Vestiges of the Trail in Lijiang | Traveling China’s Tea Horse Road (Part V)

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: January 27th, 2011 | Updated: August 15th, 2014 | Comments
Dayan Old Townin the morning

We left the Ancient Tea Horse Road series with a little ditty about how Dali maintains an outsider vibe and a short Top Ten list of cool things to do while on the trade route that goes through southwest China. But this route is never-ending and the posts could just go on and on and on. 

So I'll do my best to aggregate the stuff that has been written already and add my two cents worth so that if you ever find yourself in southeast Asia, headed north through Yunnan to Sichuan with ideas of Tibet floating around your brain, you'll have a little resource here to refer back to. We'll resume the tale on the road north from Dali through Lijiang, up into Deqin and Zhongdian and across the border into Sichuan.


A road that wanders through territory Joseph Rock once predicted would "remain untrodden for years to come."

Boy was he wrong.

Lijiang has become one of the premier tourist destinations for the Chinese middle class. More than 6 million visitors poured into the city (yes, city) last year and no matter how worried UNESCO is about the overdevelopment in Yunnan, those numbers will not go down. This mad influx of people has completely and irrevocably changed the face of Lijiang.


History of Traveling Lijiang

Lijiang is the seat of the Naxi people: mountain men and women who look slightly Tibetan, have no problem with a matriarchal social structure and whose Dongba religion and writing has survived in wooden carvings and music. Naxi orchestras are a big draw today, as their haunting melodies are some of the last remnants of a Tao-influenced musical style that flourished during the Song Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago.

The Naxi were presumably trading, fighting and loving their neighbors the Yi, Bai and Qiang minorities up until the early 7th century, when King Songsten Gampo of Tibet invaded and conquered the areas around Lijiang and Dali. It is believed that tea came into the hands of the Tibetan aristocracy through interaction with Bai and Naxi traders bringing the plant up from Xishuangbanna, ushering in a new era for the Naxi. Once Songsten got his big hands around a hot cup of tea (we're not sure if he added yak butter immediately or if that was a later innovation) he was hooked. Trade thrived between Tibet and its newly acquired territories, and the Han Chinese became increasingly involved around the time of the Tang Dynasty out of a desperate need to trade for horses.

Tibetan traders often waited in Lijiang for Bai or Hui Muslim caravans to arrive so they could trade goods for the long haul over the cold and dangerous Himalayas, across the Tibetan Plateau to Lhasa. The Naxi provided shelter, marketplaces, hands for the caravans and most definitely traded for the silver, tea, salt, silk and horses that were brought here from all directions. The center for trade and interaction was actually Baisha, just outside of Lijiang.


My Trip to Lijiang

I stumbled upon this little village back in 2001, and it was hard to imagine that the small collection of crumbling buildings and muddy rutted roads was an important crossroads and melting pot during much of the Ancient Tea Horse Road's commercial hey day. Snot-nosed girls with mountain-blistered cheeks eyed me brazenly and followed me around until I whirled on them, whereupon they disappeared in a puff of pigtails and giggles. Little descendants of the Lijiang's once-powerful Mu clan, no doubt. When that ruling family got too big for Baisha's britches sometime during the 14th century and moved to the "new town" of Dayan (the present-day "old town" you will wander around when you go to Lijiang), li'l Baisha slipped into a 7th century slumber.... Only to be rudely awoken on February 3rd, 1996, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake leveled the small trader town and cultural capital, attracting the attention of the world and eventually UNESCO.

The old town of Dayan and the surrounding areas (including Baisha and Shuhe) were designated World Heritage Sites and within a decade, millions of tourists helped transform Baisha back into a bustling hub. Streets were paved, temples refurbished along with the town gate. Overall, Baisha must feel pretty good about its 21st century make over. Dayan/Lijiang too, experienced a renaissance. In the beginning, it played host to a few backpackers, some artists and the local folk who opened up shops selling carvings and tapes of Naxi music, beds for rent and coffee with banana pancakes. But as the years went by and the stream of tourists kept widening, backpacks gave way to luggage, woodcarvers to trinket salesmen and local owners sold out to investors from bigger cities.

