Three old districts in this small city retain a special character of Naxi and Han construction and Naxi customs, arts and culture. It was a former trading town and a stop for traders carrying goods on the “Chama Road” trails. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 following an earthquake and reconstruction in 1996 that returned the city to a more ancient look. The UNESCO description says: “The Old Town of Lijiang, which is perfectly adapted to the uneven topography of this key commercial and strategic site, has retained a historic townscape of high quality and authenticity. Its architecture is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures that have come together over many centuries. Lijiang also possesses an ancient water supply system of great complexity and ingenuity that still functions effectively today.” The landscape is dramatic, and the Chama Road was important historically for the development of the cultures and people of Southeast Asia, China and the Himalayan Region. Now, the small city has been commercialized and millions of tourists visit every year, but three ancient districts are somewhat preserved.
Three ancient districts are included in the World Heritage List in 1997. These three areas all lie in a line stretching about 11 kilometers north to south. Baisha Quarter is the furthest north. About five kilometers south is the Shuhe Ancient Town area, and about 7 kilometers south-southeast of Shuhe Town is the Dayan Ancient City District that was the main town in the valley. These districts are now a part of the Lijiang urban area that has a population of about half a million people. Hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists visit the old districts each year, and about five million Chinese tourists come to the city each year. To help to preserve some of the old character and to keep the area from being swamped with traffic jams, vehicles are banned from the Dayan Ancient City District that is a little area of about 9 square kilometers or about 3.5 square miles. The three old districts retain a special character of old Naxi and Han construction and Naxi customs, arts and culture.
The waterworks system is an important engineering feature of the town mentioned in the UNESCO World Heritage List description. The people took advantage of the Jade River to build a complex water system that people liken to the canal system of Venice. The river flows from the north of the town, divides into 3 tributaries, and then divides into many streams that flow through courtyards and past houses in a southerly direction. The streams were channeled into ponds or basins for use. However, modern construction and sewage problems have destroyed much of the original waterworks.
After 1997, there was a sudden tourist boom and an influx of Chinese who built businesses. So now there are plenty of new restaurants and places for tourists to stay around the ancient districts. Next to the Dayan Ancient City District, the modern Nanmen area has been built with restaurants, shops, hotels and amusements places. Next to the Shuhe Town area, the Chama Tourist Center district was also recently built.
The new construction and the businesses of people from other provinces have changed the character of the special districts. The Baisha Quarter and the Shuhe District are less redeveloped than the Dayan Ancient City District. So to see more traditionally decorated buildings and the older construction, Baisha Quarter and Shuhe are the places to go.
Naxi culture is special because the people are less modernized and the people developed a writing system, a music style, and a religion different than the majority of Chinese. For example, the Naxi are kind of matriarchal. This is very strange. Confucian families are patriarchal like most people in the world. This means that the mothers have more power in the family than the fathers. The Mosuo people who live around Lugu Lake near Lijiang are also matriarchal. They may be related to the Naxi. Lugu Lake and the Mosuo people are another travel highlight in the area.
The Naxi writing system uses hieroglyphs instead of Chinese characters. There are similarities between the hieroglyphs that were used in Chinese empires millennia ago and the Naxi hieroglyphs. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians, Mayans, and other civilizations used hieroglyphic writing systems. The people on Easter Island used hieroglyphs more recently, though it is now also a dead writing system. But the Naxi are the only people who still use hieroglyphs to write in the world. However, only a handful of Naxi, perhaps ten people, who are almost all elderly people now know how to read the glyphs. The written language is in danger of becoming extinct. During the 1960s and the 1970s, the government tried to eradicate their religion and writing system. So thousands of documents were destroyed, and the people were forbidden to write their language. However, some younger Naxi people are starting to learn the writing system, and libraries in China and other countries are trying to collect old documents.
The Naxi traditional music style has a long history. You can hear people playing their instruments in the Dayan Ancient City District. An orchestra of Naxi musicians performs there regularly. Since the little town was influenced by people from other lands who passed though, their music probably incorporated the styles and instruments of ethnic groups in a wide region.
