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 (here is my travel guide to Yunnan).
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 rainforest, the only one in China, and is home to the Asian Elephants, a fact that very few people are aware of. Northern Yunnan borders 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 coexist in the same province. Yunnan is the province with the largest number of ethnic minorities in China 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.
In this article, I talk about one of the most famous places in Yunnan: Lijiang. A city with a millenary history, historically busy with traders and tourists. Maybe you have never heard of it but Lijiang is one of the most visited cities throughout China.
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 destination, 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 3 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 picture above.
In this picture, you can see a Mosuo woman. This minority is famous because it’s a matriarchal society, meaning that 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.
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, including the other two old towns in the area, Baisha and Shuhe.
Things to see around Lijiang
If you are planning to stay a bit longer in Lijiang these are some of the places you can visit that are not too far away.
Yulong or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain 玉龙雪山
This national park is one of the highlights of the whole area and, if it’s a sunny day, you’ll probably notice the iconic peak of the mountain while visiting Lijiang.
I wrote a detailed guide with all the info you need to visit the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Don’t miss it.
Blue Moon Valley 蓝月谷
The Blue Moon Valley is one area you can visit inside the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain National Park. It’s famous for the pristine crystal clear water that comes directly from the glacier.
The area is very popular so if possible head there early in the morning, before the tourists coming from Lijiang arrive.
Here you can find my complete guide on how to visit the Blue Moon Valley.
Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡
Another nice trip you can take from Lijiang is to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. At a maximum depth of approximately 3,790 meters (12,434 feet) from the river to the 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 Naxi.
A short 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.
Check my article for a detailed guide on how to visit Shigu.
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 fewer tourists and is smaller than Gǔchéng. 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.
Baisha Old Town 白沙
Probably the last hidden gem in the area, Baisha is becoming increasingly popular among people that visit Lijiang but try to avoid the crowds.
Baisha is a lovely small ancient town, just a 20 mins ride from Lijiang, filled with cute coffee shops. Definitely worth a trip, before it becomes too crowded.
A day trip to Shangri-La 香格里拉
Lijiang is the ideal starting point to visit Shangri-La a Tibetan town easily reached by bus or (when it will be finished) the high-speed train. The original old town was unfortunately destroyed in a fire in 2014 but it has since then been rebuilt. If you don’t have the chance to visit Tibet, this is a cheaper option.
Here you can find my travel guide to Shangri-La.
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 once 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. On Trip.com you’ll find way more options though.
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.