July 25, 2020


Visiting the centre of the ancient Nakhi Kingdom in Yunnan northwest. 

Lijiang, Yunnan's prefecture-level city with a population of 1.3 million, has a history going back over 1,000 years. A prominent, still-standing reminder of its past is Dayan, Lijiang's old town, once the most important place of the Old Tea Horse Caravan Trail, otherwise known as the Ancient Southern Silk Road. Dayan got inscribed among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997, and since then, the city has been thriving as a tourist destination. So it happened; I visited it during my journey through the province.

After my arrival, I left the hotel to get purposefully lost in the local streets, something I like to do to get a sense of the place. The alleys were surrounded by trees and other greenery, which made a pleasant environment for walking in.

Another thing I tend to do to establish an impression of a city is to get to a place with a good view. In China, these were often skyscrapers or TV towers, but here in Lijiang, I opted to hike up the Elephant Hill, a place that promised a good outlook on the downtown.

Approaching the wall of the Elephant Hill, which towers above the streets like a tsunami.

However, when I got there, I found out that they won't allow people to go there after four in the afternoon – which had already passed. "Um, there goes the plan to see the evening light from the hill..." Thankfully, just underneath the hill is the Museum of Nakhi culture, which proved to be a good alternative. Nakhi is the dominant ethnic group of Lijiang, with specific language, customs, farming practices, and religion. It was an interesting stop, not only to learn about Nakhis, but also about the relations of other ethnicities here. Yunnan has 26 ethnic groups.

A short walk from the museum is the Jade Spring Park, my next stop.

Temple of Dragon King.

The centrepiece of the park is the Black Dragon Lagoon with the Temple of Dragon King. The temple is possibly the most photographed scene in the city, because in its backdrop can be seen the Yulong Snow Mountain... unless it is cloudy, like during the day of my visit. If I didn't read about the mountain, an ultra-prominent peak with an elevation of 5,596m / 18,360ft, I would not guess its presence at all; it was thoroughly obscured. Still, the temple offered plenty of exciting angles to look at.

The temple sits just north of the old town, so that's where I continued my walk. The place is a maze of narrow streets with a neat system of water canals – which are cool both for their visual qualities and as an infrastructure component.

The old town is the most popular heritage-based tourist destination in the Yunnan province, and it lived to the status. Crowds were as far as one could see.

Most of the area is converted into shops, selling anything from Nakhi silk embroidery and literature to perfumes and kitsch plastic presents. And as always, there are loads of opportunities to try out a variety of food, satisfying tastes for both local and international cuisine. Speaking of the latter, there was an Irish pub, and unexpectedly, "Prague Cafe." However, it was closed, so I couldn't investigate what the back story is or if there is any. The local food then scored in colours and an exotic factor (even after a few months, still).

I must admit, my first impression of the old town wasn't as splendid as some of the glowing reviews I read. This was due to two factors: First, it is easy to recognize that the majority of its structures got rebuilt in recent years, which undermines the genius loci. I am not against sensible reconstruction or utilizing new technologies and methods, but when you walk on stone blocks precisely cut to the same measurements, and the wooden equipment around looks like it came from Ikea, it just doesn't line up too well with the "ancient" label. And second: I didn't particularly fancy the adaptation of some of the streets into a shopping hub.

Clearly, I wasn't the only one who was puzzled about the feel of the old town. When UNESCO published the results of their monitoring mission of the place in 2008, they noted an imbalance between heritage conservation and tourism development.

However, I also saw the other side of the coin. Lijiang was one of the provinces' poorest areas until the city started utilizing its potential for tourism in the 1990s. The efforts paid off, and in 2018, the old town was visited by 14 million tourists. These numbers are then reflected in the boom of the city's revenue and a massive hike in the locals' income, which is unarguably a positive progression for the region.

Also, a few weeks before my visit to Lijiang, I was in the capital city of the neighbouring Sichuan Province, Chengdu, where I saw the world's largest building in terms of floor area. A portion of it is a massive mall, and it is rather ghastly. In that respect, I'd take a newly built "old town shopping district" over a dedicated ugly mall building all day, every day.

Moreover, in Lijiang's old town, it is still possible to go off the main streets, which give more of an authentic, attractive feel. That's what I did.

This was much better. More space to breathe, more space to enjoy the carvings on the windows shutters and entrance beams, and appreciate the facades' textures.

In these back alleys, I found some hidden tea houses and boutique hotels, a few of which surprised me with roof access, providing different, likeable views.

