Located in southwestern Yunnan, Lijiang may not be the first destination that comes to mind for a casual weekend trip for westerners, yet, it has long been a popular destination for the mainland Chinese.
Known by the locals as the historic center of the Naxi people–one of China’s ethnic minorities–Lijiang’s villages and mountain towns still boast the vibrancy of Naxi culture. This intersection of Lijiang’s minority groups makes the city a unique cultural hub, reflected in its cuisine, music, and art.
The depth of Lijiang’s heritage is an additional aspect that appeals to travelers seeking tradition and authenticity. Dating back more than 800 years, Lijiang was once a stop along the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, connecting Yunnan province with Tibet, so many of its stone streets and pastoral scenes evoke an era of the past.
Not only is Lijiang full of history and cultural charm, but it is also abundant in natural beauty with the trails along its mountains and valleys enveloping you in a spectacle of flora, fauna, mist and magic. Lijiang deserves more than just a weekend, but if you find yourself there for only 72 hours, you’ll find that it still packs an impressive punch.
Check into Amandayan, which sits atop a hill overlooking the traditional roofs of Old Town Lijiang. Energize yourself for the day with either a western or Chinese style breakfast. I opted for congee with hand spun youtiao (Chinese doughnut), steamed pork buns, and purple yams. It was a wonderful way to acclimate my taste buds to the delicious local cuisine.
Take a leisurely stroll through Old Town Lijiang, a UNESCO Heritage Site and once an important trading post and goods distribution center between Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet. Admire the blended architectural elements from Han and Naxi cultures, try different varieties of fragrant flower pastries from the local shops, and enjoy hieroglyphs of the Dongba (priests of the Naxi people).
Join a tea class. Yunnan is known for being the origin of many tea styles, including black, red, and green teas. It is most famous is Pu’er tea, a rich fermented specialty. Learn the differences between fermented and unfermented varieties of tea and gain an understanding of the local tea production process.
Enjoy aperitifs and a relaxed dinner at the hotel. We tried a variety of gourmet dishes made with popular delicacies and local ingredients, including Shasong pine leaf tips salad, crispy pork belly with pu’er tea leaves, braised cumin yak beef with truffle served in a hot stone pot, and Naxi baked rice.
Be awed by the visually stunning Impressions of Lijiang show, the highest altitude production in the world. The performers are comprised of local villagers of different minorities and the show is set in an open-air theater with the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as its dramatic backdrop. Zhang Yimou, famed director of Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou created the show, which features beautifully choreographed song and dance. The textiles and music makes for a stimulating and inspiring sensory experience.
Take a gondola up to Yak Meadow on the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which is holy to the Naxi people. The 20 minute ride up to the Yak Meadow is both thrilling and unforgettable, as you rise above the tree tops and into the clouds. Yak Meadow was named for the local farmers who enjoy pasturing their yak on this high altitude land and they still do so today. Don’t miss the beautiful Tibetan temple that sits atop the meadow and enjoy the quiet grazing of yak on the wide grassland. It drizzled on and off while we were there, but the weather only added to the mysticism of this hard to reach place.
Walk the trails of the Blue Moon Valley, which is centered around a blue river that meanders through the valley at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The rain combined with the limestone and white mud of the riverbed made the water appear an unusually beautiful shade of milky blue. Take your time to wander around the lakes, which are divided by natural stone terraces and waterfalls. Don’t be surprised if you encounter a yak on your walking path!
Indulge in a hearty meal in the Old Town after a long day of exploring Lijiang’s natural wonders. At the cozy Lamu’s House of Tibet, the restaurant serves a wide variety of Naxi and Tibetan specialties. We ordered healthy portions of spicy Naxi noodles, vegetables, and fried yak cheese for dessert (it’s a local favorite and served with sugar). The savory meal made for a nourishing dinner after our all-day excursion.
Visit Yuhu Village, located on the outskirts of Lijiang Basin and the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The rural and peaceful atmosphere of this Naxi village attracted American botanist, Joseph Rock to the community in the early 1920s. He was the first foreign scholar to introduce Lijiang to the world. Visit his former home, where you can take a closer look at his personal photographs of the village as well as early issues of National Geographic, where his work was published. I loved walking through the quiet alleys of the village and looking out to the vast greenery, where a few workers tended to the land. Naxi tradition and way of life are beautifully preserved here.
Explore Baisha Village, previously the political and economic center of Lijiang prior to the Ming Dynasty. Much larger in scale than Yuhu Village, the streets of Baisha are filled with small restaurants, cafes, fruit vendors and friendly shopkeepers. Peek into the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute, whose mission is to protect and promote Naxi embroidery and be impressed by the handiwork on display. We observed a handful of students diligently working on complex embroidery pieces during our visit. Embroidered crafts are available to buy as souvenirs and proceeds go towards the school.
Enjoy an afternoon swim before checking out and getting ready for your flight home. Amandayan sits at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. The heated pool is the perfect remedy for any sore muscles from the weekend’s hikes. Enjoy a cup of tea in the sitting room before bidding adieu to this gem of a city.
Where to Stay
Where: 29 Shishan Road, Gucheng Qu
Why: Similar to the other hotels in Aman’s portfolio, this property offers unrivaled grounds, personalized service, and guided day adventures that can be customized to fit your interests.
Where to Eat & Drink
Man Yi Xuan
Where: 29 Shishan Road, Gucheng Qu
Why: The restaurant serves up seasonal varieties of Yunnan fare using organic ingredients. If it’s warm enough, the al fresco terrace is the perfect spot to enjoy a drink and a view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Lamu’s House of Tibet
Where: Jishan Lane, Xinyi Sreet, Old Town
Why: The comfort food here is convenient fuel for a long day’s tour around town. Take the narrow staircase up to the second floor of Lamu’s and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Old Town’s hustle and bustle in between bites. Classic Naxi, Tibetan, and Western dishes are all on the menu.
What to See & Do
Impressions of Lijiang
Where: No. 19-9 Guodahuama Street
Why: The choreography in this 1 hour and 15 minute show made a lasting impression on me long after I left Lijiang. For those new to the city, it provides a wonderful introduction to the dress and music of Lijiang’s minority populations and a glimpse of the mountain that is so sacred to them.
Fu Xing Chang Tea House
Where: No. 50, Jishan Alley, Xinyi Street, Old Town
Why: Tea is infused into the daily life of locals. Participate in a traditional tea making ceremony and try varieties of Yunnan’s famed Pu’er tea in one of the tea house’s ornate, private rooms. Admire the many stacks of tea cakes on display and wander through its beautiful courtyard.
Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute
Where: No. 12, Sanyuan Village, Baisha Town
Why: The institute offers a rare chance for you to see this Naxi tradition up close, with an opportunity to ask teachers and students about their craft. The school has an adjacent shop that sells finished pieces and a variety of textiles, dolls, and books that make great gifts for those back home.
Why: See firsthand a small Naxi village to better understand the daily lives of those who dwell near the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Walk the cobblestone roads, enjoy views of the traditional Naxi homes as well as the fields, ponds, and streams in the near distance. Don’t forget to say hello to the friendly locals who weave through the streets with their ponies; a prime example in the art of slow living.
Day Trip to Yak Meadow & Blue Moon Valley
Why: Lijiang’s natural beauty is evident even in its moodier rainy season. For much of our trip, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain hid behind clouds, but the grey skies and light rain did not impede our hiking around Yak Meadow and Blue Moon Valley, two incredibly beautiful sites. Take your time to soak up the surreal surroundings. It’s no surprise that this region attracts many botanists.