LIJIANG (丽江, lìjiāng), capital of the Naxi Kingdom, nestles 150km north of Dali at foot of the inspiringly spiky and ice-bound massif of Yulong Xue Shan, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Surrounded by green fields and pine forests, the town’s winding cobbled lanes form a centuries-old maze, flanked by clean streams, weeping willows and rustic stone bridges. It is also, however, China’s biggest tourist black spot, and while undeniably pretty, has become little more than a cultural theme park, and the template against which all “old towns” in China are being remodeled. Packs of visitors throng the streets, while the Naxi family homes that line them have been converted into rank after rank of guesthouses and souvenir shops, mostly run by Han Chinese posing in ethnic costumes. Despite this, it’s easy to spend a couple of days in Lijiang, especially if you’ve been out in the wilds and need a good feed and a hot shower. Fairground atmosphere aside, there’s also some genuine culture lurking around the town’s fringes, and plenty of potential excursions into the countryside. While there is no charge to enter Lijiang itself, you do have to buy an “Old Town Maintenance Fee” ticket before you can visit specific sights in and around the town – though you still have to pay additional entry fees for these sights, where they exist.
Rich pickings surround Lijiang, with a stock of pleasant countryside, temples and villages on the lower slopes of Yulong Xue Shan within bicycle range.
From Lijiang, there are two routes into Sichuan. The quickest begins by catching a bus 200km east to heavily industrialized PANZHIHUA (攀枝花, pānzhīhuā), but travelling via Lugu Hu (泸沽湖, lúgū hú), a shallow, attractive lake bisected by the Sichuan border about 200km north of Lijiang, is much more fun. The people up here are Mosuo, who maintain matrilineal traditions such as axia marriage, where a woman takes several husbands. Women run the households and children are brought up by their mothers – men have no descendants or property rights. Glibly marketed as a “Girl Kingdom” to single Chinese men – who inevitably head back home disappointed – tourism has become well-established in recent years, but the lake remains a pleasant place to kick back for a couple of days before making the tiring journey to Xichang in southern Sichuan.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Around 70km north of Lijiang, the Yangzi River channels violently through Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡, hŭtiào xiá), the 3000m-deep rift between Haba Xue Shan to the north and Yulong Xue Shan to the south. The hiking trail through the gorge is one of the most accessible and satisfying in China, with dramatic scenery and – despite the 2500m-plus altitude – relatively straightforward walking. That said, you’ll need to be fit, carrying full weatherproof gear, a torch and a first-aid pack, and to be stocked up with snacks and a water bottle. Solid boots are a plus but, as long as your shoes have a firm grip, not essential. Weather can be warm enough in summer to hike in a T-shirt, but don’t count on it; winters are cold. Accommodation along the way is in guesthouses, so you won’t need a tent. Two days is the minimum time needed for a hike; give yourself an extra day to make the most of the scenery.
There seem to be almost continual roadworks going on in the gorge, connected with ongoing construction of a hydro dam across the river. Landslides are a potentially lethal hazard, so do not hike in bad weather or during the June–September rainy season; there have also been a couple of knifepoint muggings of solo travellers in recent years.
The Naxi are descended from Tibetan nomads who settled the region before the tenth century, bringing with them a shamanistic religion known as Dongba. A blend of Tibetan Bon, animist and Taoist tendencies, Dongba’s scriptures are written in the only hieroglyphic writing system still in use, with 1400 pictograms. The Naxi deity Sanduo is a warrior god depicted dressed in white, riding a white horse and wielding a white spear. Murals depicting him and other deities still decorate temples around Lijiang, and are a good excuse to explore nearby villages.
Strong matriarchal influences permeate Naxi society, particularly in the language. For example, nouns become weightier when the word female is added, so a female stone is a boulder, a male stone a pebble. Inheritance passes through the female line to the eldest daughter. Women do most of the work, and own most of the businesses; accordingly, the Naxi women’s costume of caps, shawls and aprons is sturdy and practical, while retaining its symbolic meaning; the upper blue segment of the shawl represents night, a lower sheepskin band represents daylight, and those two circles around the shoulder depict the eyes of a frog deity. Naxi men often appear under-employed, though they have a reputation as good gardeners and musicians. You’ll likely see a few falconers too. Forgotten Kingdom, by Peter Goullart, is an entertaining account of Lijiang and the Naxi during the 1930s; it’s available at bookshops in town.