Lijiang (丽江), Yunnan Province
Lijiang is a quintessential example of my least-favorite trend in Chinese tourism: a genuinely old town or monument that has been glossed over to make it “suitable” for tourists. This tends to bring with it rows of shops selling identical, machine-made replicas of traditional handicrafts, overpriced noodle stands, and incredible crowds. Lijiang has all this and more, especially if you make the mistake of visiting during one of China’s “Golden Weeks,” when the entire country is on the move. It’s much lovelier at 7 a.m., when the local market is bustling but tourist restaurants and shops are just beginning to open their doors. I wouldn’t make Lijiang a major stop on your itinerary, but if you are passing through (say, to the fabulous Wenhai Ecolodge), it’s a good place to do your souvenir shopping. There are beautiful scarves hidden in with the schlock. Tiger Leaping Gorge trekkers must also pass through Lijiang.
If you’re looking for an English-speaking guide, New Zealander and longtime Lijiang resident Keith Lyons offers private tours in Yunnan and elsewhere in China. I met Keith while CouchSurfing in Guizhou and then ran into him again while he was leading a family through nearby villages. He’s very knowledgeable about the area, and while I can’t vouch for his tours, I can say that he’s a friendly and funny guy. You can contact by email through the link above or by phone at + 86 137 6900 1439.
If you need to spend a night in Lijiang, the Garden Inn is a solid — and inexpensive — choice. It’s a couple of blocks away from the worst of the shopping madness, so you can more easily see the charm that led Lijiang to become a World Heritage Site in the first place. The hostel has an informal, family-run feel, but still provides all of the essentials, including booking onward transportation to Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri-La, Dali or Kunming. A dorm bed costs 25 RMB per night. The hostel is located off of Wuyi Street in the “old town” section of Lijiang. Rooms can be booked through Hostelworld.
You can fly to Lijiang, but most budget travelers will come by bus from Dali or Kunming. The roads are improving, so what was a 9+-hour bus ride in October 2008 had become a 7 1/2-hour trip in April 2010. The ticket costs roughly 180 RMB. Buses to Lijiang now depart from Kunming’s west bus station, which is a bit of a haul out of town. You can buy tickets there, or the Cloudland Hostel in Kunming can arrange them. Warning: I had a bad experience on the sleeper bus to Lijiang in October 2008. After my friend and I boarded the bus, a manager came on and came straight over to the two foreigners, waving his badge. At first, he wanted us to get off the bus — specifically, for us to pay him more money and take a bus the next day. When we refused, he asked about the weight of our luggage and claimed that it was too heavy, and that we would have to pay a fine. The situation devolved into him yelling, “Give me Chinese money!” as we just as stubbornly refused. Finally, the sight of our student IDs seemed to shut him up. We held onto our bunks and our luggage, so no harm was done. But watch out for crooked bus company “managers”!