There was trade between the cities in the Yunnan, Tibet, and Burma region for thousands of years. Merchandise was carried by traders along trade routes. One of the trade routes passed between Dali, the nearby town of Shaxi, and Tibet, and the trade included tea and horses. The route is called the Chama (Tea-Horse) Road. Both Dali and Shaxi were important trading towns nearby that were on the route. There are ancient buildings in Dali and religious sites in Shaxi that show how important the towns were more than 1,000 years ago. But Lijiang didn’t become an important town on the Chama Road until the end of the Southern Song (1127-1279) and the beginning of the Yuan (Mongolian) Dynasty (1279-1368). The town was built at a stop on the “Chama” Tea-Horse Road that runs up from Dali and Shaxi in the south. People say that perhaps the Naxi settlers were driven south by the Mongol tribesmen who conquered China. They built a town where the Jade River breaks into three branches. The town was a stopping place near the high mountains of Tibet.
During the early years of the Yuan Dynasty, about 1,000 families inhabited Lijiang Ancient Town. The town continued to grow, and it reached a peak during the Ming (AD 1368-1644) and Qing (AD 1644-1911) Dynasties. But from the middle of the 1800s and onwards, railroads and propeller-driven ships took the place of traders with horses, mules and yaks plodding along in the valleys. The trade on the “Chama Road” paths through the area was significantly reduced in the early 20th century. But when the Japanese attacked in the late 1930s, the trails became very important militarily and commercially since the ocean routes became a theater of war and the Japanese controlled the coastal areas. At the end of WWII and after the Communist government blocked trade with other countries, the trade ended.
In 1996, there was a big earthquake of magnitude 7.0 on the Richter Scale. About 250 people died in the first earthquake, and afterwards there were mudslides and more aftershocks in which more people died. Many of the more modern structures were damaged, but people say that the traditional style houses proved to be remarkably earthquake resistant. This earthquake may have been key for UNESCO’s recognition of Lijiang in the World Heritage List in 1997 because the earthquake put the small city on the attention of people around the world and because many of the more modern buildings were torn down. The government replaced them with houses that looked more traditional. They also rebuilt, renovated and restored some of the old bridges and waterworks. So the area looked more like ancient Lijiang after the earthquake than it did before.
After the three Lijiang districts were named in the Heritage List in 1997, the flood of tourists also brought many people from other areas of China who constructed new businesses to accommodate them. This drove up prices in the area, and many Naxi and other local people moved away. Of the three areas listed as Heritage Sites, the Baisha Quarter and Shuhe Town are less commercialized. So if you want to experience more of the special traditional feel that the UNESCO committee described in 1997, those are places to go.
Northwestern Yunnan Province. It is about 180 kilometers north of Dali. This is about 3 hours on the highway. The urban area is at an altitude of about 2,300 meters or about 7,500 feet. This is a lot more than a mile high.
Dali and Shaxi are two other old trading towns on the Chama Road (Southern Silk Road) south of Lijiang, and they have a history of about 1,500 years, better preserved historical architecture and extensive temple sites more than a thousand years old. The historical sites are more interesting. The Ancient City of Dali District is only about three hours south on Highway 214, and it is next to a high mountain that is a better hiking area than the Yulong Snow Mountain. Shaxi is an old Bai town in another valley about an hour and a half south of Lijiang. Its old Qing dynasty era architecture is better preserved, and its ninth century Nanzhao Empire grottoes that are full of art and religious frescoes are famous.
The best hiking in the Lijiang area is just west of Yulong Snow Mountain along the valley between Qiaotou and Daju on the Haba Snow Mountain side of the valley. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges on earth. There is a high path that goes the whole distance. There is a road below the path that follows the course of the Yangtze River, but the road may be closed for construction in 2010.
To see another ethnic group that is also matriarchal but doesn’t have a writing system, you can go to Lugu Lake that is another travel highlight in the region. They have a unique system of relationships.