What you should do in China

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I came across a piece of writing, which according to at least one couple, inspired their trip to China. And told them where to go. They were a little disappointed with Lijiang, because of the tourist numbers.


12 Perfect Days in Classic China

Day 4 (Tuesday): Lijiang
After three days in Beijing you will crave blue skies and fresh air, so escape to Yunnan Province, where you'll begin in Lijiang. True, Lijiang has been turned into a cultural theme park lately, but there are unspoiled nearby villages where the local Naxi (pronounced nah-shee) people, in their traditional blue costumes and headdresses, remain so friendly and endearing that it's still possible to interact with them in a genuine way. The same is true of the Khampa Tibetans who live four hours north of Lijiang in Zhongdian, also known as Gyalthang (the local Tibetan name) and Shangri-La (the official new name the tourist board uses). Four years ago, Chinese authorities declared Zhongdian the location of the fictional Shangri-La in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon-a place that Hilton described as having "snow mountains, grassland, Tibetan people, red soil plateau, three rivers flowing along, colorless snow-tea, and a lamasery." The name-change gimmick to promote tourism has, alas, worked-and it puts Zhongdian at risk of suffering the same fate as Lijiang. So go soon!

From April through October, a nonstop daily flight leaves Beijing at 7:35 a.m. and arrives in Lijiang at 10:45. Take it and by lunchtime you can be sitting outdoors in the Old Town, at the small canalside restaurant Ma Ma Fu's (45 Mi Shi Xiang, Xin Yi St.; 86-888-512-2285; meals about $15), eating fried noodles and watching the world go by. At least that's where you'll be if you've opted for convenient and economical digs such as the Sanhe Hotel (86-888-512-0891; doubles, $42-$65), whose rustic rooms are set around traditional courtyards in the center of the Old Town. (Rooms near the street can be noisy, so stay in Nos. 301-309 or 201-207, off the courtyard in back.) You won't be lunching at Ma Ma Fu's if you've opted for the city's most luscious property-the Banyan Tree Lijiang (86-888-533-1111; banyantree.com; villas, $500-$1,200), 20 minutes outside of town-because once you check in you won't ever want to leave. Every room is a designer-showcase villa, and there are several restaurants and a gorgeous spa. If your primary goal is to get out and explore the area, stick with the Sanhe-or, if you require Western standards of service and efficiency (including a business center), the modern Grand Lijiang Hotel (86-888-512-8888; doubles, $83-$108), across the street from the entrance to the Old Town. Charming it's not, but it's a good value.

Your first stop after lunch should be Black Dragon Pool, whose park contains several exhibitions about the Naxi people, and these are essential to appreciating what you will see in and around Lijiang. Head first to the Dongba Culture Research Institute. The Naxi have done a good job of preserving their 1,400-year-old heritage because it has been passed down through the centuries by wise men or shamans called dongbas. A dongba-in-training will sit you down in a Naxi classroom and give you a delightful introduction to the traditions at the heart of his culture, which aims at pursuing a life in harmony with nature, animals, and the gods.

As the gardens and pavilions around Black Dragon Pool empty out in the midafternoon, spend at least an hour exploring the park and its sixteenth-century architectural treasures known as Five-Phoenix Pavilions. Don't miss the embroidered silk "paintings" in the silk workshop off Peony Garden (Traditional Culture Exchange Center; 86-159-8793-3240). But make sure that by 4:30 you're at the Lijiang Municipal Museum-the new museum at the north gate of Black Dragon Pool, not the old one next to the Dongba Culture Research Institute-so you have enough time for its Naxi Dongba Culture Exhibition before the building closes at 6 p.m. Seeing the displays-devoted to the ancient manuscripts, costumes, rituals, instruments, and houses of the Naxi-may take no more than an hour, but you'll want at least 30 minutes for the gift shop, where a dongba in full regalia will draw you a customized Naxi pictograph on tree-bark paper ($20). The shop carries a lovely array of Naxi crafts and "antiques," but the prices are high and you must bargain hard.

A good spot for dinner in the Old Town? The upstairs balcony at Old City Beef Restaurant (69 Xinyi St.; 86- 139-8884-4615; meals about $15), where you can gaze onto the streets festively lit up at night. Don't miss the beef soup and just-out-of-the-oven Naxi baba (pancake-shaped local bread).

Day 5 (Wednesday): Lijiang
The Old Town is less touristy by day than by night-if you know where to go. After an hour or so at the vegetable market, stroll through the area's more residential neighborhoods, where you can still see moms doing laundry in a stream while their children play nearby. Climb to Wang Gu Lou Pagoda-but only if it's a clear day-for vistas of the Old Town and the peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Descend through the Mu Family Palace, a replica of the palace of Lijiang's rulers from the Ming period through the early twentieth century, and end up at the Nature Conservancy's Exhibition Center. The exhibit, in a historic house in the Old Town, shows the conservancy's work in rural Yunnan Province. Don't miss the lovely video Voices of a Sacred Land.

After lunch, perhaps at the convenient Naxi Family Café (Xin Yi Jie; 86-888-511-5749; meals about $16) in the Old Town, head to the countryside around Lijiang to explore villages where Naxi farmers still live as they have for generations. In Yuhu, wander amid traditional stone houses and peep into the friendly inhabitants' courtyards. You'll also find the former residence of Dr. Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American scientist who lived in China from the 1920s through the 1940s, studying Naxi culture and leading National Geographic Society expeditions. There is a fascinating photo exhibit showing what life was like then.

Next, head to the village of Baisha, which once was the capital of the Naxi kingdom and now is a good place to see the Naxi doing their everyday thing-playing cards, drinking tea, hauling produce. You'll also find, in the sixteenth-century Phoenix Pavilion, the Bai Sha murals, whose fusion of animist images with Chinese Daoist, Tibetan Buddhist, and Mahayana Buddhist ones reflects the Naxi's choice not to reject outside cultures but rather to learn from them.

Only a two-minute drive from Baisha is the Banyan Tree Li-jiang, so if you're staying there, you'll be tempted to retreat to the hotel for the rest of the day. If not, head back to the Old Town for dinner at Hong Lou (70 Xin Yi St.; 86-888-512-1548; meals about $15), run by a group of Naxi women. Make sure that by 8 p.m. you are seated in the beautiful Na-Xi Concert Hall for a performance by the Naxi Orchestra, whose 24 musicians play lilting melodies on ancient stringed instruments that look a bit like something out of Dr. Seuss. You won't hear these exotic tunes elsewhere in China, so don't miss them. After the concert, introduce yourself to the veteran conductor Xuan Ke-a fascinating man who speaks fluent English, which he learned partly from Dr. Rock, who lived with Xuan's family for a time. A musical prodigy who studied Western classical music until he was imprisoned for 27 years when the Communists came to power, Xuan was rehabilitated in 1978 and since then has been researching the region's ancient musical traditions. Attention, Banyan Tree guests who are likely to hole up in their villas this evening: Be sure to attend the Naxi concert on the first night in Lijiang.

There's more about the other days and places in this March's issue of CN Traveler
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