Lijiang (丽江市) – China’s unknown beauty

“Where do you go?” was a question I often heard when telling friends and family that I will head to Lijiang in China’s Yunnan province. Every Chinese knows Lijiang but the city is almost unknown outside China, despite being one of the most beautiful places in China and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Lijiang is an exceptional ancient town set in a dramatic landscape which represents the harmonious fusion of different cultural traditions to produce an urban landscape of outstanding quality.” says the UNESCO. I’d be glad if someone could explain the sentence “harmonious fusion of different cultural traditions” to me. Sounds like a piece out of Communist Party propaganda (the kind of stuff no one is listening to anyway). But I’m sure if you send an American teenager to Lijiang who happens to have a predisposition for the word “like” the following might be uttered: “Oh my Gosh! It’s like, so awesome. It all looks like so old. But, you know, also so, like real. The water and all that. And the stones….”

Well, the truth about Lijiang might be in between the non-sensical UNESCO and an American teenager’s comments. Lijiang’s Old Town is indeed an exceptionally pretty town. You can get lost for hours exploring the city’s narrow streets. There’s an abundance of small boutique shops selling everything from cloths, tea, music, scarves down to the normal tourist stuff. And if I say “get lost” I really mean it. Once you’re in the web of little streets it’s almost impossible to find out again. The streets all look alike and you will soon have lost your sense of direction. The only way to get out of the cobweb is to follow the stream up that pervades the city to reach the 水车 (water wheel).

But Lijiang is more than just a pretty town – at least for Chinese. Lijiang is something what you’d call a “meat market” in the Anglophone world. A place to find a one-night stand. I didn’t realize this at all when I visited Lijiang. Not surprising, given that a) I was there with my wife and b) we didn’t visit any Chinese Bars, which function as the meat markets. If you’ve been to a Chinese Bar before you might know the reason why I stay away from them. It’s normally a noisy place for  dice games and heavy drinking. I don’t mind the latter but don’t like the combination of drinking with silly drinking games in an environment where I can’t understand what the bloke next to me is saying. That’s why I stay out of there whenever possible. I much prefer an Irish pub to a Chinese club or bar.

Anyway, coming back to the meat market (that’s why you still keep on reading, isn’t it?).My dutch friend who’s been living in Lijiang for five years told me that Lijiang is effectively what Las Vegas is to Americans – a place for party and fun (but without the gambling) and the sex part. If you’re in Lijiang and interested to conduct some research into that matter (of course you wouldn’t profit from this indecent behaviour, would you?), try the bar street on the western end of the main square. But get drunk beforehand, a bottle of beer sells at 50 or 60 RMB. A cup of coffee goes at the same price.

In case you’re not interested to be part in the “meat game” what else is there in Lijiang? Just kick back and relax. If you want to waste your time in a very unproductive manner – Lijiang is YOUR town. You can easily stay a few days in one of the more than 700 (yes, seven hundred) guest houses scattered around the city. Hop from cafe to cafe and relax. Don’t get too close to the music stores though. For about three years, they’ve been playing the unofficial Lijiang song “Da Di Da Di Da” by 张小静. It sounds nice for the first day but on the second to third day you’ll get sick of it (send me a message if you need the MP3).

Apart from wasting your time you can make your way to the  Tiger Leaping Gorge and the snowy mountains. Travel agencies are scattered all over Lijiang so booking a tour is easy. But I’ve said enough. It’s time for the pictures to have a word.

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How to get to Lijiang? There are daily flights from Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Flight’s from Shenzhen tend to be expensive. Normally you have to pay the full fare of RMB 1600. Guangzhou, although being more expensive for the full fare at RMB 2500, offers a lot cheaper offers. Prices start from RMB 400 one way. If you’re really on the cheap, get on a train to Kunming and transfer to the Lijiang train in Kunming. There are also buses available from Kunming to Lijiang.

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