Lijiang - Impressions (2014)
Having just returned from a photo trip to Lijiang, I am now left not only with blistered lips and feet resulting from a combination of harsh climate, huge temperature shifts and brutal hikes. I am also left with hundreds of GBs of image data, with abundant memories and with some of my own (critical) thoughts. This was one of those journeys from which you return physically exhausted, but at the same time spiritually refreshed.
By hindsight I can say that Lijiang lived up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful locations in China.
Local fruit ist tasty and fresh as well and the hostels make sure it is always available to their guests.
Yak meat is a fantastic treat. I actually liked it better than most regular beef. Restaurants also serve some local specialties such as their mushroom dishes, which are nothing short of delicious.
Heilongtan (Black Dragon Pool) is quite simply one of the most beautiful locations I have seen in China so far. Classical Chinese architecture, park design and a stunning natural environment combine beautifully here. I have to admit that I fell in love with this particular constellation of snow-capped mountain, pool, white marble bridge and pagodas the first time I saw it. This is why I captured so many different compositions on different days. It´s worth mentioning that the parks in Lijiang close very early - between 6 and 7 pm. I was quite perplexed when standing before closed gates at Lion Hill (Shizishan) in the early evening, as I was expecting to be able to shoot the blue hour from up there.
Lijiang´s Old Town has a fantastic amount of very tastefully decorated hostels and a lot of charm with its maze of small cobblestone alleys. Although the hostels in Lijiang´s Old Town are, for the most part, cozy and tastefully designed, most owners aren´t originally from Lijiang, but Han-Chinese. They are mostly wealthy businessmen and women from other parts of China, coming here to either lead a comfortable life or to make more money or, ideally, both.
Decorative (fabric) flowers, taken for the real thing and photographed by thousands of credulous tourists every day.
Artificial rocks making up a waterfall at Whitewater River (Baishuihe). These "rocks", although not unpleasant to look at, are the same everywhere in China and look like they are made of paper maché. Not that I haven´t seen these used elsewhere in Asia as well
White Water River is still a uniquely beautiful and captivating location, despite the occasional man-made rocks.
"Naxi Hunters coming back from the mountains" are putting on a show for the tourists. They ride along the alleys all the while sounding a bit like Santa Claus and his reindeers due to the bells on their horses.
Lijiang´s old town had been almost completely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1996 leveled most of the town. And it seems that it was rebuilt solely with tourism in mind. Whereas in the olden times, Lijiang barely had any accommodation for tourists, now the Old Town consists mostly of hostels and shops.
Moon Embracing Pagoda with Suocui Bridge at Black Dragon Pool - The original pagoda was destroyed by a fire during the Cultural Revolution and was rebuilt in 1963.
Mufu complex, first built in Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), is a complete reconstruction of the residential and working site of Lijiang´s Naxi rulers. It was destroyed during warfare in late Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912). The present Mu's Mansion was rebuilt during 1996-1999. Although a very beautiful area, it is merely 15 years old.
WanGu Tower on Lion Hill - Somewhat of a landmark of Lijiang due to its central positioning on Lion Hill overlooking the Old Town, this "Pavilion of Everlasting Clarity" was reconstructed as true to the original plans in 1997 as part of the Lijiang areas' efforts to gain a classification as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of course, Lijiang can´t be faulted for the relative youth of its architecture - if anyone, then history is to blame. The locals really did a remarkable job in their restoration efforts here and the illusion of "living the Chinese dream" can be almost perfect.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yu Long Xue Shan) - The mountain offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains from the top at 4506 meters, however not only the landscape can prove interesting, but the euphoric crowds as well. I imagine some of them probably touched snow for the very first time.
Usually, you can climb a wooden walkway further up the mountain, which leads approximately 100 meters up to another platform. At the time of my visit however, these stairs were snowed in for the most part, so we weren´t allowed to go up any further than perhaps 30 meters. A police officer (at least that is what I presumed he was, as this was written on his jacket´s back) whom I talked to told me it would usually be accessible again in May. Knowing this would be the high season in Lijiang, the mere prospect of getting a different angle on the scene did little in motivating me to come back here in summer.
The cable cars were among the newest and most trustworthy that I have seen in China, so there is really no need to worry too much about safety here.
