Saturday, March 2, 2013

Searching for Meaning in Lijiang Old Town

Cobblestone lanes, small earthen houses with terracotta roofs, streams and waterways which weave through lanes and alleys, and magnificent views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain all come together in Lijiang Old Town. To say that Lijiang Old Town is lovely and pretty though is only a tiny part of its story. Situated in a geologically active area under the shadow of the Himalayas, Lijiang occasionally suffers from major earthquakes caused by the same tectonic activity which created the Himalayas in the first place. The last big one, seven on the Richter scale, struck in February of 1996 and left more than 300 dead and 14,000 injured. Around 186,000 houses were left in ruins.

However, thanks to 800 years of the tried and tested building methods of Lijiang's native inhabitants—the Naxi people, much of Lijiang Old Town remained standing with most of the earthquake damage falling on the modern buildings of Lijiang New Town. Using money from the government and the World Bank, reconstruction was done on Lijiang Old Town to remedy whatever damage the earthquake caused and only a year later, in 1997, Lijiang Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Old Town of Lijiang in Yunnan, China
Patchwork of roofs weaved by cobblestone lanes and waterways in Lijiang Old Town

Today, Lijiang Old Town faces another form of tectonic threat, as Michael Palin likes to put it. In a town fit for 25,000 people, more than three million tourists descend upon Lijiang Old Town yearly. Since its inscription in UNESCO's World Heritage list, much of Lijiang Old Town has been changed, or rather, renovated and gentrified, in order to accommodate its visitors. So much change has taken place that many of its Naxi inhabitants have decided to leave.

Walking around Lijiang Old Town, centered on the Old Market Square, visitors will clearly see that the old Naxi houses have given way to restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops. What attracted people to Lijiang Old Town are still here and they certainly make the place remarkably beautiful. However, to harbor notions that traveling to Lijiang Old Town will enable a visitor to peek into the traditional lives and culture of the Naxi people might be stretching it.

"It's a Chinese Disneyland up in here," remarked a group of American students who was currently based in Beijing to study Mandarin and was currently staying at the same hostel as I was.

Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan, China
What used to be old Naxi houses are now restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops in Lijiang Old Town.

Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan, China
Lijiang Old Town is still undeniably lovely though.

Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan, China
Get up early and you might just have Lijiang Old Town to yourself and only a few other tourists

Chinese Disneyland. I see their point. While there are no Ferris wheels or roller coasters in Lijiang Old Town, there are horse rides and outdoor falcon shows as well as fast food chains and ATM machines (apt if I may say so, as everywhere seems to charge an entrance fee). Everything is too polished, too colorful and too much decorated with English signs. Of course, I am not nitpicking, certainly not being an ingrate passing up the opportunity to explore a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Locals in Lijiang Old Town have every right to earn a living by whichever way they can. Lucky for them, they happen to possess a distinct, very rich, and quite colorful Himalayan culture and they happen to live in a place with a winning combination of old houses and tranquil streams all under the shadow of an ever-present Himalayan mountain. Maybe I am just bitter that you have to dig deeper here to get travel experiences you can write home about.

Black Dragon Pool Park, Lijiang, China
One of the most iconic images of Southwest China: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
viewed from Black Dragon Pool Park in Lijiang Old Town

Well, it was not so much as digging deeper as to stumbling upon them on my way to the Old Market Square from my hostel located in the outskirts of Lijiang Old Town. To my surprise, some parts of town still hold that quiet charm which drew visitors to this place way back when UNESCO had not even heard of it. There aren't hordes of tourists running around these outlying areas. Occasionally, a few would walk by perhaps after having ventured off too far from Lijiang Old Town's central areas. Most of the time, however, it's the handsomely blue dresses of the Naxi women with their signature peacock-like padding on the back which I notice here. They go about their daily lives, huddling together to hear the latest gossip perhaps.

Naxi Women in Lijiang Old Town
Elder Naxi women in full Naxi costume going about their daily lives
in the quiet, outlying areas of Lijiang Old Town

Other times, it's the small, one-woman show of a restaurant I encounter and tend to go back to because even though the cook-server-cashier does not speak a word of English and the extent of my restaurant Mandarin was the word "rice," I still get my order of spicy lamb and pork skewers across and get first-class treatment in the form of choice seats (to them, in front of the TV) and freshly brewed green tea. On rare occasions, too, I stumble upon small noodle stands, just like the one I did stumble upon in Lijiang, one tucked by the end of an alleyway facing the road, one with a long line of local patrons during lunch time because everyone knows this is where you can find the best jidou liangfen in town.

In places where tourists and travelers seemed to have taken over, places like the Old Town of Hoi An, the Tibetan enclave of Dharamsala, and Lijiang Old Town, it's always worth the effort digging deeper to find meaningful travel experiences, experiences which linger long after I forget why I traveled there in the first place. Don't you think?

Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan, China
Naxi wind chimes hung in thousands by tourists in Lijiang Old Town


*A few more photos of Lijiang Old Town in my Flickr set: Lijiang.


What is a touristy place you have visited and what meaningful travel experience did you take away from visiting it?


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