City in China: Lijiang


Lijiang’s (Lìjiāng, 丽江) Nestled in a high mountain valley, charming Old Townhas long been a center of Naxi cultureand in recent years has become a major tourist attraction. Declared a UN World Heritage siteafter a 1996 earthquake and developed in the years since with tourism in mind, Lijiang, once a remote backpacker getaway, now attracts more than 5 million tourists a year.

Of course, the tourism boom has changed the city and it’s now common to find traditional wooden Naxihouses converted into shops run by Han Chinese who cater to the needs of tour groups. This has changed Lijiang’s character, replacing much of its authentic (if occasionally dilapidated) charm with the convenience and relative luxury that the tourism industry requires. Strolling the winding stone streets and alleys of Dayan, the main part of Old Town, is still enjoyable, although it’s certainly better during the off season, weekdays and before 8:30am when the tourist groups begin to get started. The villages of Baisha and Shuhe, both part of the Lijiang Old Town UNESCO Site, are somewhat quieter alternatives to Dayan’s very well-trod streets.

The New City, whose flimsy modern buildings fared worse in the earthquake than the old city’s Naxi wood and stone houses, is not worth too much time, though hotels tend to be cheaper than in the Old City.

Beyond Lijiang, the beautiful countryside beckons. Not far from the city you’ll find monasteries like the Yufeng Lamasery, Naxi villages likeBaoshan Stone Village, Lashi Lake, the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorgeand theJade Dragon Snow Mountains. Lijiang is also an excellent spot for a few days of relaxation before or after treks in Tibet or eastern Yunnan.


Lijiang was established in the early Yuan Dynasty after Kublai Khan conquered the nearby city of Dali. Soon thereafter it became an important stop along the southern Silk Road, connecting Kunming with Tibet and India and making Lijiang a central meeting point for traders and a distribution point for merchandise from all over China and beyond.

The Lijiang area has been home to the Naxi minority for over 1,400 years. The Naxi descend from the Tibetan Qiang people, who migrated down the Yangtze from Northern Tibet. Most of the 300,000-strong Naxi community lives in and around Lijiang, while smaller groups are scattered throughout southwestern Sichuan and southeastern Tibet.

Naxi culture is traditionally matriarchal, with women inheriting all property and mediating tribal conflicts; the matriarchy, however, has broken down somewhat in recent years with increased exposure to the decidedly patriarchal Han. In traditional Naxi culture, men and women did not live together but within their respective parents’ homes, and many Naxi families kept inns to serve Silk Road travelers. Proving that matriarchy has nothing to do with emasculation, Naxi men were fierce fighters and often provided mercenary protection to Tibetan and Bai traders along perilous routes through Tibet, Yunnan, India and Burma.

The Naxi are a people of culture and art, too. Their written language, Dongba, is the world’s only pictographic language still in use. “Dongba” refers to Naxi elders knowledgeable in astronomy,geography and agriculture as well as folk medicine and handicrafts, and to this day the language nourishes a rich literature that preserves unique Naxi works on religion, philosophy, art, astronomy and history as well as music, dance and painting. The traditional Dongba religion was open enough to allow the influence of Buddhism, Daoism and Islam, but was well in decline even by the time Joseph Rock studied the people and flora of the area in the early part of the 20th century and  was later outright banned by the Communists. You can learn more at Lijiang’s Dongba Culture Museum.

Like other regions in YunnanProvince, Lijiang is home to many minority groups. Among Lijiang’s 22 minorities are Bai, Pumi, Yi, Tibetan, Miao and Lisu peoples. All minority populations together, Naxi included, account for 59% of the city’s population.


Situated in a valley surrounded by high mountains, Lijiang enjoys a temperate climate year around despite its altitude (average 2,400 m or 7,900 ft above sea level), with warm days and cool nights. Daytime temperatures average 15ºC (59ºF) in the winter and 3ºC (37ºF) at night. Summer temperatures can reach 30ºC (80ºF) during the day and drop to 15ºC (59ºF) at night. Summer months (June-September) bring daily rainstorms. The best seasons to visit Lijiang are spring and fall when the days are warm, there’s little rain and the local alpine wildflowers and grasses are at their best.  And you should know that it is also the time of year, when you can  experience “four seasons in one day”!

丽江Lìjiāng: Lijiang

纳西文化Nàxīwénhuà: Naxi Culture

联合国世界遗产LiánhéɡuóShìjièyíchǎn: UN World HeritageSite

鱼峰寺 Yúfēnɡsì : Yufeng Lamasery

玉龙雪山Yùlónɡxuěshān: Jade Dragon Snow Mountains

丝绸之路Sīchóuzhīlù: Silk Road

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