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Old Town of Lijiang — A Walk Through the History

Lijiang was a former trading town and a stop for traders carrying goods on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The architecture of the old town is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures. The town also possesses an ancient water supply system of great complexity and ingenuity.

Now, the small city has been commercialized and millions of tourists visit every year, but it is still worth a visit.

Beautiful architectures of Lijiang Ancient Town, a UNESCO World Heritage SiteBeautiful architectures in Old Town of Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Chinese: 丽江古城 Lìjiāng Gǔchéng /lee-jyang goo-chnng/ 'Old Town of Lijiang'
  • Area: 7.3 square kilometers (2.8 square miles)
  • Popular activities: photograph ancient architecture, walk along narrow alleyways
  • Suited to: anyone, especially the people who are interested in the minority culture
  • Time needed: 1–2 days

The Highlights You Should Not Miss

The Three Parts of the Old Town of Lijiang

Three ancient districts are included in the World Heritage List in 1997: Dayan Old Town, Baisha Quarter and Shuhe Ancient Town. The three old districts retain a special character of old Naxi and Han construction and Naxi customs, arts and culture.

Old Town of LijiangOld Town of Lijiang

Dayan Old Town is paved with cobbled stone throughout and lined with many shops selling local tea, snacks and souvenirs. The old town is best viewed from above, so try and find a rooftop spot to get a look at the beautiful overview.

The Baisha Quarter and the Shuhe District are less developed 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.

The Waterworks System

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.

Naxi Culture

The Naxi peopleThe Naxi people

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.

The Naxi writing system uses hieroglyphs instead of Chinese characters. 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 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.

The History of Lijiang Old Town

Lijiang didn't become an important town on the Ancient Tea Horse Road until the end of the Southern Song (1127-1279) and the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

During the early years of the Yuan Dynasty, about 1,000 families inhabited Lijiang Old Town. The town continued to grow, and it reached a peak during the Ming (AD 1368-1644) and Qing (AD 1644-1911) dynasties.

In 1996, there was a big earthquake of magnitude 7.0 on the Richter Scale in Lijiang. Houses, bridges and waterworks were rebuilt, renovated and restored.

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. This drove up prices in the area, and many Naxi and other local people moved away.

Shuhe Ancient TownShuhe Ancient Town

The Best Times for a Visit

The best times to visit Lijiang are from late March to May and mid-October to November.

In winter, the low nightly temperatures are a little above freezing. So bring plenty of clothes. Bring rain gear for the rainy season between June and September.

Travel Essentials for Planning a Trip

  • Location: It is located in the northwest of Yunnan Province, Southwest China.
  • Open: 8:30am–19:00pm
  • Entrance fee: 80 yuan (the protection fare of the old town)
  • Tips:
    1. The cobblestones are slippery when they are wet, so please be careful when walking on them.
    2. If you go early (before 10am) you will get many sections of the town to yourself with barely anyone around.
    3. The altitude is about 2,400 meters or about 7,800 feet. Some people may get some altitude sickness. So take it easy the first day or two.

Nearby Attractions

Shaxi Ancient TownShaxi Ancient Town
  • The Ancient City of Dali is only about three hours south of Lijiang. It is next to a high mountain that is a better hiking area than Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
  • Shaxi Ancient Town 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.
  • Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges on earth, which is the best hiking route in the Lijiang area.
  • To see the ethnic group that is matriarchal, you can go to Lugu Lake that is another travel highlight in the region. They have a unique system of relationships.
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