Lijiang Travel Guide

Written by Vivian Updated Sep. 30, 2022

Lijiang is a prefecture-level city in northwestern Yunnan Province situated on the Jinsha River, one of the two principal headwaters of the Yangtze (the other principal headwater of the Yangtze being the Min River). The name Lijiang in the Nahki (alternatively, Naxi) language - the Nahki being the largest ethnic minority in Lijiang, though several other ethnic minorities are represented in the city - means in fact 'bend in the Jinsha River. The Jinsha and the Min are fed by large tributaries (farther upstream, the Jinsha is called the Tongtian, which itself has three principal headwaters, each large river in its own right, so one begins to get an idea of just how mighty the "Mighty Yangtze River" really is), which in turn are fed by even smaller tributaries, etc., ending in the usual feeder streams that run off mountain ranges - in this case, in Tibet - which is how rivers typically are born, though some rivers, even large ones, originate from lakes, such as the White Nile, the longest principal headwater of the Nile proper, which originates in Lake Victoria, on the Ugandan side.

Lijiang History

Lijiang was a tiny settlement before it found itself in the midst of a battle during the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, after which the village grew into a city. Emperor Shizu - aka Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan - stationed troops in Lijiang on his southward march to do battle with the State of Dali, and after the successful completion of that campaign, Nahki tribesmen of the Mu clan who were loyal to the Mongol chieftain were relocated to Lijiang, and thus the old village was built and came to be inhabited by the Mu clan of the Nahki culture.

Lijiang was later part of the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road, aka the "Silk Road" of Southwest China. Though less well known than the famous Silk Road of the silk trade, the ancient route that transported tea and horses (tea from China to points southward, and horses from Tibet, especially, to points northward, i.e., into the rest of China) across treacherous mountain terrain was much more daunting a challenge to those whose livelihoods depended on it than the more accessible, and more heavily trafficked Silk Road routes (to learn more about Lijiang Old Town, its Nakhi Ethnic Minority (with their Dongba Culture) and its ingenious system of manmade waterways that provide each and every Nahki household with all its water needs, click here).

Sites Worth a Visit in Lijiang

There are a number of interesting sights to take in around Lijiang besides Lijiang Old Town, which was placed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List in 1997. For example, majestic, snow-capped Jade Dragon Snow Mountain lies only 35 kilometers north of Lijiang, and has become so emblematic of the area that it appears on almost every postcard. The First Bend of the Yangtze River as well as nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge make excellent all-day excursions. Lijiang is also a practical hub for making longer jaunts to pristine areas of the surrounding region, such as trips to Laojun Mountain and Lake Lugu.

The crystal-clear waters of Lake Lugu, about an 8-hour drive from Lijiang, is home to the unique Mosuo folk, a matriarchal clan that is considered by the Chinese government as a sub-group of the Nahki Ethnic Minority (based on scholarly evidence of course), though the Mosuo insist that they are separate from the Nahki, who, in contrast to the Mosuo, are patriarchal, as are most mainstream ethnic minorities of China - and indeed, as are most cultures the world over. What makes the Mosuo so unique as a cultural group is that they not only are not patriarchal, they also do not form the usual conjugal relationship, but instead live together in casual cohabitation.

With a population of 1,015,000, greater Lijiang comprises, besides the newer city itself as well as the old town, four rural counties, where 22 ethnic minority groups live. Roughly 57% of the population of greater Lijiang thus consists of ethnic minorities, the rest being Han Chinese. The ethnic minorities of greater Lijiang include, beside Nahki, the Bai, the Dai, the Tibetan Hui, the Lisu, the Miao, the Pumi, the Yi and the Zhuang.

The city of Lijiang dubbed the Venice of the Orient due to the many canals which tap their waters from the local Jinsha River tributary, the Yuquanshui River, will spoil you with its cobblestone streets, its willow-lined canals, its hurly-burly markets and waterside cafés, and its ethnic diversity. Lijiang's harmonious blend of ethnic cultures is in fact one of the chief reasons why UNESCO placed the city on the World Cultural Heritage List. It's an enchanting place to just "drop out" for a few days, or even for a few hours, though, once there, you will probably not be able to tear yourself away anytime soon.

Continue to read: Top Things to Do in Lijiang

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