132. Making Peace with Lijiang

Making Peace With Lijiang: There must be so many small corners of China that deliver the sensory experience of the Old Country without the admission fees and flag-waving tour groups of the New Country. I suppose if we had the benefit of better language skills and more of a PeaceCorps sense of adventure in this ninth month of travel, we would be riding for days in cramped mini-vans and sleeping on straw beds to discover these places. But pacing wins the marathon and sometimes we have to behave like we’re on vacation, like normal people just taking a break, and not making a job of moving around and roughing it. We collect experiences like paychecks and then, when it feels like we’ve hustled enough weird conversations in bus stations and awkward stares in back alley produce markets, we go to Lijiang.

Lijiang is something of an Old China theme park. You’ve read the newspaper, so you know that China is modernizing and growing at breakneck speed. When the harried, overworked residents of the bulging cities of the East need a break from the ladder, they turn to the remnants of Old China. Specifically, they turn to the remnants that have been groomed and pimped for tourism, remnants like Lijiang. The Old Town of Lijiang is every picture you’ve seen of the old Chinese village – a cobblestone maze of narrow streets lit by glowing red lanterns, rushing canals and bubbling wells for washing clothes, babies and lettuce, brick buildings and lattice shutters topped by moss-covered tile roofs that swoop and dive in unison and leathery old villagers hobbling on canes and grooming long gray beards. The Old Town of Lijiang is also every picture of the modern tourist trap – gift shops, “Visa Accepted” signs, gift shops, cell phones, gift shops, tour buses, fancy coffee, gift shops and travel agencies. It’s the kind of place that a great number of independent travelers would avoid, based on this information alone.

What saves Lijiang, however, is it’s size and the adaptability of its majority ethnic inhabitants, the Naxi. While most every traditional blacksmith, laundry, grocery, tea and medicine shop in Lijiang’s Old Town has been replaced with souvenir and clothing shops of wildly variable success and interest, the Naxi culture has adapted. Those who have left Old Town for the glittering condos of New Town are making a killing leasing their heritage property for guesthouses and restaurants. And the multi-generational families still living in the old town peddle crafts (top) and traditional foods to tourists (tailored slightly to Western and mainstream Chinese tastes), they still buy their raw food from bewildered old farmers who walk the Old Town melee every day, they walk their children to school in the morning, and they gather around tables of Chinese chess, poker and mahjong when the day is slow. Even better, if you wake up before the daily tour group invasion, the narrow streets and chaotic food market are as misty and magical as the day they were first built. Strip the old town of its layers of new commerce and what’s underneath is actually a rare gem in Asia – a place that’s as teeming with honest, storybook scenes of old lives as it is full of comfortable guesthouses and delectable international cuisine. Lijiang had us for eight full days and we completely lost track of time.

The photos below are, left to right, top to bottom: Naxi women in New Town; Old Town street scene; Early morning hoops above the Old Town (almost all players are wearing “Yao Ming” Houston Rockets jerseys); Old Town street scene; same; Chinese tourists posing.


  1. What a fantastic adventure you guys get to live. Memories are worth far more than money.

    We only get to live once, so enjoy it to the fullest when you can.

    Sandy, my better half and our three kids are doing the same thing although our travels will keep here in the USA, Alaska and Canada.

    When our kids are grown-up, we hope to do what you do.

    Be safe and enjoy your trip.

    Philippe and Sandy Brice