My solo trip in China was such a great experience. There are so many beautiful places, amazing landscape and tasty food. And it’s such a huge and diverse country, that you simply cannot cover everything in one trip. I spent one week in Yunnan province, and below are some details about what to do in Lijiang.
The Old Town of Lijiang
The Old Town of Lijiang is one of the most famous and best preserved ancient towns in China and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located on the ancient Tea Horse Trail, a very long and difficult trading trail linking Yunnan and Tibet regions up in the Himalayas.
I arrived on a Saturday night and went right to sleep, to rest after the long flight. I woke up the next morning and shortly after I went out to explore the town. I started walking on the paved roads, it was sunny but not hot yet. It was still morning and quiet. All the buildings have the same old style, and most of them have flowers at the entrance and windows.
As I was approaching one of the main streets, there was music in the background, some people were opening their stores, while some were passing by. By the time I reached the main street, it was all busy. Lots of tourists walking around, laughing, taking photos, while local stores owners working and offering samples of food and drinks. Lots happening on this tiny paved road, overlooked by mighty mountains on the background.
I think I already knew Lijiang was one of my favourite places by then. It didn’t take long to get to the conclusion. I walked all day thinking “This is so beautiful!” and “I love it so much!”.
As it says the name, it’s like a big square and it crosses all the main streets. There are usually lots of people here and it’s a great meeting point. Naxi people offer street performances at the Square Street, very nice to watch and I recommend it. I’m sure there is a schedule of it, but since I don’t speak any Chinese, I just found out randomly.
In one of the performances, early afternoon, Naxi men and women were wearing traditional clothes and danced on several songs. In between, a man was singing traditional songs. On another performance, late evening, the dancers invite tourists to join and they all dance together in a big circle, on one of the Naxi songs. It’s lovely to watch, as they are all having fun.
Big Water Wheel and Yuhe Square
Again, the name is very descriptive. As you go out of one of the small streets, there is a big bridge from where you can see the water wheel. Next to it, it’s Yuhe Square, another square street, but more modern. It’s also towards the exit of the old town and you can certainly see the clash between old and modern.
One night, there was a show on the stage. A stage that I haven’t noticed during the day. I couldn’t understand anything, so I just walked by. I think Square street and Yuhe Square are places where people gather together, and there is always something happening.
Wenchang Palace very close to the Big Water Wheel. It’s quite small and it’s free to visit and when I went, there were barely any tourists. You get a beautiful view of the city just outside of it and within the same area, there is a tea room. It’s very pricey, but very nice as well.
Black Dragon Pool
Now, this is one of the most famous postcard-like pictures in Lijiang and China. The white bridge and a colourful small temple with the mountains on the background, all mirrored on the calm lake.
The park is within walking distance from the old town, I believe it was 2km or so from the Big Water Wheel. You have to pay entrance to the park, which is quite big. When I first entered and got to a viewpoint, I was slightly disappointed. I could recognize the picture, but it was quite far, and crowded, of course.
But if you leave aside the frustration that you can’t take a beautiful picture like the ones you see about this place, the park is lovely. Except for the dozens of tourists. I would recommend visiting the park early morning maybe, better for the lights and fewer tourists. I went there quite tired, late afternoon. A nice surprise was there are lots of orange fishes in the lake.
Mu’s Palace is the most impressive building in Lijiang, and it’s definitely a must. The palace and the buildings around it are very well preserved, colourful and traditional looking. It’s a bit like a maze, you get lost easily, as there are many areas, separated by walls.
If you manage to get on the back of the palace, you can walk up on a hillside to a small temple. From there, you have the overview of the palace and its surroundings.
If you don’t like stairs, maybe skip this one. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like them either, I just didn’t know there is so many of them. There is a bit of a walk, but lots of beautiful viewpoints of the way. On one of the paths, there is a roof-like cover all made of little bells. When the wind blows, they make a very pleasant sound, I liked it.
The tower itself has 5 floors, but the 5th was closed when I went. Still, the 4th floor is very high, you get an amazing view and you can also admire the Snow Mountain.
It’s everywhere in the old town. What I like is that there are lots of small stores, preparing something yummy in front of you and inviting you to try it. Especially sweet stuff.
One of the most common is flower cake. This is a small round pastry, with rose filling. Usually, you see a lady in the store, surrounded by rose petals, sorting and preparing them for the bake. There are other fillings as well.
I’ve also tried jasmine flower jelly, sweets made of yak milk, durian roll and others. All good except for the durian smell. Tried to hold my breath, but no, I cannot ignore it.
Not far from the Square Street, there is food hall. Food halls are very common in China, I found them in most cities I’ve been to. There is a big hall with tables, all surrounded by different types of food, each independent. They usually have the ingredients displayed and you see how they cook it in front of you. It’s usually simple dishes, but you can pick and choose. It’s cheap as well, compared to a restaurant. And as I don’t speak Chinese, it’s also easy, because you see the food, you like it, and you just point at it.
Apart from the street food shops and the food hall, there are lots of restaurants and places for drinks in Lijiang. Many of them have a live band or employees singing karaoke. The town is very lively both during day and night.
Tea and Souvenirs
Same as with the food, the souvenirs shops are very engaging. A drums shop will have someone playing and teaching others to play the drums. As you walk past, there is a pottery shop and a few people concentrating on shaping their vases. Few steps more and a man is crafting a piece of jewellery. I loved this about the town, and you also learn how different objects and foods are made.
It’s also very common for girls to buy long and loose colourful dresses (mostly white with embroideries) and have colourful hair highlights braided by locals.
Not far from Lijiang is where the famous Pu’er tea is produced. I didn’t learn much about it, because of the language barrier, but it’s a type of fermented tea. The older it gets, the better. In ancient times, the Tibetans were exchanging horses for this type of tea. Luckily, now we don’t have to walk hundreds of km in harsh conditions to buy it.
There are many tea shops in Lijiang, and the prices have a wide range from cheap to expensive. I find Pu’er black tea very strong, but I’m not very good with teas. Still, apart from black teas, they also sell green tea, jasmine, rose and other floral teas.
Planning and Getting around
Unexpectedly, there is free wifi in all old town of Lijiang. If you have Baidu (Chinese Google Maps), you can save your host’s place on the map, so you will know how to go back. Many accommodations within the old town are towards the exits or in the quiet areas. The small streets look all the same and at night can be confusing. That’s why I think it’s useful to save the location until you learn it.
On the main touristy areas, you don’t even need the app. At every corner, there are explicit directions, with names in Chinese and English and distances. It’s very easy.
There is some information in English about Lijiang, and I found these websites useful: Travel China Guide and China Highlights. Google is not working in China without VPN, so best to bookmark some websites before your travel, in case you want to search for info while there.
Do you like the ancient towns in East Asia? Then you will probably enjoy the ancient towns in Korea.