. It is crisscrossed with ancient streets and lanes paved with colored stones and lined with residential houses of wood-stone-mud structure characterized by pretty, simple and practical styles. Small streams run parallel with Sifang Street in the center of the town and many other lanes. Green trees shade the houses and lanes. Willow tree branches hang low to caress the water in the streams. Residential houses either stand against a stream or have in the front small bridges across streams. In some cases, a stream runs right underneath houses.

Classical Naxi music is described as the "living musical fossil" because of its long history. More surprisingly, the Dongba script is the world's only living hieroglyphics still in use. More than 20,000 volumes of ancient books in Dongba writing, rare and valuable documents, are now collected by libraries in China as well as some European and American countries.

Lijiang was placed on the world cultural heritage list in 1997.


Lijiang was established in the early Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 AD) after Kublai Khan conquered the nearby city of Dali. Soon thereafter it became an important stop along the southern Silk Road, connecting Kunming with Tibet and India and making Lijiang a central meeting point for traders and a distribution point for merchandise from all over China and beyond.

The Lijiang area has been home to the Naxi minority for over 1,400 years. The Naxi descend from the Tibetan Qiang people, who migrated down the Yangtze from Northern Tibet. Most of the 300,000-strong Naxi community lives in and around Lijiang, while smaller groups are scattered throughout southwestern Sichuan and southeastern Tibet.

Naxi culture is traditionally matriarchal, with women inheriting all property and mediating tribal conflicts; the matriarchy, however, has broken down somewhat in recent years with increased exposure to the decidedly patriarchal Han. In traditional Naxi culture, men and women did not live together but within their respective parents' homes. Many Naxi families kept inns to serve Silk Road travelers. Proving that matriarchy has nothing to do with emasculation, Naxi men were fierce fighters and often provided mercenary protection to Tibetan and Bai traders along perilous routes through Tibet, Yunnan, India and Burma.

The Naxi are a people of culture and art, too. Their written language, Dongba, is the world's only pictographic language still in use. "Dongba" refers to Naxi elders knowledgeable in astronomy, geography and agriculture as well as folk medicine and handicrafts, and to this day the language nourishes a rich literature that preserves unique Naxi works on religion, philosophy, art, astronomy and history as well as music, dance and painting. The traditional Dongba religion combined elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. You can learn more at Lijiang's Museum of Naxi Dongba Culture.

Like other regions in Yunnan Province, Lijiang is home to many minority groups. Among Lijiang's 22 minorities are Bai, Pumi, Yi, Tibetan, Miao and Lisu peoples. All minority populations together, Naxi included, account for 59% of the city's population.


Situated in a valley surrounded by high mountains, Lijiang enjoys a temperate climate year around despite its altitude (1,609 meters or 5,280 feet above sea level), with warm days and cool nights. Daytime temperatures average 15 ºC (59 ºF) in the winter and 3 ºC (37 ºF) at night. Summer temperatures can reach 30 ºC (80 ºF) during the day and drop to 15 ºC (59 ºF) at night. Summer months (June-September) bring daily rainstorms. The best seasons to visit Lijiang are spring and fall when the days are warm, there's little rain and the local alpine wildflowers and grasses are at their best. Whatever time of year, Lijiang is said to experience "four seasons in one day", so be sure to pack accordingly.

How to get there

Lijiang City is divided into two parts: the New Town and the Old Town. The Old Town is a large area, so you won't miss it. It is at the foot of Yulong Xue Shan.


Getting Around

With a good public bus system and great Old Town streets for strolling or cycling, getting around town is not a big problem. Cars are not allowed in Old Town but taxis are available in the rest of the city, starting at 6 RMB. Bike rentals are around 15 RMB a day.


There are three bus stations in Lijiang. The main terminal lies at the southern end of Minzhu Lu with another station near Old Town. The express bus station is on Shangri Dao. Travelers can buy bus tickets at any of the stations but need to check the ticket to see which station the bus leaves from. Buses run regularly to surrounding areas. See list below for price and travel times to selected destinations.

Kunming via Dali: Several buses travel back and forth between Kunming and Lijiang via Dali. The trip totals 10 hours. Sleeper buses cost 120 RMB and express buses 150-180 RMB.

Panzhihua, Sichuan: Bus trip takes eight hours to Panzhihua in Sichuan Province. The tickets cost 40 RMB for regular buses and 60 RMB for sleeper buses.

Shangri-la/Zhongdian: Prices for the five-hour scenic drive range from 27-50 RMB. The bus passes through Qiatou, allowing access to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Lugu Lake: The drive totals five hours to Lugu Lake, passing by the Yi villages. Tickets cost from 40-60 RMB.

To and from Lijiang

Air Several domestic flights a day from Lijiang Airport, 25 km (15 miles) outside the city, accommodate the city's growing number of travelers. Direct flight destinations include Kunming, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Chongqing and Jinghong.

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