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.
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.
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.
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.
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.