Lijiang (丽江) is one of the most popular destinations in Yunnan. In this guide you’ll find all the info you need to organize a trip in this ancient Chinese city and the nearby attractions.
If you read my blog it’s quite clear that Yunnan is my favorite province in China: it’s an incredibly diverse place.
In the north, there are mountains that reach 6000 meters of altitude and are home to the mysterious Black Snub-Nosed Monkeys (Rhinopithecus Bieti). The southern part of Yunnan includes a portion of the tropical rain forest, the only one in China, and is home to the Asian Elephants, a fact that very few people are aware of. Northern Yunnan borders with Tibet and is therefore influenced by Tibetan culture. The southern part instead is home to several minorities whose culture is not too different from people living in northern Thailand.
Two completely different realities that coexist in the same province. Yunnan is one of the provinces with the largest number of Chinese minorities and its history it’s extremely interesting. It’s a province that is the opposite of everything we imagine when we think about China. Pretty much the same size as Italy, there are really too many places to visit and most of them are virtually untouched by tourists. You can find some of them in this link.
Today, I write about a very famous place: Lijiang. A city with a millenary history, always frequented by traders and crowds of tourists. Maybe you have never heard of it but Lijiang is one of the most visited cities throughout China, by Chinese tourists.
As you can imagine, it is a place that is incredibly crowded at certain times of the year. Despite what many say, Lijiang has not become touristic in recent times: it has always been very busy! Due to its position on the Tea Horse Road Lijiang was very popular over the last few centuries.
How to get to Lijiang and what are the top things to do
Since Lijiang is a very popular city getting there is not difficult.
- You can fly to Lijiang from most of the main cities in China.
- You can take a train (fast or regular) from Kunming
- Finally, you can take a bus from Kunming.
The cheapest solution is getting there using the regular (slower) train. You can take the night train from Kunming and you’ll get to Lijiang early in the morning. Once you get to Lijiang don’t take the taxis waiting for the tourists right outside the train station. They are very expensive. Take instead one of the buses outside the train station: you’ll get to Old Town for only 2 RMB.
One thing to remember is that Lijian is divided into two parts: the modern part, and the Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Fortunately, to visit the Old Town you no longer need to pay 80RMB per person. But you still do if you also want to visit the Black Dragon Pool (黑龙潭).
Lijiang is famous for the architecture of the buildings designed following the Naxi (one of the Chinese ethnic minorities) traditions, as you can see in the first photo of this post.
In this picture, you can see a Mosuo woman. This minority is famous because women are often the head of the house, inheritance is through the female line, and women make business decisions. Read more info here.
The best time to photograph Lijiang is before sunrise. The city is empty and it will be all for you. Taking beautiful photos in Lijiang is not easy during the day: the streets are always half lit and half shaded and the contrast is too high even with for a good camera.
The old town is not very big and a couple of days are enough to visit it. Ideally, use Lijiang to make some excursions nearby.
Things to see around Lijiang
As soon as you get to Lijiang you can’t help but notice the Yulong or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which with a height of 5596 meters is one of the highest peaks in Yunnan. The mountain is located in a national park and the entrance fee for the area is 130 RMB. Visiting this part of Yunnan may be relatively expensive compared to other places in China. To get there take the minivan n° 7 parked in front of the square with this huge statue of Mao Zedong.
The price of the ride to the park varies greatly and especially for foreigners is a bit high. After a few minutes of bargaining, I managed to get the price down to 25RMB per person.
It takes 25 minutes from Lijiang to the entrance to the park. Once in the park, you will have a few options. You can pay the other 200 RMB for the cable car that will take you almost to the top of the mountain at an elevation of around 4000 meters.
In case you decide to do it, keep in mind that 4000 meters might be too much for you especially if you have health issues. If you need it, you can buy an oxygen mask for sale everywhere at the end of the cable car ride.
When I went there it was too windy so I opted for another excursion: a cable car that costs 160 RMB but that leads to a lower altitude to a place called Blue Moon Valley which is also a bit less popular. You have to pay a further 20 RMB to get on the bus that will take you from the park to the actual cable car. You can take the bus to go back any time you want.
When you go back, get out of the bus close to the river where there is a new wooden path. To get back to the entrance of the park, take the same bus.
If the explanation of how to get to the various places seems a bit complicated, sadly it’s because it is complicated to visit the area by yourself. The other problem is that very few people can speak English and even fewer people can actually give you useful information. So for most of the people, the best solution is to actually join one of the organized tours. That way you wouldn’t have to think about anything.