Personal experiences and practical tips for making your stay in Lijiang more pleasant:
- Unfortunately, the Old Town does not have a working sewage system - the odor at night, when all the restaurants and hostels dump their waste into the streets can be unbearable at times and could put a dent in your experience if you are sensitive to smells. Clogging the drain hole in your room´s bathroom usually helps a little. This is a very unfortunate situation, as many hostels have a terrace on their top floor, which would at least in theory lend themselves perfectly to relaxed evenings sitting and chatting under the stars while enjoying some wine and a breeze of fresh mountain air.- With an exception of the Old Town district, Lijiang is a middle sized, standard Chinese mainland city without any landmarks worth mentioning (or shooting). The newer or should I say, newer-looking part of Lijiang really could be almost anywhere in China, so I advise not wasting your time with explorations of this part of town.
- The climate in Lijiang is a mild subtropical highland climate and extremely dry. Combined with the altitude, visitors usually experience frequent nose bleeds. At night, we put wet towels all around our hostel´s room in an effort to humidify the air. This was in addition to our room´s humidifier - and it still wasn´t enough to keep our noses in best working order. Other than that, daytime offered nice temperatures of around 20 degrees and some cool 6 degrees Celsius at night in March. Lijiang definitely enjoys much better air quality than in most other places in mainland China. For at least 80% of our time spent in Lijiang, the air was incomparably better than in Eastern China and we had plenty of blue skies - sadly, a rare phenomenon in today´s China. This is not to say that Lijiang is pollution-free, but it provided a welcome break from the air you usually encounter in China, especially over the last two years.
- As tranquil as Lijiang can be at certain spots, it is also and in large parts overrun by local tourism. This is well-known already and I´m not going to elaborate on this fact of life too much. When walking the alleys of Dayan, you might get an impression that there are about 5 types of shops, selling Chinese kitsch, t-shirts, yoghurt, Bob Marley posters, CDs, bongo drums and ashtrays - they seem to re-appear every 50 meters or so in different constellations.
- Local people in Lijiang are not necessarily rude, but not known to be the friendliest you will ever meet in China. They are somewhat renowned for their impolite ways among other Chinese. I experienced this myself, but also heard from my Chinese friends strange tales of restaurant owners spontaneously refusing to serve their customers and showing them the door, apparently because they weren´t in the mood for cooking at the time. It was speculated that restaurant owners don´t really need too much business in the off-season, as the high season provides more than enough opportunity to turn a buck.
- If you have done some travelling in China before, you will be familiar with big crowds - a common sight when visiting scenic spots in China. Now keep in mind that Lijiang is the most frequented tourist spot in China - according to ChinaDaily, more than 20 million tourists visited Lijiang in 2013. These loud crowds consisting mainly of local tourists can prove quite unnerving to most Western travelers. Try visiting in the off-season, as the crowds will be less pronounced then. It was quite clear to me that I really don´t need to experience the high season, which is from April to November.
- Mentally prepare yourself to get rounded up and perched together like cattle at the most popular spots like Jade Dragon Mountain and White Water River, overseen by military personnel with automatic weapons. This could have been a reaction to a recent terror attack in Kunming prior to my visit, but it wouldn´t surprise me if this was standard procedure either. In China, the military often seems to run tourist operations in the mountains - I have seen this before, while I was visiting Chang Bai Mountain in northeast China.
- Expect to have little freedom at the scenic spots, as everything is kept in strict boundaries. When trying to hike up Elephant Hill starting from Jade Spring Park for example, which is an easy hike with well-maintained hiking paths, we were held off on two consecutive days by the guards at the foot of the hill. It appears that you would have to get up before 4 p.m. and need to be in a group of at least 4 people - due to security reasons. According to these security guards, there were thieves and murderers living in the mountain.
After successfully smuggling ourselves up the side of the mountain through some mountain farmer´s fields, we finally reached the peak of Elephant Hill after all (and well after 4 a.m. as well). On the way back, we met a local couple who seemed quite bewildered when we told them what the guards had told us. Laughing, they said that they had never heard of any knife-wielding murderers lurking in the mountains waiting for tourists to slay.
Having seen some reckless behavior at other scenic spots like Yellow Mountain (Huangshan) before, I can see how being overly protective could be the only way in China. For foreigners like me who are used to roam more freely, this over-regulation and control can be a bit much. It can starve off all feelings of experiencing an adventure in China very quickly.
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