Lijiang – China’s Disneyland (Without The Rides)

Dancing Women Lijiang Yunnan China

Have you been to Disneyland? I have. It’s quite an interesting place. On one hand it is beautiful: Perfectly manicured, everything has its specific place in the park, lots of colourfully dressed people dancing around for your entertainment. On the other hand, it gives you the creeps: Thousands of tourists crawling on top of each other for that perfect photo, that feeling of being completely fake, more selfie sticks than you can shake a, erm, selfie stick at, and prices so inflated that you need to take out a second mortgage just to buy a bottle of water. This is exactly like Lijiang in South West China.

We arrived in the UNESCO city with a warning from other travellers: If you don’t like too many tourists, steer clear of Lijiang. We’ve never really believed in that whole ‘traveller vs tourist‘ debate, so onwards we went to make up our own minds.

Bring It On, Lijiang!

After hitchhiking from the amazing Shaxi, we entered the old city and started making our way towards our accommodation. The first thing we noticed were two beautiful water wheels spinning majestically amongst the cobblestoned walls. Actually, that is a lie. It would have been the first thing we noticed, if there weren’t 15’000 Chinese tourists shoulder charging each other to get prime position for a photo. Lesh and I pushed through the human cattle and immediately got jumped by salesmen, offering everything you could imagine from horse rides to massage parlous. Heads down, we charged on through towards a quiet alley.

Quiet Alley Lijiang Yunnan China
A welcome respite from the mayhem of the old city.

We managed to get completely lost in the winding labyrinth of Lijiang. The series of shops began to look like an exact replica of each other. Djembe drums, hippies clothes, jewellery shop, cafe, repeat. Over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. It was like being in a weird sci-fi movie scene.

Luckily we found our Couchsurfing host’s house and got out of the madness. On the outskirts of the old city, it was just like a typical Chinese town. Busy, lots of dumplings, but at least there was some normality (well, as normal as you can get in China). And thankfully, less tourists.

Not into Couchsurfing, no worries. Here are some options for accommodation in Lijiang.

We decided to spend the next day up at the spectacular Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Waking up early to avoid the supposed 2 hour waits at the cable car we had heard about, we started to work out how we would get there. That’s when our plans had changed. After paying for transport, the ticket for the cable car, the admission fee to the park and the entrance fee to Lijiang, it was going to set us back over US$60 each. As beautiful as the mountain was, we couldn’t justify that to go see some snow. Time for a plan B.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Lijiang Yunnan China
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Unfortunately out of our budget.

We had heard about a quiet village on the outskirts of the city called Baisha. Heralded as ‘Lijiang without the tourists’ we made our way there instead of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. But first we had to battle our way through the masses to the other side of town. Before we had time to take our first breath inside the old city, we were bombarded with selfie stick wielding touts. “Quick Lesh, run!” Past the spitting Chinese men, leaping over the street-pissing kids and dodging the clueless hippie wannabes with coloured braids in their hair and pants 17 sizes too large, we managed to escape unscathed.

It turns out Baisha was a lot quieter than Lijiang, but still not as authentic as the guidebooks had made it out to be. The first thing we wanted to do was grab a cup of tea. Just a simple green tea. The first place we walked into did indeed serve green tea. At $18 a pot. We decided we didn’t need green tea.

One beautiful experience did come out of Baisha though, and that was meeting Grandma Liu, who basically kidnapped us. A sweet old lady, she has been welcoming visitors into her house for years, offering snacks and tea (YES!) for the simple price of a donation. All smiles and positive energy, we spent an hour in her quaint house before heading back towards Lijiang.

Grandma Liu Baisha Village Lijiang Yunnan China
The beautiful grandma Liu in Baisha village.

We made it back to the gong show that is Lijiang just after lunchtime, and we were hungry. Think it’s easy to get a cheap bite to eat in the old city? Guess again. $7 for some soggy vegetables. Sure, it is cheap in the grand scheme of things, but we aren’t in the grand scheme of things. We are in China, where soggy vegetables shouldn’t cost $7. We settled on a mediocre fried rice and decided now was the perfect time to go get a coffee.

$24 for a coffee.

We would go without our caffeine fix.

It was becoming apparent that this town was getting the better of us, so we headed back to our host’s house for some friendly conversations. Not before we passed through the central square however, just in time to experience some traditional dancing. Now admittedly, this was interesting to see; except for the look of despair on the dancer’s faces as they performed like programmed robots for the throngs of flash-happy tourists. Entertainment, perhaps, but it was painful to watch.

Crowds Lijiang Yunnan China

We talked to our host, Alan, about these crazy inflated prices, huge numbers of tourists and relentless touts. He smiled shyly and simply said, “Yea, this is Lijiang.”

