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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Travel Itinerary: Lijiang Old Town - a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In July 2016, two sites in China (Hubei Shennongjia, the largest primary forest containing rare species like the elusive Asian Black Bear; and Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape - 38 rock paintings that depict the life of the bygone Luoyue people) were named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.  With this attribution, China is now ranked third in the world with 50 World Heritage Sites, ranging in diversity from the Great Wall and the Summer Palace in Beijing, to the Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing, to the Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan.

Although attaining this World Heritage status at the UNESCO level may mean clamping down on the wholesale destruction of natural and cultural areas in the place of, say, concrete mega malls, multi-lane freeways, expanded subway lines, office towers and high-rise condos, it doesn't automatically mean these areas are not exploited either.  In principle, these sites are to preserve and showcase the nation's historic and natural heritage; in practice, it's a free-for-all gold rush carnival largely spurred on by tour operators, vendors peddling kitsch, karaoke bars, fast food franchisees, and of course the tourists that lap up this whole kit and caboodle.

However, at the risk of sounding overly harsh (#NoJudgement,) these World Heritage Sites do provide visitors - local and from further afar - the opportunity to view and immerse themselves in these cultural and natural legacies.  Recently, whilst on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-la, we stopped by a couple of days at the Old Town of Lijiang (which also includes Dayan Old Town and two neighbouring ancient villages: Baisha 白沙 and Shuhe 束河.) 
Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office
As we were there during the shoulder season in July, the number of visitors were not as high and the crowds less fearsome than we'd anticipated.  There were sporadic rain showers which made the 1000-year old cobblestones a bit slick to walk on, but they were also a nice respite from the humid summer heat.

Lijiang's culture combines traditional Naxi culture and incongruous elements learned from Ming dynasty Han Chinese traders who settled in the region centuries ago. Nakhi people have kept alive a timber and mud brick housing style which they learned from Nanjing traders. Local carpenters still build elaborately constructed timber house frames from memory without blueprints or other diagrams. These houses are often enhanced by detailed flower and bird carvings on the windows. The carvings are now made by ethnic Bai artisans, but attention is given to depicting the flora and fauna of the four seasons in the traditional Han Chinese manner.

Stores renting traditional bridal costumes make a roaring trade in the Old Town.

This is Sinabro Inn where we stayed; it had very pleasant and relatively quiet rooms, not surprising as it's a couple of streets away from the main tourist thoroughfare.  An open air courtyard was framed by the inn, which featured comfortable seating areas for both guests and resident pets.

Lobby of Sinabro Inn

Reading area of Sinabro Inn

This is the second of the two floors of Sinabro Inn.  Many of the independent hotels in Lijiang look like this, at various levels of refurbishment of course.  Basically, these double-storeyed, tile-roofed, timber-framed houses combining elements of Han and Zang architecture and decoration in the arched gateways, screen walls, courtyards and carved roof beams are representative of the Naxi culture and are disposed in rows following the contours of the mountainside. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements - pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.

We ventured down Wuyi Street (Wensheng Alley) in search for dinner.  With no fixed plan in mind, we stopped by the first restaurant that had a bit of a line at the front (heh) and got a table after a five-minute wait.  In that time, we looked on at the chefs preparing bowls of jidou liangfen (a jelly-like noodle made from chick pea) which we were informed was a favourite of locals, so of course, that's what we ordered, along with (mildly) spicy stew of pork innards and vegetables.

The open air courtyard of Maxi Snacks Restaurant.
Food courts in Lijiang Old Town
Pulling ginger candy the traditional way.

Back at Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office at twilight.

On our second day, we decided to head to Shuhe Ancient City, 4 kilometers away the main tourist hub of Lijiang Old Town.  It's about a 10-minute taxi ride but we decided to take a local bus which cost next to nothing and let us see the more "real" aspect of Lijiang away from oversaturated colours and kitsch of its Old Town.  The only downside is that the bus stops about a kilometer away from the main entrance, but hey, it's not like we had theatre tickets or anything.

Shuhe is the much calmer, relaxed cousin to Lijiang.  UNESCO cites it as an important component of Lijiang as it is a well-preserved example of a town along the ancient tea route and one of the earliest settlements of the ancestors of Naxi people.  The locals call Shuhe "Longquan" (which literally means dragon spring due to the waterways threading through the town.)

Renowned as the "Village of Leather" (among its many monikers,) the Old Town of Shuhe has a prosperous market in the central square covering an area of 250 square meters which used to be the fur and leather trading center in Lijiang.  Ancient shops still line the square with dark red painted wood doors opened to show the old town's residents sitting, chatting and basically exemplifying the leisurely characteristic of Shuhe.  Don't get me wrong: there are still plenty of touristy knick-knacks to be found at every cobblestoned street but the commercial vibe is a smidge less frantic than at Lijiang.

Adding to the relatively peaceful vibe of Shuhe is the Long (Dragon) Pool which winds through the village and partially canopied by verdant willows.



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