Lijiang dazzles with majestic scenery and exotic culture
By Lu Feiran
LIJIANG in Yunnan Province was almost unknown to tourists before the 1990s but is now one of the country’s most popular travel destinations.
And for good reason. The city combines both natural beauty with mountains as a backdrop and a big dose of ethnic culture.
Lijiang’s old areas possess an unmistakable charm that persists despite modern commercialization. Wondering around away from the main touristy parts of these areas reveals a way of life that seemingly hasn’t changed for centuries.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is 5,596 meters above sea level. And although it doesn’t measure up to Mount Everest’s 8,848 meters, it does boast something the world’s tallest mountain can’t claim — no human has ever reached the summit.
Attempts have been made, of course, but no one has conquered the majestic mountain. Some mountaineers, like at Everest, have lost their lives in the attempt to reach the peak.
Local Naxi people believe a god lives at the summit and that’s why humans have never been able to reach the top.
Tourists can get as high as 4,680 meters to gaze in awe at the mountain’s beauty.
Three cable cars shuttle people up and down the mountain, providing a wonderful opportunity to snap some photos and feel insignificant next to this natural wonder.
The Big Cable Car climbs to an altitude of 4,580 meters above sea level and tourists can hike the final 100 meters to a lookout point. Both the Yak Meadow Cable and Spruce Meadow Cable cars go half way up the mountain.
Some of the mountain’s beauty comes from its changing “personality.” Different weather conditions give Jade Dragon a variety of looks. Clouds give it a frock, the sun a golden cape and fog creates a dreamy aura around the peaks.
Another nice feature is the mountain that gives a taste of all seasons year round. In the summer, the snow-capped peaks remain as it retains well below zero Celsius at that altitude. In the winter, about half of the mountain still showcases a selection of green trees.
Tourists also often enjoy a stop at the mountain’s Blue Moon Valley. Due to different minerals, the valley’s lakes appear either blue, green or white. The area has been nicknamed “Jiuzhaigou Jr” since the lakes resemble the famous scenery in the area of the same name in Sichuan Province.
About halfway up Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is the world’s highest theater.
The show “Impression Lijiang” has become one of the area’s key tourism products as it is directed by famed Chinese film director Zhang Yimou. Folk artists take to the outdoor stage daily to perform the songs and dances common among the province’s ethnic minorities.
Their performances provide some insight into local people’s lives, their history, famous love tragedies and the connection between humanity and gods.
Zhang is clearly impressed with the folk songs and dances of local people and makes it the focus of the show. To ensure authenticity, the actors and actresses are farmers from the area.
Dayan, Shuhe and Baisha are the three old towns in Lijiang that attract the most attention from tourists.
Each date back nearly 1,000 years and still feature an ancient layout and architecture style. The wooden houses are the soul of the towns and a closer look will reveal sculptures of cats on the eaves.
These ancient towns in Lijiang were not widely known to the public until a massive earthquake in 1996. The quake nearly destroyed the newer areas of Lijiang, but the old towns remained intact apart from several walls that had collapsed.
The old towns were added to UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list in 1997.
This sudden fame meant development and tourism boomed. Dayan was the first old town to become a tourism hotspot. Cafes, hostels, bars and souvenir shops opened one after another in the ancient houses. Many locals left their farms to open stores while outsiders, mostly young people longing for a different style of life, swarmed into the town to create their own career.
Shuhe isn’t as well-known and has a tranquil, authentic vibe. Locals are easy to find in Shuhe compared to Dayan, which is often crowded with tourists.
On Square Street, the center of the town, old Naxi women often sit around and chat as the afternoon sun shines. Corn grows behind most houses and dogs sprawl out on the back streets. This is life in Shuhe.
Meanwhile, Baisha Town is the least crowded of all. Poor public transport in the area means few one-time travelers make the effort to explore the ancient town.
Apart from a few cafes, Baisha’s original appearance is intact and most locals lead a traditional lifestyle. Unlike Dayan and Shuhe, there is no modern night life in Baisha. After the sun goes down, the streets become quiet and dark as there are no street lamps. So while some go to Dayan or Shuhe in search of fun, others go to Baisha hoping to find themselves.
What to eat
Snow Kitchen is one of the most popular restaurants at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and is famous for its yak hotpot.
Although yak meat is usually coarse, it turns out rather tender after being cooked in the hotpot. The restaurant cuts the yak meat into paper-thin slices and after only five seconds in the broth, which is stewed from yak bones, the flesh is soft and smooth.
Since yaks feed on mountain grass and other plants such as Chinese caterpillar fungi (冬虫夏草), the meat is considered more nutritious than beef or mutton.
In the old towns, there is a big variety of Asian and Western cuisine covering everything from pizza and dumplings to delicious farm food. Cafes serve coffee, smoothies and even alcohol. The nice part about the dining scene is that many of the cafes and restaurants are owned by people from around China and the world who have come to start a new life and business in Lijiang.
This mix of cultures creates a vibrant scene in a very traditional Chinese setting.
Where to stay
• The Grand Hyatt Lijiang
It is the brand’s first leisure resort in China, designed in a Naxi architectural style.
A combination of 312 guest rooms, including 50 suites and eight villas, offer a variety of choice for discerning travelers. The rooms combine Naxi folk elements with modern comfort while the private balconies offer views of either Jade Dragon Snow Mountain or the resort’s lake and gardens.
Dining is a highlight. The chefs use local ingredients including fungi, flowers, berries and nuts to concoct a series of inspiring dishes.
Pastry chef Jerry Zhang is especially fond of the local walnuts and raspberries. The walnut smoothie and raspberry cake served in the Tea House reveal the extent of his talent.
“The good water and soil quality allows Yunnan to grow some of the best nuts and fruits in the world,” Zhang said. “And luckily we can make them into wonderful delicacies.”
The resort’s Chinese restaurant serves up a veritable fungi feast that features both termite and porcini mushrooms. Flowers are a common ingredient in Lijiang so don’t be surprised to see roses and chrysanthemum used in a variety of dishes.
The hotel expects to open a second phase in the autumn. It’s about 3,100 meters above sea level and is closer to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. (8, Xiangjiang Rd, Lijiang, Yunnan Province, lijiang.grand.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html)
• Banyan Tree Lijiang
Nestled in the tranquil Shuhe old town, the resort boasts 55 Naxi-style villas with spacious rooms and great views of the snow-capped Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The old town of Baisha is only five minutes’ walk away, and Dayan is about 20 minutes’ walk. Its award-winning spa help eliminate the travel fatigue and revigoriate. (Yuerong Rd, Shuhe old town, Lijiang, Yunnan Province; www.banyantree.com/en/cn-china-lijiang)
• Blossom Hill
Blossom Hill has eight Naxi-style courtyards in Lijiang that blends modern facilities and soothing upholsteries with ancient architecture. Each courtyard has its own design and themes. It also has a courtyard in Shuhe old town. (www.blossomhillinn.com/en/)
The highest point of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain open to tourists is 4,680 meters above sea level. At that height some may experience altitude sickness — headache, shortness of breath, accelerated heartbeat and other symptoms.
Portable oxygen carriers are sold at the mountain. Each bottle provides about 10 minutes of oxygen. If you still don’t feel well after the oxygen uptake, you should turn to medical care. Severe altitude sickness may cause pulmonary or cerebral edema, which can be fatal.
The herb roseroot (红景天) helps prevent altitude sickness. Taking capsules or drinking roseroot tea for a week before going may help.
The weather is extremely dry in Lijiang, thus facial moisturizers, hand lotions and lip balms will come in handy.