Beijing Getaways: Lijiang
Minority Report: experiencing Lijiang's Naxi culture
Together with the nearby town of Dali, Lijiang is one of the highlights of any tour of southwest China's Yunnan Province. Despite its increasing popularity, however, for first-time visitors Lijiang will come as a welcome break from the unfortunate over-commercialization of many of China's other tourist hotspots. Since a serious earthquake in 1996, which flattened much of the city, millions of RMB have been invested in rebuilding and restoring the area using traditional local architecture.
Lijiang Old Town, which is where most visitors rightly choose to install themselves, and which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, is an alpine, slightly kitsch maze of narrow cobbled streets, timber frame buildings, stone bridges and burbling waterways. The use of neon has mercifully been limited, and there isn't a Starbucks in sight (touch wood).
What makes Lijiang so colorful and culturally appealing is the Naxi ethnic minority who make up a significant percentage of the local population. The Naxi are descended from ethnically Tibetan Qiang tribes, and lived until recently in matrilineal families Naxi matriarchs still hold sway over the men with flexible living and working arrangements that are the very antithesis of machismo. Women are clearly in charge in Naxi society.
In the Old Town, Naxi women are conspicuous in their hard labor, loading and unloading goods, and minding the diverse range of shops and restaurants offering everything from dried yak meat and barbecued chicken legs to souvenir t-shirts and hiking gear. There's an old Lijiang saying that having a Naxi wife is better than owning ten horses Western men of a slothful persuasion (even those not involved in the equine business) may be sorely tempted by the life of leisure that Naxi men appear to enjoy.
Naxi women wear blue blouses and trousers overlaid by a blue or black apron. The T-shaped traditional goatskin cape worn over the shoulders not only prevents basket chafing, but also symbolizes the heavens. Sun and moon are represented by the light and dark halves of the cape, with seven embroidered circles signifying the stars. Together these solar bodies denote the brave and hard working nature of the Naxi woman, who only gets one day a year off on New Year's Eve.
Dance and music both play a prominent part in Naxi culture, and there are several music houses in the Old Town where traditional Naxi songs and dances are performed nightly. At other times impromptu performances may be given in the old market square. The Me-Da-Tso and Ro-Ro-Tso are the two major folk dances of the Naxi community - there are no instruments, the dancers moving rhythmically to the sound of some hauntingly beautiful chants and ditties.
Lijiang Old Town has a plethora of restaurants and bars catering to all manner of tastes and appetites - even those craving some roast fowl action come December 25th won't be disappointed. Many establishments have great locations next to fast flowing canals inhabited by small shoals of golden fish, darting through the current like liquid metal. Those looking to sample some local food should try the delicious bābā - thick flatbreads of wheat served with savory or sweet fillings - a great breakfast alternative to jiaozi or baozi or the ubiquitous banana pancake. Across-the-bridge noodles (guòqiáo mǐxiàn) are another local specialty, and a warming way to counter an energy-draining day in the mountains.
One must-see in Lijiang is the Black Dragon Pool Park (Hēilóngtán Gōngyuán) the early morning view of the wind-ruffled park lake, ornate pagoda and five-arched bridge, with the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yùlóng Xuěshān) forming a majestic backdrop, is a picture postcard panorama. Also located inside the park is the Five Phoenix Tower (Wǔfèng Lóu), dating back to the Ming Dynasty, decorated with colorful images of flying phoenixes.
Outside Lijiang some incomparable scenery awaits the adventurous. The 5500m Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, with its obligatory chairlifts, is only 35km from Lijiang, and offers breathtaking views over pale blue glaciers, steep-sided valleys and rocky, snow-clad pinnacles. The renowned Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hǔtiào Xiá), where the mighty Yangzi River churns, surges and eddies between precipitous rock faces (one face formed by a side of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), can be visited on a day trip from Lijiang, or hiked over the course of a few days.
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