Destination guide to Lijiang Old Town, Yunnan, China

Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan province, China, is a fantastic example of how the new China is embracing the old China in the pursuit of tourism. We’re pretty seasoned travelers and we’ve even lived in China, but for all the expectations I had from reading various travel websites, Lijiang still amazed me totally. Lijiang ranks as one of the top “must visit” cities in China for anyone interested in Chinese history and culture or for your nature and adventure junkies, this is THE travel spot you must add to your China itinerary.

Lijiang itself is a pretty ordinary Chinese city (although at 5000 feet above sea level) surrounded by the most awe-inspiring snow-capped mountains (the foothills of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas), but at its heart is a lovingly restored old city with cobblestone streets and courtyard family hotels, incredible restaurants, craft shops and more. And just nearby are two of China’s most spectacular tourist experiences: the deep and rugged Leaping Tiger Gorge and the awesome Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Lijiang is also the gateway to Shangri La!

Things to see and do in Lijiang

Well, obviously the place you’re going to spend the most time is in and around Lijiang Old Town. This area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Area and although restored (it was tragically damaged by earthquakes a few years ago) it is amazingly authentic old China. The old town area is more than 800 years old and features wide cobbled streets ambling over stone bridges and waterwheel-driven canals filled with huge goldfish and lined with shops, small family-run hotels, cafes, and bars.

The architecture is a little different than most parts of China as it reflects the local Naxi style, one of the 64 minorities of China. Keep an eye out for the Naxi herdsmen who often come into town looking like Chinese cowboys on their Mongolian ponies. There is a Naxi pavilion alongside the water wheel which often contains lots of Naxi art and craft and the Naxi people often put on traditional dance and music in the town square.

1. Black Dragon Pool Park

Just off the side of the old town square (which is dominated by the ancient water wheel) is Black Dragon Pool Park (also called Jade Spring Park), a beautiful and tranquil lake area framed by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background and filled with Chinese people doing their Tai Chi in the mornings and artists drawing amazing ink portraits in the afternoons. Unfortunately, the lake has apparently dried up since we were there a few years ago, but the park itself is still a pretty place to stroll through and pick up some souvenirs from the quaint little stalls along the paths. If you’d like to get a better view of Lijiang Old Town, take a walk up to the pagoda on the top of Lion Hill. For a small fee, you can see right across the top of the old town and a lot of the larger city area as well.

2. Shuhe Ancient Town

Shuhe Ancient Town is another lovingly restored old town in Lijiang, located around 4 km northwest of the city center. This was most likely the original town center of Lijiang when it was the capital of the Naxi people.

3. Jade Dragon Snow MountainJade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lijiang

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (also called Yulong Snow Mountain) is a must-see attraction while visiting Lijiang. Rising to 4500 meters (over 12,000 feet) above sea level, this snow-capped mountain has a glacier rolling off the top and views that are so spectacular you will not believe my descriptions if I try. You need to take a short taxi ride to the park at the bottom of the mountain (locally known as Shanzidou) where you’ll then walk through the park to the base of the mountain. From there you take a Swiss-built cable car up to the summit. If it’s windy, the cable car may sway in the breeze but it’s all well built and very safe.

4. The Dry Sea (Gan Hai Zi)

Not far from Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is the Dry Sea (Gan Hai Zi), a huge meadow of long waving grass at an altitude of about 3,000 meters and a nice taste of the Tibetan grasslands. There are some nice hill tribe villages to explore and lots of great activities including grass skiing and paragliding. The dry sea was once a glacier lake but the water has all gone now. From here you can see the entire 13 peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and, if you pick the right time of year, meadows full of wildflowers and grazing Tibetan cows.

5. Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hu Tiao Xia)

Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hu Tiao Xia) is a lot further out but a really worthwhile day trip. You catch the bus at about 8:00 am for the three-hour ride out to Tina’s Guesthouse, which sits right above the gorge. Have a very nice brunch out on the verandah overlooking the stunning mountain and kilometer-deep gorge. Then after lunch, you set off down what can only be described as a goat trail descending around 1000 meters to the river at the floor of the gorge. There is a huge rock you can climb out to where the river crashes by at incredible strength. Then you think about the climb back up! You can go back up the goat trail or there’s a steeper path with two vertical ladders, each about 100m long. Either way, you need to be fit to do this or you’re going to struggle. I carry a bit of weight and I was exhausted by the time I got to the top of the second ladder, with still 400m of goat trails to climb. But if you’re lucky there’ll be a guy there who’ll hire you a mountain pony for around 100 RMB to take you to the top.

