Mountain High, River Deep
The charm of the UNESCO Heritage Site of Lijiang and the majesty of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Lijiang, a city in the northwest part of China’s Yunnan province, may be famous for its UNESCO Heritage Site, the Old Town of Lijiang, but after a three-day visit, it’s hard to decide what should vie for top place. It is an area so steeped in history and natural beauty.
Lijiang was an important transit point along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, a centre for economic and cultural communication between various ethnic groups such as the Naxi, Han, Tibetans, and Bai in the 1300s.
Today it is a popular destination for tourists, which means avoiding Chinese holiday periods is advisable, as we did by travelling over the Easter break. We stayed at both of Grand Hyatt Lijiang’s properties – one in town and the other a 30-minute drive away in Ganhaizhi, at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, allowing us to gradually acclimatize to the higher altitude - 2,400m above sea level in Lijiang, rising to 3,200m at the Mountain Lodge. Two completely different experiences, yet of equal footing in terms of splendour.
Old Town of Lijiang
The Old Town of Lijiang has retained its authenticity, and its architecture is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures that have come together over the centuries.
The town has a history going back more than 1,000 years and was once a confluence for trade along the “Old Tea Horse Caravan Trail”. Cobblestone streets lead down narrow alleys that reveal temples or squares - one really could spend a whole day just getting lost and found along its canals and shops.
Greater Lijiang was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 and since then, the local government has taken more responsibility for the development and protection of the old city, that has seen increased tourism over the past 20 years, though most are domestic tourists from other parts of China, and it is with them in mind that much of the commercial appeal has been aimed.
Black Dragon Pool, located in the Jade Spring Park, has famed views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range, fronted by the Moon Embracing Pavilion, a picture perfect spot if ever there was one.
The park contains many temples, pavilions and ancient architecture, including bridges that frame the landscape. It is peaceful, clean and offers a good contrast from the dense activity in some of the other parts of the town.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Sixty kilometres north of Lijiang City lies the scenic canyon of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Located on the Jinsha River, a primary tributary of the upper Yangtze River, it is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas World Heritage Site.
Undeterred by the effects of the altitude (shortness of breath and shallow sleep, to mention a few) we set out to walk down and up one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world.
Around 15km in length, the gorge is located where the river passes between the 5,596-metre Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the 5,396-metre Haba Snow Mountain, in a series of rapids under steep 2,000-metre high cliffs. Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter; a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 metres wide), hence the name.
The walk was a little hairy in some parts (steep angles, narrow walkways) but absolutely worth it for the views and experience, and not as strenuous as we feared. Waterfalls and a few locals dotted our path, and once we reached the bottom and stood next to the river, looking up at the sky was a moment to remember.
Performance and Blue Moon Valley
Famed film director and choreographer Zhang Yimou is best known for productions such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as staging the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In Yunnan, his cultural show Impression Lijiang is a landscape performance played out on a specially-constructed stage at an altitude of over 3100 metres, demonstrating the traditions and lifestyles of Naxi, Yi and Bai minorities in the Lijiang area at a cost of US$31 million and set against the backdrop of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is the southernmost glacier in the Northern Hemisphere and as a backdrop to this performance of hundreds of actors, costumes and music, makes for a very moving experience.
Amid the wealth of natural beauty Jade Dragon Snow Mountain provides, is Blue Moon Valley, where the thawing water from the mountain forms four turquoise lakes and a few waterfalls. The lakes form a natural mirror reflecting the grand snow mountain, surrounding cliffs, and lush plants.
The gentle walk amongst gem coloured pools with the snow-capped mountain in the background is a memorable way to culminate a trip celebrating China’s amazing natural beauty.