One of the most popular places to visit in Yunnan province (and China in general) is the Old Town of Lijiang. Famed for its snowy mountain peaks, vibrant ethnic minority culture, and relaxed pace of life, this Song Dynasty-era town attracts throngs of tourists, both domestic and international. Although the crowds here can be a bit intense – especially during major Chinese holidays such as the Spring Festival and National Day – visiting at off-peak times isn’t so bad, and the natural beauty surrounding the town makes it a very worthwhile destination. For those interested in traveling to Lijiang, here’s a brief guide to this famous town.
The Old Town of Lijiang
The Old Town was once an important stop along the ancient Tea Horse Road, and today it serves as the center of tourism. A maze of cobblestone streets, bridges, and waterways, it’s a great place to get lost and just wander around. Most of the buildings have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and shops, but at least the outward appearance still evokes a sense of an ancient Chinese town.
It’s not all knick-knack shops and guesthouses here, though – you can also stumble into a quaint little Buddhist temple or enjoy hanging out in the wide open square in the middle of town. It’s also a great place for people watching. You might spot locals jamming out on traditional instruments and tourists dressing up in Yunnan garb for photo shoots.
A major highlight of the Old Town is the fact that it’s pedestrian only, making for a nice break from the big cities of China that are full of traffic jams and honking horns. That being said, the endless repetition of bongo drum shops, ethnic minority clothing, and yak meat jerky detract a bit from the character of the town. That plus the never-ending crowds of matching-hat wearing Chinese tourists will ensure that you want to escape the Old Town before too long to explore the surrounding area. Thankfully there are plenty of other things to see and do outside of town.
Black Dragon Pool
Located just about 1 km away from the center of town, this park is popular with locals and tourists alike. On a clear day, you can get a postcard-worthy view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towering in the distance. We weren’t so fortunate, visiting on a very cloudy day. Regardless of the views or lack thereof, it’s still a lovely place to spend a few hours away from the crowds.
It’s also a great place for even more people watching, as locals love coming here to relax, play cards, or bust a move in some group dancing.
While there’s technically an entrance fee required to visit the park, it’s not that hard to avoid it by walking around the park’s side rather than using the front gate. Seeing as how they already charge you 80 RMB just to be in the Old Town, we didn’t feel so bad skirting an extra fee just to visit the park.
Wan Gu Lou Tower
For a bird’s eye view of the town, head to the top of the Wan Gu Lou Tower. Free from the loud music and pushy crowds, the Old Town looks a lot better from above. From this vantage point, it’s almost possible to imagine what the town was like hundreds of years ago, long before selfie sticks reigned supreme.
It’s an interesting contrast seeing the Old Town off to one side and the new city to the other – a clear example of China’s past and present standing side by side. The tourists come to see the ancient side of town, while locals are happy to live in their modern high rise apartments, eat American fast food, and spend their hard earned kuai in shopping malls.
Shuhe Ancient Town
If the crowds in Lijiang become a bit too much for you, jump on a bike and cycle up to another ancient town – Shuhe. Although it’s starting to look more and more like Lijiang, the crowds are much smaller here and it’s just as scenic. Plus, the bike ride out there is incredibly beautiful. Out here, you’ll see why they call the province Yunnan, which means “South of the Clouds.”
Those seeking a quieter, more peaceful vacation may even want to consider just staying out here instead. There are plenty of guest houses to accommodate the small crowds, and you’ll definitely have a more relaxing trip by staying here.
We spent a few hours wandering the streets, eating at a local restaurant, and posing for photos with a group of guys jamming out before peddling back to Lijiang. It was really quiet and peaceful on our visit, but the place is probably a zoo on weekends and major holidays.
One of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups, the Naxi people live primarily in the Lijiang area. Traveling here is a great way to experience their culture, especially by taking in the nightly performance of the orchestra. Composed mostly of men aged 70-90, they play traditional songs on traditional instruments, making for a fantastic evening of music. We definitely enjoyed the Naxi orchestra far more than the awful music coming out of the bars in town.
There’s no shortage of places to stay in and around Lijiang, ranging from budget dorm rooms to 5-star hotels. Keep in mind that staying within the Old Town generally means higher prices and bigger crowds. We opted to stay at the October Inn, located just a short walk outside of the town in a village.
The owner is super friendly, the views from the roof are incredible, and they have what just may be the best bunk beds ever. For those seeking a bit more privacy, there are also a few private rooms which are all very well decorated.
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Food & Drink
There are also tons of restaurants scattered around the Old Town, offering up just about any type of Chinese cuisine imaginable. For a local flavor, you’ve got to try the Lijiang baba, a kind of flatbread that goes great for dipping in saucy dishes. Goat meat is also popular here, so don’t be surprised to see a restaurant employee carving one up right outside of the establishment.
For drinks, there are plenty of teahouses, coffee shops, and bars to choose from. The scene gets a little wild at night, with bars vying for tourists’ RMB by blasting offensively loud music and shining way too many neon lights.
We absolutely love Chinglish. Laughing at the ridiculous Chinglish signs is always a highlight of our trip wherever we go in China. Although it’s incredibly touristy and attracts visitors from all over the world, you’ll be happy to hear that the Old Town of Lijiang is still full of some epic Chinglish.
While many decry Lijiang as being too touristy, it’s still a beautiful town with a long history and an interesting culture. As long as you don’t visit on a major holiday and don’t spend all of your time within the Old Town, you’ll have an enjoyable trip. Plus, as a major transportation hub, Lijiang is a great jumping off point for other adventures in Yunnan province, such as the epic Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. Spend a few days here before heading out to more off-the-beaten path places and enjoy all that this historical town has to offer.