6. Lugu LakeLugu Lake, Lijiang

Venture out a bit further and you’ll find Lugu Lake, located right on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and about the only place you’ll find the Mosuo minority people (China’s only minority run by women). To get there you have to tolerate an 8-9 hour bus ride over very rough roads, so plan to stay overnight in the minority village.

Getting in and out of Lijiang

Right from the moment your plane starts its approach to Lijiang (you can go by road or train from Dali or Kunming, but it’s a cheap and fast flight), you will be awestruck with the scenery (at least if, like me, y0u don’t normally live in a snow-capped, mountainous part of the world). The mountains are right there in the backdrop of almost every view in Lijiang and give the place such a special feeling as if you’ve traveled to the very ends of the earth. Sorry, I’m raving, but I just love Lijiang!

Most visitors to Lijiang (including the million or more Chinese who visit every year) are attracted by the Lijiang Old Town, an 800-year-old and very well-preserved township in the middle of a much larger, typically Chinese city. The old town is a rabbit warren of alleyways, canals, and ancient buildings, intersected by a huge but tasteful and appropriately rustic pedestrian mall where the gorgeous Jade river cuts a path through the old town.

Western travelers have been making their way to Lijiang since the 1800s, but mostly only the very adventurous and those with plenty of time on their hands because until quite recently it was a pretty hard place to get to. It’s now much easier with regular flights from Kunming, Chengdu, Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen, and Guangzhou to name a few. If you’re coming from Kunming, you can fly to Lijiang for around US$100 or so, even less from Dali which is well worth visiting on the way.

There’s also a train service from Kunming, via Dali, which does attract lots of travelers and so can be very hard to get tickets for. We tried to take the train from Kunming to Dali, but it was completely booked out for 3-4 days ahead and it wasn’t even really peak travel time for domestic Chinese tourists, so God help you around National Day or Chinese New Year. If you can manage to get on a train, it will cost you around US$25-35 depending on the train and the berth you get. If you are traveling as a family, try to secure a VIP chamber which can take 4-5 people and costs about US$100. But I recommend booking ahead using a travel agency because we found we could not even get a bus ticket in Kunming for travel within the next 48 hours.

China Eastern Airlines came to our rescue with a US$90 direct flight the next morning – see our Kunming page for more details about this. On arrival in Lijiang, it’s a really great idea to get your hotel to organize a pickup from the airport, train station, or bus station. Lijiang is bigger than you think and it takes about 30 minutes to get from the airport to the old town. Taxis can be few and far between in Lijiang, and you need to make sure you have your full hotel address written down in Chinese characters, otherwise, things can get a bit messy.

Within the old town itself, no cars are allowed so you need to be prepared to lug your bags up the cobblestone streets to your hotel (or pay someone to carry them on a bicycle trailer).

Where to stay in Lijiang Old Town

There are lots of very quaint and interesting little places to stay in the Lijiang Old Town and I highly recommend you stay there because that’s where most of the action is in Lijiang, especially at night. We heard about the Shanghai Family No 68 Guest House from friends and decided that was where we had to stay. It’s run by a local Chinese family who relocated here from Shanghai many years ago. Their daughter, Judy, speaks pretty good English (better than my Chinese, anyway) and pretty much runs the place, although her mother cooks the meals and her father … well, I’m still not sure what her father does. But he’s very nice and wants to make sure you are safe and have a good time. The guest house is fairly basic but charming and quaint, with rooms on ground level and upstairs in two wings. See our review for more details.

Other guest houses that get consistently very good reviews from travelers include the Banyan Tree (5-star), Jun Bo Xuan boutique guesthouse (5-star), the Lijiang Lize Graceland Artistic Suite Inn (5-star), the Wamao Inn (5-star) and the Lvye An Jia (5 stars).
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