The Low-Down on Lijiang, Yunnan Province

Monday, October 20, 2014

About Lijiang

Lijiang City, in Lijiang Prefecture, Yunnan Province is a popular cultural tourism destination for both Chinese and foreigners alike. In Lijiang City you'll find a typical Chinese city around an Old Town. This Old Town is not similar to European old towns that actually have old buildings and a long history. This Old Town is pretty recently built (and rebuilt after a major earthquake) and has been modeled to look similar to a Naxi ethnic minority village minus the unpaved roads, lack of infrastructure, and with the added bonus of KFC, McDonalds, and other shops/restaurants.

Okay, so after that that was a bit of a harsh introduction. I do like Lijiang and have many fond memories from my visits there. A memories that stand out as particularly wonderful were from Skyping with J while eating noodles for breakfast while we were in an LDR. Another memory that makes me smile is from a time with my colleagues and I working up on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and had to give up for the day because of the cold and snow. We ended up spending the evening drinking hot chocolate and watching Downton Abbey. So, don't let Lijiang Old Town being a fake put you off. It is beautiful and a perfect place to hike and experience some culture (though partially artificial).

Some bonus tips for natural history buffs: Read the book Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart. He provides an excellent historical account (with photos!) of Lijiang, which he called Likiang. Additionally, Joseph Rock, plant collector, ethnographer, and extreme eccentric (he had porters carry his bathtub when going on plant collection trips) lived in a small village (Yuhu Cun) just outside of Lijiang while he was employed by National Geographic. You can learn more about Joseph Rock by reading one of his many books, tracking down old Nat Geo Magazines from the 1920s through 1950s, or by checking out this blog.


The Naxi Ethnic Minority in Yunnan

The Naxi ethnic minority has a population of about 300,000 and primarily live in Yunnan Province. Most Naxi people practice a religion called Dongba. The Naxi minority has the last remaining pictographic writing system, which is primarily used by Dongba priests.

One of my closest friends that I met in grad school is Naxi and I had the pleasure to hang out in her home village on one of our coinciding trips to China. Visiting her village, learning the plants that Naxi use (my research topic), and chatting via limited Mandarin (many people in her village didn't speak Mandarin) combined with miming was one of the best experiences I had in China. Yunnan is truly a special place because of the vibrant ethnic minorities.

Naxi women dancing in Lijiang, China
Naxi women dancing at the Torch Festival

A Dongba image in Yunnan Province, China

Dongba images in Lijiang Old Town

Naxi women and men walking in Heilongtan park

the Naxi dongba pictographic language
Examples of the Naxi pictographic language

Naxi Dongba images

Things to do in Lijiang City and Old Town

1) Visit Lijiang Old Town

an image of the canals in lijiang old town

The Lijiang Old Town water wheels

The Lijiang old town water wheels

The lijiang old town with Naxi architecture style

Canals and rives in Lijiang Old Town
 Winding streets of Lijiang Old Town

glass shards on a wall

A heart ornament on a tree
a broom and basket

2) Go to Black Dragon Pool Park (aka Heilongtan - don't get confused this is not the same Heilongtan as in Kunming!)

Heilongtan Park in Lijian

two people made in rocks on a path

A writing museum in Heilongtan park
 Chinese scripts

Lush park in lijiang heilongtan

A ridiculous sign loaded with party language in Lijiang
Ah the word usage in this sign - how I hate the word primitive!

Lijiang Black dragon pool

3) Enjoy the views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xue Shan)

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xue Shan)

4) Explore the surrounding Lijiang City

Lijiang City

5) Go for a hike!

I'm linking up with the Sunday Traveler.

Have you been to Lijiang before? Have I convinced you to pack your bags and head to Yunnan yet (if not I've got the post coming for you next week!)?


  1. thank you for this informative and interesting post Elizabeth! i love seeing your travels through your eyes, in particular places seeped in history like this one. x

    Miho @ Wander to Wonder

  2. Very neat! I'd love to learn more about the Naxi pictographs!

    1. I bought a little book about them this time around. I'll have a little look and then maybe post something about them!

  3. Just fascinating! Love the bits about Joseph Rock; a favorite thing to do is read lit associated with travel destinations. Excellent photos and info; I feel very educated :)

    1. Thanks! If you head to Yunnan you should definitely read some of his works. He was truly eccentric. I also love to read travel lit.

  4. I've never heard of this city before. It looks like a cool place to explore that is off the beaten track. Definitely has all the elements that makes it a great Chinese city.

    1. It is a small city in a not often visited (by foreigners) province. It is a wonderful place to go though and I highly suggest it.

  5. hi Elizabeth! Planning to go there next year, which month should i go? i am an avid hiker i wish to hike the terrains of tiger leaping gorge, any tips for me? which hotel did you stay and have you by chance happen to visit the Shangri-La area? My major concern would be the transportation so i need to do more research for public transport from Lijiang to Deque to Shangri-La, ay tips for me? thanks a bunch!

    1. I'm happy to help! I'd suggest visiting Yunnan in the spring or fall (before or after the rainy season). Public transportation in Yunnan is actually really great. From Kunming (if that is where you fly into) you can take a train or bus to Lijiang. From Lijiang you will have to take a bus to Shangri-La. In Lijiang or Shangri-La you can easily book a tour to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge (this is difficult to do during rainy season). I've spent a ton of time in both Lijiang and Shangri-La and numerous other places in northwest Yunnan and have favorite hotels in each place. I don't generally stay in fancy hotels, so if you are looking for that accommodation option I don't have any suggestions. I do have a post about where I normally stay in Lijiang. Regarding accommodation in Shangri-La, I haven't been to Shangri-La since the fire that happened a few years ago, so I'm not sure if it is still open. There are plenty of hotels and hostels though, so it will be easy to find something. There are also many tour companies that organize hikes. I highly recommend going for a hike in Shangri-La as the flora is incredible. If you send me an email ( I can give you even more information :)