Getting my head around Dayan's spatial properties, as well as the different qualities it has to offer, I found a view looking back north, revealing the Elephant Hill again.

The Elephant Hill, as seen from Dayan, the old town of Lijiang.

"A plan for the next day!" I thought and continued my excursion of the old town.

As the dusk started, the town became vibrant with artificial lights, bringing a new atmosphere to the mix.

During the day, the streets are mostly composed of greys and earthy colours. But after the sunset, many of the previously faded areas are highlighted with saturated hues.

Another welcoming change was the temperature drop. Lijiang sits at 2,400m / 7,900ft, so it never gets as hot as some other Chinese cities, still, evenings proved more comfortable.

The evening was also an excellent excuse to try some street food before seeing Dayan at night.

Old Market Square

While the number of people didn't change, the age groups and interests shifted. Some of the buildings are adapted into nightlife venues, bringing in loads of young people.

To me, however, a more exciting element was to stay outdoors and observe other cultural habits. One of them was people getting candle boats made to look like lotus blooms, lighting them up, and sending them off on the canals' water while whispering a wish.

And the colors...!

The next day, the mission was clear: get on the Elephant Hill. I arrived at the right time, paid an entrance fee, and I had to put my passport number in. Still, I was stopped at the gate again. The guards weren't happy that I was on my own. As it turned out, one of the many rules they have is that you can enter it only in a group of people, for safety reasons. There were also signs that you should have proper hiking equipment, water, and so on. I was determined, and since I had already paid the fee, the guards eventually let me in.

I know that the hiking culture is not strong in China, but seeing these folks treating me like I wanted to attempt a solo ascent of Everest in flipflops, even though this hill has a prominence of only some 300m / 1,000ft, was a comedy at best. Anyway, let's get up, finally!

The Elephant Hill isn't tall, but it is pretty steep at places. Yet, because of a well-built trail full of stairs, you can be on the top in no time.

Before reaching the summit, there are a few gazebos with some fine outlooks on the city.

Overlooking the Black Dragon Lagoon from the Elephant Hill.

The hill is topped with a small pavilion with an observation deck, which, interestingly, offers a much better view on the opposite side of the downtown. While the downtown is behind trees, the other side reveals pretty hills rolling into the distance.

It would be another magnificent place to see the Yulong Snow Mountain. Alas, the clouds stagnated at the same height as yesterday, showing no sign of the peak's presence.

The name of the Yunnan province comes from nearby placed Yun Ling range, which translates as Cloudy Mountains." Clearly, they named it accordingly.  And so, I started my way back towards the city by taking a longer path to the south.

Along the way, there are two telecom towers (another potential observation decks), but perhaps more interesting are the Nakhi tombs spread around the hill.

It was the first time I saw such tombs in China; they are pretty unusual. And while they looked quite overgrown, some were decorated with fresh flowers.

The descent was similarly steep and opened more neat vistas – this time looking at the city.

While the big mountain range to the north was in clouds, the southern mountains were in sight. I thought about how they could provide a great escape for locals, both in hiking and mountain biking qualities, but after the experience from getting on this hill, it will probably take a while before it becomes any common here.

I also noticed how quiet the hill was, no birds were singing, and I didn't see any other animals – until there was a cat towards the bottom of the hill. "Maybe that explains the lack of birds," I thought.

Back in the city centre, I made my way through some less popular streets back towards the old town.

On the west side of the old town is another hill named after an animal, the Lion Hill. It is smaller, but it has Wangu Pavilion, and so it was my other plan for the day.

Wangu Pavilion on top of the Lion Hill.

The pavilion has some noteworthy decoration, but it didn't stand a chance compared with the 360-degree views all over Lijiang.

The structure is surrounded by old cypress trees, and as it sticks above their height, a fresh breeze brings in the nice smell through the windows.

 One of the sights visible from the pavilion is the Mu Palace, the Nakhi rulers' home.

Mu's Palace

That's where I went next, as the afternoon sun came out.

The sun made the town look very different from yesterday's overcast sky, so I revisited some of the locations in the old town..

...mostly the places with remarkable views.

I planned to watch the sunset while facing northwest, as that gave decent chances for seeing either colourful clouds or, if they would break, the Yulong Snow Mountain.

The clouds didn't break, they closed in instead. But it was fine; I was happy with what I got.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like my stories about other Chinese cities, such as:





Alternatively, browse my blog archives for more topics and categories. Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories


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