Today, the cafes, shops and hotels are geared towards Chinese tastes. There are KTVs, dancing minority bands made up of Chongqing girls dressed in Naxi clothes, brothels, massage parlors, night clubs and more souvenir stalls selling more worthless trinkets than you have ever seen anywhere else. That's just how the mass tourism monster operates anywhere, in any country with any culture. Think Mallorca for Europe or Cancun for North America. But there is something that brought all that money and humanity to Lijiang in the first place and underneath the coats of paint, new bricks masquerading as old stone and glitzy commercialism is an elusive beauty.

Ah... Lijiang in 2001... I thought it was one of the most beautiful towns in the world. I remember one night, just as night fell, how the stars shone in singular splendor above the eaves of quiet homes. Fires lit the cracks in the Adobe. Shadows played on the crumbling brick walls stuffed with dead grass. I wandered the old town, Dayan, until the dark blue sky turned black and I had to feel my way through the silent wintry night back to the room I had rented for 15 RMB a night from a family that spoke no Mandarin. They locked the door and almost beat me down for coming back so late.

Black Dragon Pond, Yunnan

Every morning I awoke early because it was cold and there isn't much to do with a cold bed but leave it. Breakfast in the lanes with the old Naxi men; visiting my man Lao Wu the woodcarver and being forced, FORCED, to drink baijiu and eat dumplings.

I stayed for two weeks. Back then, the little wood carvings of the old town were new and beautiful and made by someone you knew. But even then, new buildings were being erected and a good half of the girls dancing around the bonfire were from Chongqing. Backpackers ruled—not foreigners, necessarily (don't get caught in that cultural trap)—but backpackers of every stripe.


Traveling Lijiang Today

I don't need to tell you that those days are dead and gone. But the stars are still there. The sky still fades to black. The mountain air still makes you shiver at dusk and the ice and snow and stone keep beds cold.

Last time I was in Lijiang, in 2008, the whole city was over run by my arch-nemesis, the group tour. They drink too much. They're racist and ignorant. They are looking for something to laugh at, something to make themselves feel superior, something that will affirm their choices, their successes and their sacrifices: dancing minorities, less affluent long-nosed foreigners and most of all, deference.

Is there anything left of the old trade route here in Lijiang? Sure. Wander Baisha in the morning before the crowds hit. Wander Dayan at night—don't worry... you will get happily lost. Embrace the new city and the KTVs and the baijiu-soaked floorboards of the bar you were dragged into by strangers from Beijing. Lijiang might not be the ancient town you were hoping for, but brothers and sisters the very word ancient implies dead and gone. Don't you think there were some Naxi backpackers back in the 7th century who sniffed hard at all them outsiders—Hui Muslims!? Bai bandits?!—who flooded their little town with tea and silver and smelly horses a millennium ago?

Finish the final leg of this journey down the Tea Horse Road with Part VI: Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.


Things to Do in Lijiang

Visit the Baisha Frescoes in Wenchang Palace

Located north of Lijiang in Baisha Village, the hall was built in 1417 and the palace was completed in 1582. The stunning frescoes were created over a 350 year period (1385-1743). No photos of the delicate frescoes allowed.

Admission: RMB 30  


Visit Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

The great white peaks overlook the town and masses of tourists. Take bus No. 7 (Y10) from Xin Dajie (a small bus station by the Mao statue). Sit on the driver’s side for the best views. Expect an hour to the park entrance, where cable cars are waiting to take you up.

Admission: RMB 190 for two days. 


Explore Shuhe Old Town

A less crowded version of Dayan (Lijiang Old Town) that has yet to fully succumb to the hordes. Great places to stay, cozy little cafes and restaurants just a short cab ride from Ljiang Old Town. Dozens of cars and bikes will take you or you can walk in around 30 minutes. 


Drink Tea at Black Dragon Pool

Miraculously peaceful most of the time. Pull yourself out of bed early for a nice 8 am cup of tea with a camera and a book. Lijiang used to have great morning street food and cheap tasty eats can still be found. Located ten minutes north by foot from the main entrance to Ljiang Old Town.


Dongba Village and Dongba Culture Museum/Naxi Orchestra

One of the best things to do in Lijiang. About a 30-minute drive from the city, and just north of Baisha Village, you'll find old Naxi scholars sitting around smoking, drinking tea and discussing a bit of everything. The museum is located in scenic Yushui Village, a relatively untouched version of Lijiang. Orchestras can be found performing throughout the old towns of Dayan, Baisha and Shuhe. Pick one and listen.

For more information about Lijiang, check out our comprehensive Lijiang travel guide.

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