Another nice trip you can do from Lijiang is to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. At a maximum depth of approximately 3,790 meters (12,434 feet) from the river to mountain peak, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world. The people living in the area are mainly the Naxi.
An interesting day trip from Lijiang is to Shigu, just a couple of hours away, and a good place for hiking with a majestic view of the Yangtze River. Finally, a trip to this part of Yunnan is not complete unless you visit also Dali Old Town and Shaxi Old Town.
The old town of Shuhe (束河)
When you hear people talking about Lijiang and its Old Town, they generally refer to Gǔchéng (古城) but that’s not the only Old Town in Lijiang.
There is another Old Town called Shuhe (束河). This is also UNESCO World Heritage Site but has far fewer tourists and is smaller than Gǔchéng. The entrance fee is about 50RMB. Most of the people say that Shuhe is better than Gǔchéng, it’s more authentic and it has not yet become an “amusement park” as Gǔchéng. That’s probably true, but I liked both.
Shuhe is very beautiful, as you can see in the picture above, and, though similar to Gǔchéng, it has more canals and the water is really crystal clear.
A day trip to Shangri-La (香格里拉)
Lijiang is the ideal starting point to visit Shangri-La in Chinese 香格里拉 (Xiānggélǐlā) or Śambhalaḥ (in Tibetan शम्भलः). Until December 17 2001 Shangri-La was called Zhongdian (中甸) but the name was changed to match the mystical place that James Hilton talked about in its novel Lost Horizon. It was basically a marketing move to get more tourists. In the novel, Shangri-La, was an ancient and secret city of wise men, gathered from all over the world, of different sex, culture, religion, and temperament, who lived extremely long lives and were truly happy.
There are currently no trains to Shangri-La. The only ways to get there are by flight or by bus. The bus from Lijiang takes about 5 hours. Remember that Shangri-La is located at an altitude of 3160 meters so you might suffer from altitude sickness.
Why do people want to visit this remote part of Yunnan? Until a few years ago there was an old town in Shangri-La (about 1300 years old) but unfortunately, in January 2014 it was completely burnt down.
So what about Shangri-La today? The city is a huge construction site and millions of RMB have been spent to rebuild the old town so there isn’t much to see at the moment. The only interesting thing to do is to visit the Songzanlin Monastery, one of the most beautiful Tibetan monasteries in China.
Where to stay in Lijiang
Although Lijiang is so popular it is possible to spend very little money on accommodation. Hostels start from 5€ per night but there are hotels and guest houses for all tastes and budgets. I recommend that you don’t book anything and look for a room once in Lijiang. This for three reasons:
- Chinese standards for hotels are very different from the rest of the world and you might book something that doesn’t really look nice one you get there.
- Another reason is that you can find the accommodation exactly in the location you prefer. I found a room (for 100RMB per night) in the upper part of the city with a spectacular view of the rooftops that I would have probably never found had I looked for it on the internet.
- If you book your hotel online you might end up wandering around the Old Town for a very long time. The Old Town is a maze and don’t expect anyone to know where a guest house is located. At least this is my suggestion. If you don’t want to book a room in a fancy hotel remember that the beds in regular hotels and guest houses are all very hard and the rooms don’t have any heating system, even if Lijiang can be relatively cold during the night. All rooms have electric blankets though. The funny thing is that for some reason in China those who design the rooms think that the separation between the bathroom and the bedroom is not that important and so quite often you’ll find simply a glass.
One last tip: you can ask for a discount on the room price if you are in a guest house. If they ask you 150RMB try to get the price down to 120/130RMB. If you want to book your accommodation in advance then you can check on Booking.com. Another good option is Agoda, very good for booking hotels in Asia.
This article is a bit long but I wanted to write a guide as complete as possible. In addition to the information I have written, remember also this:
- Lijiang is on a plateau at an altitude of 2400 meters so the sun is very strong. Remember to bring a sunscreen lotion.
- If you make an excursion to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain it can be a good idea to take with you an oxygen mask, just in case.
- Don’t forget to visit the Black Dragon Pool just outside the Old Town.
- Bring with you a tripod so that you can take some pictures at sunrise or sunset.
- Don’t forget to visit the other Old Town: Shuhe.
- Before visiting China get a VPN. If you don’t have one, you won’t be able to use Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, etc…
- The weather is nice all year round and is never too cold nor too hot. However, it is better to avoid the months from May to October because it’s the rainy season and all holidays such as Chinese New Year.
- On Momondo you can find some discounted flights to China.
- Here’s the complete travel guide to China.
If you have other questions, please feel free to ask. Here you can find some more pictures I took in China. Here an article about a place not very popular among tourists: the beautiful Jiuxiang caves.