Now it isn’t all doom and gloom for this town. One thing to keep in mind is that yes, it is very picturesque. The old city is gorgeous with its ancient buildings, intricate temples and meandering canals. In the early mornings, the place is almost completely empty and well worth setting the alarm for. And it’s a great place to use as a jumping-off point to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

And on the topic of tourist numbers, less than 20 years ago Lijiang was a very poor community. Now, thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage listing, it is a booming destination. While this means you have to contend with thousands of people at any one time, it also means the local population is able to better their lives by earning a higher income in a new industry. You can’t blame them for capitalising on this sudden influx of visitors.

We didn’t hate our time in Lijiang. Not at all. We are definitely glad we visited there, and the city certainly has its charms. But then again, so does Disneyland – and I’m in no rush to go back there again any time soon.

Prayer Flags Lijiang Yunnan China

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Alesha and Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award-winning writers and professional photographers behind this blog. We have been travelling the world together since 2008, with a passion for adventure travel and sustainable tourism. Through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. As one of the world's leading travel journalists, our content and adventures have been featured by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Business Insider, Washington Post, Yahoo!, BuzzFeed, Channel 7, Channel 10, ABC, The Guardian, and plenty other publications. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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16 thoughts on “Lijiang – China’s Disneyland (Without The Rides)”

  1. For everybody reading this blog. If you visit Lijiang in the low season (end of May/ mid June) it is a completely different story. The city is peaceful, with some tourists, just enough that you won’t feel lonely. Several hostels will have empty dorms. However, it will be more cloudy with every day some showers, but they usually don’t last over an hour. Temperature is a pleasant 20C, and even warmer during periodes of sunshine. Prices are similar to the rest of China. So tea is rather expensive at 25rmb per cup. But you can easily eat for 10-40rmb per person depending on the meal of your choice. I would definetely recommend a visit to the old city if you are planning to pass through anyway. If you don’t mind a 10minute walk to the old town centre I can really recommend Mama Naxi’s guest house.

  2. I’m thinking of traveling to Lijiang in December this year (between Xmas & over new year) hoping it’s not so busy then. Any thoughts? Will be checking out Shaxi too, thanks for the great reports.

    • It shouldn’t be as busy then, but it will be cold. Enjoy the trip 🙂

  3. Hey, thanks for the post! We are in shaxi and now thinking of skipping Lijiang to head straight to tiger leaping gorge. We were interested in your hitchhiking experience here since we haven’t tried it in China yet. Do you have any recommendations? Where did you hitchhike from? Thanks 🙂

  4. WHAT? I’m almost wondering if we were in the same town lol. I was only there in 2014 and it was not near what you are describing. Maybe it was because I was there in November? Prices were cheap, we all had a large dumpling soup for 10 rmb, went to a bar and had drinks for 20 rmb which isn’t terrible. There were some tourists, but not lots. I’m thinking I’m glad I went in an off season lol. Yikes!!

  5. That’s a shame. It looks so beautiful but I’ve heard it’s awful with how crowded it is, just like your experience! It was on my to do list for China trip #2 but I think I’d rather skip it for something better.

    • I could suggest going in an off season. We went in November 2014 and it was nothing like this. Prices were cheap/reasonable and there were not near that many number of tourists!!

  6. It’s crazy how expensive every is there. But like my parent’s ancestral village of Chikan near Kaiping in China, when they got areas designated as UNESCO sites, things started to change with increased tourism. However not to the tune of $18 for a pot of tea! Lijiang does intrigue me though. Thanks for the post.

    • It is a double-edged sword, that’s for sure. At least the local people are about to make the most of their new opportunities. Thanks for reading, Wayne 🙂

  7. So interesting to see the evolution of tourism in China. It’s sad to think that in a few more years, touts and overpriced attractions will be the norm at every point of interest all over the country – yet, it is great that the people of Lijiang can make a living now.


    • Funny how tourism can be a double-edged sword. Hopefully it doesn’t grow to be so unsustainable that people just stop visiting the touristy areas.

  8. We did get the exact same feeling about Lijiang: it’s just like Disneyland. It’s fun but just for a while, it’s gorgeous but there is just sooo many people and the prices can get ridiculous. There is a lot of old town that are being restored now to try to bank on Lijiang’s success in many regions in the South. There was one or two in Sichuan too but because of the big earthquakes that came in the last few years they are now more like deserted old towns.

    • We thought Lijiang was beautiful, but weren’t too upset about leaving the place. We only just heard about the earthquakes the other day. Quite devastating for the local people.

  9. China can be like that – in the month we spent there we’ve found ourselves to saying no thanks to $20 park admission fee, and being even more bewildered at the hordes of local, Chinese tourists willingly paying the ticket cost. The one neat thing about the whole tourism industry in China was that we found that touts and souvenir hackers left us completely alone – we simply weren’t the target demographic.

    • That has been a welcome result for us too – the touts leave us alone mostly (except for the minivan drivers). Thanks for reading Jenia 🙂

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