About 16 years ago, I was browsing in a bookshop checking out some books about to be remaindered. One of them was a travelogue on Lijiang. The pictures – of glowing red lanterns reflected in flowing streams of clear water, lanes of old stones that glistened blue and dark grey in a misty rain – those romantic images of Lijiang struck a chord and for the longest time, this was on the list of places I wanted to see. Those who have seen it have returned extolling lots of praise but over time, I was no longer sure if this dreamy vision still existed or if it was smothered under huge piles of the tourist dollar. Now, in 2019, I was about to find out.
Well, I have to say that the cobblestoned streets with gurgling streams and lanterned facades still exist. The tangle of lanes winding beneath dark grey slate roofs are still romantic. But they co-exist with large crowds, souvenir shops, over-priced street food, and neon.
It was a deliberate choice I made not to make Lijiang’s old town my base. Instead, we headed to nearby Shuhe, a quieter, more chilled version of old Lijiang and the lovely Singaporean-run inn The Bivou for our three-night stay. Lijiang has a reputation of being a bit of a party central where the fun goes on long into the night. We wanted somewhere a bit quieter and more authentic, a space that would revert to its own when the tourists left for the day. We found that in Shuhe. More on that later.
This is not to say I did not enjoy walking through Lijiang. I did. Lijiang can be fun to just aimlessly wander because it is so big. If I had more time to chase down those beckoning alleyways and narrow side streets, I would have enjoyed Lijiang a lot more; especially because the crowds thin out the further away you go from the centre.
We started our Lijiang visit from the southern fringe of the old town, visiting the local market first. And if you like people watching, this is one of the best places to watch the world go by. Lijiang’s residents, the stall-holders, mostly tribal in origin give a fascinating glimpse of day to day life as they go about stocking up their kitchen. Shoppers come with big baskets strapped to their backs, carrying anything from big woks to preserved chickens. Stall holders call out their wares while some take a mid-day nap.
Zhongyi market is the largest ‘wet’ market in the old town, selling all types of produce from tea leaves to livestock. It brought back memories of the markets I grew up with in Singapore, where pig carcasses are laid out in the open, squawking chickens are slaughtered on the spot, a cavernous space indoors and outdoors with perpetually wet floors and lots of good-natured haggling between long-time customers and sellers who are well-familiar with each other.
From Zhongyi market, it is not far to walk to the Mu Mansion, the local Lijiang version of an imperial palace. This is a reproduction; the original burned down many years ago. Nonetheless, Mu mansion is impressive and is styled with references to the Forbidden City. If you understand Chinese, there are regular tours which take you through the sprawling grounds of covered corridors, courtyards, gardens and pavilions. The magnolia and plum blossoms were beautiful. The tour ends literally on a high note – on a hillside overlooking all of Lijiang and its lovely roofscape. The odd rooftop terrace not withstanding, it is easy to imagine what the Lijiang of centuries past must have looked like.
What made Lijiang so pleasurable to stroll through were the many beautiful dogs we met. In all our travels through China, we never saw as many lovely happy doggos as we did in Lijiang and Shuhe. The kids took every opportunity to pet and cuddle as many as they met, often with owners looking on indulgently.
I don’t think we saw enough of Lijiang to be honest. We did not expect the town to be that big. Peering into pretty open courtyards like this one gave us a glimpse into some very elegant tea houses and inns. It would have been nice to check each one out. The Chinese aesthetic that is beginning to appeal to me is one of clean lines, latticed wooden windows, often quite minimalist yet in keeping with tradition, made elegant by flourishes of calligraphy or an artfully placed floral arrangement or the curve of a teaset.
We passed small squares sheltered by large gingko trees, followed a grimy Chow Chow without a collar down an alley, bought sandals made of the softest yak leather, got slobbered by a huge Samoyed, ate an overpriced kebab and drank a cup of soya milk cushioned with mochi balls.
The meandering took us up the slopes high above the town where we ended our day in Lijiang watching the sun go down and the lights come up. Not a bad way to end a nice day. Lijiang, for all its commercialisation, does have really nice pockets where it throws off the crowds and souvenirs for a gentler feel. Some aspects, like the umbrellas twirling above certain lanes or the pots of chrysanthemum blooms by the water, are deliberately designed for an Instagram or in China, a Weibo generation. But I think Lijiang is big enough to get lost in with space enough to please both ends of the traveler spectrum.