Lijiang is the best preserved ancient town in China, and its old town has been listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO since 1997

It was the summer of 2008, and Beijing was in a frenzy preparing for the Olympics including a spectacular new metro airport of shiny steel and, of course, the Bird's Nest stadium. The migrant laborers, students and working classes were being rushed out of town to make way for the onslaught of tourists. Even the factories were periodically turned off to reduce the haze.

My daughters and I decided to escape the Olympic madness via Kunming to Lijiang, Yunnan province. Lijiang is the best preserved ancient town in China, and its old town has been listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO since 1997. The first impression is of the rustic architecture. Houses are made of soil and wood or stone with tile roofs--not the concrete and steel of the big cities.

PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia = Lukacs
PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia = ArielSteiner

The Naxi People of Yunnan:

It is also the home of the Naxi people. There are close to 309,000 Naxi living in China. Of those, 2/3 live in Yunnan Province. Like the other ethnic groups, the Naxi men have taken to dressing more like the Han, but the women continue to wear the traditional clothing: gown with loose waist and long sleeves and a black sleeveless jacket and pleated skirt with long pants and boat-shaped embroidered shoes.

The Naxi have the world's only living pictograph language. Their language called "Dongba" has been in existence for one thousand years and continues to be used by shamans who take their name directly from that of the culture itself: Dongba.

The Dongba Culture is said to have been passed on by the Dongbas who were sages that integrated song, dance, the classics, history, painting and medicine. They enjoyed a high social position within the Naxi group because they were considered as mediums between humans, gods and ghosts, as well as being able to remove disasters and guarantee good fortunes. At present there are no more than 30 Dongbas living in Lijiang so it is a memorable experience for travelers to visit these revered sages. We were fortunate to meet a Dongba and have him write a pictograph of 'harmony' for us.

PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia = Gisling
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Amihan Makayan

Wikipedia explains that, "The core of the Dongba religion is based on the belief that both man and nature are two half-brothers born of two mothers and the same father. This creates revenge from heaven, which befalls upon humans who use up too much natural resources."

Art plays an important role in the Dongba culture, and its art school beckons visitors with traditional works of art adorning the entrance. The Dongbas create and teach their living pictographs in a simple sacred workroom surrounded by lovely grounds. Students assist the master and eagerly showcase the reinvigoration of these customs.

PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia = Fruggo

Most of the Dongba dance movements prefer to imitate animals, such as tiger, elephant, frog, monkey and eagles. This group in the nearby photograph is practicing for an upcoming performance.

The ancient Naxi symphony of "Baishaxieyue" or cave music has been handed down for generations and is in revival. A key highlight of any visit to Lijiang is to attend a performance by the elaborately clad masters, many of whom are 80-year-olds or older. Chinese flute, cleat, reed, gong, chimes, block, bell and drum instruments, though strange to Western eyes, create a distinctive Asian harmony. It is a grand affair, with flowery introductions and honors bestowed on members by the audience.

But lest I give the impression that the Naxi are all formality and seriousness, they do have a colorful sense of humor and know how to have fun. This message was posted outside a local bar.

The Old Town of Lijiang

The Old Town is full of cobbled streets, crisscrossing canals flowing with water, swaying willows and gaily-hued blossoms. Walking the streets you see local folk in traditional dress, and every so often you encounter a picturesque arched bridge of flat stone.

While Lijiang has a good reputation among both Chinese and foreigners, it has become very commercial as tourism has developed. Middle class Hans showcase their children's designer Western wear as they stroll the streets.

Lijiang cuisine is a blend of Han Chinese and Tibetan styles. We particularly enjoyed the local fare, a "Naxi sandwich" with goat cheese and tomato between baba slices. For the more adventurous, deep-fried grasshoppers, dragonflies and other insects are also offered along with butter tea being a staple

Getting Out Into The Countryside:

An interesting option to see another side of this busy destination is to rent bicycles and ride out into the countryside to visit various outlying villages rather than close by Jade Mountain, the Chinese equivalent of an Alpine ski resort. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, nine miles from Lijiang, is a popular scenic spot for sightseeing, mountaineering, skiing, exploration and scientific research.

While flat tires on Chinese rental bicycles can limit distance covered, the attempt is worth experiencing the solitary countryside with its endless verdant fields traditionally tended by the occasional Naxi women and their horses. It's not a bad way to end a visit to China's best preserved ancient town.

*Post script: It is worth noting that the province of Yunnan is an earthquake zone with a 5.4 magnitude earthquake occurring as recently as on 10 March 2011, with its epicenter in Yingjiang County near the Burmese border. While a serious quake in 1996 caused serious damage in the area of Lijiang, and another quake occurred in 1999 shortly after this report was written, we have no reports of serious damage to Lijiang after the most recent 2011 event.

PHOTO CREDITS: Purchased, Wikipedia or Public Domain