Traveling within Yunnan, for different reasons, was full of surprises as well as misadventures and our arrival in Lijiang was no different. We stayed in the old town of Lijiang where cars are not allowed on its narrow lanes. Per the email from our B&B, we had to reach the entrance to the old town and then they were going to come and pick us up. We reached the entrance and promptly informed our hosts to come for us. But for some reason, maybe a language hassle or they were busy with something, they just wouldn’t come. We waited on the main road for almost an hour and called them multiple times and moved from one spot to the other, because we were occupying the spots of the local fruit-sellers or hindering their sale. After an hour of waiting, a local police woman came to our rescue and spoke with our B&B people. Though I didn’t understand a word but whatever she did was pretty effective. Immediately after the call our hosts came for us and we took a small local bus that drove us inside a part of the old town and left us at another gate. From there we dragged our luggage on cobbled streets to finally reach our quaint wooden B&B. Despite the rocky start we had a good trip in Lijiang.
Lijiang is a picturesque small town in Yunnan which on first glance looks to be straight out of a fairy tale – with its wooden houses and beautiful rooftops, criss-crossing canals by each house that follow you as you wander through the town, carved stone bridges over the canals, a mix of traditional and quirky stuff in the shops, meandering narrow cobbled streets with some unique sights and sounds, picturesque gardens and the Naxi pictograms all around.
We walked around the old town exploring the tiny lanes and by-lanes following the canals looking for remnants of the original Naxi architecture in traditional houses. I was really fascinated by these ingenious ancient network of waterways, that I learned is supplied by the mountain springs and at one time was the source of drinking water for the town.
The Naxis are a minority tribe and descendants of the Tibetan Qiang nomads. They are a matriarchal society (though the local rulers were males) where women inherit all property and the major disputes are settled by women elders of the family. They have a unique script for writing that is over 1000 years old. It consists of pictograms (the only hieroglyphic language still in use) and there are efforts being made by a few individuals to keep it alive. But more than the script I loved the influences that having a matriarchal society have had on the language. Per Lonely Planet, nouns become superlative when the word for ‘ female’ is added; conversely, diminutive with the addition of the word for’ male’. For example, ‘stone’ plus ‘ female’ conveys the idea of a boulder; ‘stone’ plus ‘male’ conveys the idea of a pebble.
We saw several Naxi women walking around in their traditional attire of blue blouses and trousers and covered by blue or black aprons. We even saw a few women wear the traditional cape and the basket.
However the entire cultural experience took a backseat once the sun descended and the colorful disco lights switched on over the town. Suddenly Lijiang was transformed into the party capital of Yunnan with lights, loud music, dancing and crowds. It was then, that I understood, why backpackers flock to Lijiang and why it’s known for its bars and pubs.
I particularly loved an entire wooden area with its houses, restaurants and pubs on both sides of a canal. The interiors of this place had been beautifully done with the right mix of quaint and quirky and some beautiful lighting that magnified the effects. The only thing that I didn’t like were the chained birds, kept as part of the decoration, they could hardly move and seemed really sad to be there.
However our evening fun time in Lijiang was very short-lived; as just when the evening was getting started it started raining, well more like pouring. And it poured all evening and well into the night thereafter. Due to this unseasonal rain, we missed loads of things that we wanted to see and also the Naxi-orchestra held every evening where old men play traditional Chinese music on antique instruments. We also missed seeing the famous Black Dragon Pool Park.
Though I loved Lijiang there were quite a few things that I didn’t like about it – especially the crowds and the unchecked tourism growth. Lijiang has become a tourist haunt and is extremely chaotic and crowded. And as a side effect of all the unchecked tourism growth, Lijiang has lost a lot of its originality and authenticity – many of the old buildings have become B&Bs, hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants, clubs and bars; Naxi culture is slowly turning touristy and the local handicrafts are acquiring a modern take.
But despite everything, I still feel that everyone should visit Lijiang at least once to see this beautiful ancient architecture and the Naxi community and culture, while it still remains.