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  • Rick

China #16: Three Ancient Towns of Lijiang (丽江三古镇)

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Sights: Ancient Towns of Lijiang (丽江古城区)

Region: Lijiang Prefecture, Yunnan Province


Previous story:

Story #15: Beauty of Erhai Lake in Shuanglang (洱海双廊)

Another UNESCO Heritage Site of China, the Old Town of Lijiang actually comprises of three districts of ancient towns, namely, Dayan Ancient Town (大研古镇), Shuhe Ancient Town (束河古镇) and Baisha Ancient Town (白沙古镇). The residents in Lijiang are predominantly the Naxi minority people (纳西族) and Han people.

Most travellers would assume that the three towns are roughly similar and opted to just explore one of them. In this post, you will see that they are characteristically different and accommodate travellers with different paces.

Getting from Shuanglang Town to Lijiang

Together with Xiaohan, a Zhuang minority girl from Guangxi, we took the local bus from Shuanglang Town to a road intersection along the Dali-Lijiang highway. Then, we got on a city bus bounded for Lijiang. The bus dropped us right outside Dayan Ancient Town but we took a local bus to Shuhe Ancient Town instead.

Where I Stayed

In Shuhe Ancient Town, we stayed in K2 International Youth Hostel. Staying in Shuhe Ancient Town would allow us to explore both Dayan Town and Baisha Town using short day trips.

In fact, I was in Lijiang three times on this trip:

  • The first was from Shuanglang Town to Lijiang, then off to Shangri-La for about 2 weeks (see Story #17, Story#18 and Story #19).

  • After returning from Shangri-La, I stayed for a couple of nights in Shuhe Ancient Town before heading to Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) near the Yunnan-Sichuan boundary (see Story #20).

  • I was back for the third time from Lugu Lake but stayed in Dayan Ancient Town, Lijiang Lao Shay Youth Hostel (老谢车马店.丽江店), before going off to Shaxi Ancient Town (沙溪古镇, see Story #21).

1. Dayan Ancient Town (大研古镇)

Among the three ancient towns, Dayan Town was the most touristy with hordes of tour groups. To most tourists, Dayan Ancient Town was "Lijiang Ancient City". Most of them will not be shown to the other two old towns by their tour guides since almost all the commercial functions (hotels, restaurants, shops, etc.) were in Dayan.

The traditional structures of the houses in Dayan were still very well preserved without having hybrids of modern architectures inside the old town — the new buildings surrounded the old towns.

Yulong (Jade Dragon) Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) stood in the backdrop of the old town.

The aspiration wind bells were of Dongba culture (东巴文化) of the Naxi minority people. Well-wishers would write their wishes on the wind bells and tied them to the structure provided. Each wind bell carried some Dongba drawings of blessed wishes.

The main streets were always crowded with more shops and restaurants. Cafes and traditional shops could be found in the quieter alleys.

In fact, both Shuhe and Baisha were better places to find out more about the way of life of Naxi minority people and Dongba culture than in Dayan.

2. Shuhe Ancient Town (束河古镇)

Shuhe Ancient Town was more popular with backpackers and free-&-easy Chinese travellers. This old town was more poetic, artistic and scenic. The pace was slower than Dayan Town. There were no lack of commercial functions here too and tour groups were fewer — not to mention that prices were also much cheaper. The atmosphere was almost similar to Dali Ancient City.

Unlike Dayan Ancient Town, a clear-water river ran through the heart of Shuhe Ancient Town. The water and reflections made the old town much more scenic than Dayan.

Little streams also flow through the town, in front of each shop and household. This gave Shuhe Town a more rustic feel — ancient villages always featured "small bridges and flowing water" (小桥、流水).

The cool water from the steam was used to cool beverages and fresh vegetables. These vegetables were usually eaten raw as thirst-quenching "refreshments" instead of for cooking.