Editor's note: This is not an attempt to write a complete Lijiang travel guide. It is merely an effort at providing a useful foundation which travelers can use to explore the city, especially the old town, on their own.
Please feel free to add anything we've neglected in this story to the comments section below. Business owners in Lijiang are invited to submit their information for GoKunming's listings section by using the contact form.
What's the problem with Lijiang? Many backpackers and Kunming natives warn travellers to avoid the town because they say it is too crowded, too touristy and too commercial. Maybe you've heard this refrain as well.
Travelers are often seeking authenticity and unique character while trying to stay away from others with similar attitudes. It is a common Catch-22 on the southwest China backpacking circuit – how do you find the old China, the China from dynastic times where life was simple, without following a mob of similar-minded people?
Lijiang does not offer the answers to these questions but it is a lovely old town with winding cobblestone lanes, quietly flowing canals, and well-preserved buildings made of mud bricks and wood. It is also the gateway to some of China's most spectacular natural scenery. Yulong Snow Mountain towers over the Lijiang valley and the town is the gateway to Tiger Leaping Gorge, the 5,400 meter high Haba Snow Mountain massif, Shangri-La and the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas. On cloudless nights the stars of the Milky Way shine down unobstructed by pollution or city glow.
So what's the problem with Lijiang? For some it is the crowds of tourists who have made the town China's most-visited tourist destination. Tell any Chinese you are going to Lijiang, and they will either share their dream of visiting what Forbes magazine dubbed the "Venice of the Orient," or fondly recall their time in an area bounded by the Yangtze River and the foothills of the Himalayas.
Lijiang was a largely Naxi settlement until Yuan Dynasty emperor Kublai Khan established a garrison there nearly 800 years ago. The Naxi helped the Khan's army cross the Yangtze on their way to defeating the Kingdom of Dali. Remnants of this cultural interaction can still be seen in Naxi falconry and music.
In the days when China first opened up for tourism, it was only hardy souls who made it to Lijiang. The trip there usually involved a prolonged journey by bus – first from Kunming to Dali and then another treacherous day crossing the mountains to the Lijiang valley. Roads were bad and buses often in ill repair.
Lijiang's rise from a quaint old town to a premier tourist destination can be traced back to two events in the 1990s. In 1996 a devastating earthquake hit the Lijiang area. Some ancient wooden buildings were left in tact, but the new town, small as it was, was destroyed.
After the earthquake, a new appreciation for the special character of the old town took root. During the rebuilding process people paid particular attention to traditional architecture, the town's unique water system and Lijiang's historical importance on the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道), or Southern Silk Road. In 1997 Lijiang was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. By the time the new millennium began, Chinese tourists had 'discovered' Lijiang.
Back in the nineties, you couldn't stay in the old town — there were simply no facilities. Only a handful of cafes catered to backpackers. People had to hike to the outskirts of town where a lone hotel provided Lijiang with internet access. All of that has changed. Today there are roughly 2,000 establishments in Lijiang offering a wide variety of accommodations.
Many old courtyard homes have been renovated and transformed into guesthouses, bars and cafes. The Lijiang Tourist Bureau estimates that 95 percent of the town's visitors are Chinese. Visitor numbers increased in the first half of 2012 by 56 percent over last year and had topped eight million by mid-year.
Avoiding the crowds and exploring the old town
This is not as difficult as you might think, although timing is everything. Plan to visit Lijiang outside peak travel times. This usually means planning a visit between mid-October and mid-April, with the notable exception of Spring Festival.
The weather may be a bit colder, but arriving in autumn or winter avoids the rainy season as well as the tourist hordes. When you do make it to Lijiang, knowing the best times of the day to explore the old town is key.
Getting up at the crack of dawn assures it will just be you, some old Naxi ladies running errands and other locals heading to the market. There may also be a few photographers looking for the perfect shot by stalking locals down alleyways.
Most visitors and quite a few locals don't get up early. Travelers are out and about during the day and flood back into the old town in late afternoon. All bars and restaurants in the old town close down at 11:30pm. If you are a keen photographer, midnight is the best time to capture Lijiang's lanes, alleyways and canals.
Lijiang's charms are most easily found by simply taking a walk. Veer off the beaten track and check out side streets or follow Wuyi road towards the residential part of town. Climb Lion Hill (狮子山) for a bird's-eye view of the old town. Venture into Puxian Temple or the monastery presiding over White Dragon Pool (白龙潭) in the south of town.
There are no 'must sees' in Lijiang. If you can slow down, you will be richly rewarded and perhaps come to find a new appreciation for qualities that are in short supply elsewhere in the world: time, good tasty fresh food and a genuine smile from a stranger.
You can follow the water down one of the diversions from the waterwheel across weathered chestnut bridges. Visit the three-pit wells and see them used the same way they have been for generations — the top for collecting drinking water, the middle for washing vegetables and lowest for cleaning clothes.
If you get the chance, poke your head into a traditional courtyard inn to see the stone mosaics, flower pot gardens and spaces designed for outdoor living. Look for the small live music bars off Wuyi street where musicians from all over China play nightly.
Lijiang is not just shop after shop selling the same tourist goods. As for the assertion that Lijiang has become too crowded with visitors, the photos of Joseph F. Rock and Peter Goullart from the pre-Communist era tell a different story. They reveal Lijiang's old town square has been jam-packed with locals, travelers and merchants for decades.
The bustling activity in those photos attests to Lijiang's traditonal importance as a place of trade on the Tea Horse Road. Along this ancient path tea and other goods from southern Yunnan were taken all the way to Lhasa and sometimes into Nepal and India.
The Naxi traditionally supplied copperware and horses along this trade route, and there are still a few old fellas who used to drive mule trains over the mountains into Tibet. Lijiang's strategic location and the Naxi's familiarity with Tibetans meant the town developed as a trade hub.
Interestingly, it was one of the few major stops on this route without walled fortifications. Traditions die hard and horses and their wranglers still parade around town. Near the waterwheel you can sometimes see venerable old men with trained falcons.
Lijiang is a wonderful place to eat and snack stalls abound. The area is too high and dry for rice cultivation, so wheat us featured prominently in local cuisine. Perhaps the most well-known example is Lijiang's famed baba bread (丽江巴巴). Also don't miss a chance to sample the area's bean jelly (鸡豆凉粉), which is made from lentils.
Lijiang sits at roughly 2,400 meters above sea level. Visitors not acclimated to the strong sun at this elevation should make sure to have sunglasses sunscreen at the ready.
The dry climate and elevation can lead to dehydration. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids. A bottle or two of Hongjingtian (紅景天), a traditional Tibetan medicine, can help with altitude adjustment problems. They are sold at all local pharmacies and a packet of pills costs around 40 yuan.
Buses to Lijiang leave from Kunming's West Bus Station. Driving time is about nine hours and tickets cost 150 yuan. Day and night trains take roughly the same amount of time and cost between 90 and 220 yuan depending on seat or bed preferences. Direct flights from Kunming to Lijiang take one hour. Prices vary depending on availability and time of year.
Tourists staying in the old town are expected to buy Lijiang Old Town protection tickets for 80 yuan. They are available at all guesthouses or hotels. These will provide visitors entry to Black Dragon Pool, museums, and other sites in the old town.
Ticket sales fund preservation of old buildings, tourist facilities the free, clean toilets aournd Lijiang — some of which have local music videos playing in each stall. Hold onto your ticket, as every six months the local government holds a drawing and you can win 200,000 yuan (US$31,500).