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City of Beautiful Rivers

   

City in a Glance

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Lying in a broad, fertile valley dominated by the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Range, Lijiang was founded as Dayan, a largely Naxi settlement first built during the Southern Song Dynasty nearly eight centuries ago. Its architecture is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures that have evolved over many centuries. Lijiang also possesses an ancient water-supply system which still functions effectively today. In 1986, China's State Council designated Lijiang as an important historical and cultural national treasure. In 1997, UNESCO listed Lijiang as one of the world's major cultural heritages.

The Beautiful Ancient City of Lijiang

Once you are in Lijiang, a small, quiet, and comfortable city in China's southwestern province of Yunnan, you will find it hard to tear yourself away and return to the hustle and bustle of the large cities. A case in point is Wang Zixuan, a singer from Beijing. Two hours after I saw her off in Lijiang, she called me from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, to tell me how much she missed Lijiang.

I was twice asked to take photographs of Wang in Lijiang and in Zhongdian (another city in Yunnan) last June and July. The day I arrived in Lijiang, I strolled alone around the city without saying a word to anyone. I wanted to become quiet and be one with the small city. In fact, no matter who you are, even if you are a civil servant from Shenzhen or Hong Kong who habitually walks fast or a businessman from Tokyo who is always pressed for time, you will slow down your pace and relax in Lijiang, and you will find that your heartbeat and blood pressure are different from what they were in the large cities. The dustless streets paved with colorful pebbles and the wooden houses with their gray roofs make you forget the grim forests of cement in the large cities.

A crystal-clear stream meanders around Lijiang, and people often convey their blessings to others by setting lanterns afloat on the water. At midnight on the day I arrived, I saw an old watchman making his rounds and beating a gong in a small lane. He was the first watchman I had ever seen except in motion pictures, and the soothing sound of the gong echoed in the darkness. I am sure the inhabitants of Lijiang must have a good, sound sleep every night.

I went to downtown Lijiang with my camera early the next morning before the shops opened. The morning calm of the small city was short and was soon broken by the arrival of tourists wearing red caps, led by guides with bullhorns in their hands. The tourists looked perfectly at home. The foreigners among them, with their casual clothes and relaxed appearance, seemed to fit in with the atmosphere of the old city even better than their Chinese companions.

Then I sat down in a coffee shop, sipping coffee and reading a book. The shop was owned by a pretty young woman of the Naxi ethnic group, and it also served Western food to cater to the foreign tourists.

Lijiang is a small city most Chinese tourists have long wanted to see. It has a history of more than 800 years, and because of its colorful lifestyle and unique architecture, it was included on the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1997.

Lijiang now has more than 80 residents from over a dozen foreign countries. Four years ago, Kim Myung-ai of South Korea and her Chinese husband came to Lijiang as tourists. Attracted by the natural beauty of the city and the simple and honest people, they decided to set up a small coffee shop here. Today, the mom-and-pop operation has expanded to serve tea, all sorts of drinks, and Korean food. She has also obtained a marriage certificate and a residence permit from China and decided to settle with her husband in Lijiang permanently.

"The stream running in front of our house is of great importance to the Lijiang residents," said Kim. "They draw water from the river for drinking before 10 a.m., wash vegetables in the river from 10 to 12 a.m., and wash their clothes in the afternoon.

Lijiang has many bridges and the most notable is the Big Stone Bridge. At one end of the bridge is a small building, which houses a shop selling talismans. The talismans are familiarly known as Bunong bells, although they are not really bells. The shop is named Bunong, after its owner, and I came to know him one evening when my friends took me there for a chat about his project to build an art village in Lijiang.

Bunong, a native of Sichuan Province, bought more than 1,000 mu (0.6667 square kilometers) of land for his project in the valley of the snowcapped Yulong Mountain. His plan sounded like a utopian fantasy, but he managed to receive support for it from the local government. The following day a friend and I went to see the plot for Bunong's art village. We were fascinated by its charming, idyllic environment-snowcapped mountains, grass-carpeted mountain slopes, wild flowers and fruit trees, cattle and herders, mirror-smooth ponds, and a stretch of beautiful marsh. e plot for Bunong's art village. We were fascinated by its charming, idyllic environment-snowcapped mountains, grass-carpeted mountain slopes, wild flowers and fruit trees, cattle and herders, mirror-smooth ponds, and a stretch of beautiful marsh. My artists including Xiao Ke, composer of the song Shangri-La, and Wang Zixuan, had already signed up to build their houses there.

I envied Bunong. To me, this is the best place to live in China. I would be satisfied if I could have a small cottage in his art village.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Austrian-American scholar Dr. Joseph Rock came to Lijiang on a journey of exploration. Attracted by the beautiful scenery and unique culture of Lijiang, he lived there for 27 years. From 1922 to 1935, he published a series of articles and a great number of photographs in National Geographic to let the world know about China's Lijiang, hidden in a deep mountain valley in northwestern Yunnan.

It was from the articles by Joseph Rock that the British writer James Hilton gathered inspiration for his best-selling novel, Lost Horizon. Since then, the beautiful story of Shangri-La, the snowcapped paradise, has spread across the world. The site for Bunong's art village is located in the town of Baisha where Joseph Rock lived during his stay in China, and many of the items he used are preserved in his old home in Lijiang.

Bunong is a man with a strong love of adventure. In 1995, he set out for a trip from Lijiang to Tibet along an ancient route. Traveling alone, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, he spent more than three months on his 1,900-kilometer trip, crossing over one mountain after another. He painted the Lancang River and the snowcapped Meili Mountain on two pieces of wood and wore one around his neck and hung the other, with bells, around the neck of his horse as a talisman.

On his way to Tibet, he was blessed by nine living Buddhas. Later he used a precious wood produced in the Hengduan Mountains to make Bunong bells. The bells are considered signs of good luck and are available in scores of countries across the world. The attic of the bell shop doubles as the owner's office and study. Tourists are allowed to read what they like there and even try their hand at his ancient zither.

One evening, after he gave some Bunong bells as birthday gifts to film director Gao Wei, Bunong pulled me aside and told me that the actress Gong Li was in his shop. It was seven years since I had seen her, so I went there, but she had already left, with three Bunong bells.

A few days later, I learned from the newspaper that she met with a car accident on her way from Lijiang to Kunming but emerged unscathed. Did the bells really work a miracle? I was told that Bunong had presented a couple of bells to Tung Chee Hwa, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and his wife. One of the bells was hung in Tung's office and the other in their home. I have also received a bell from Bunong and have hung it in my darkroom.

There are many stories about Lijiang. Many people visit it more than once every year, but they cannot explain why. They just say they have an urge to see it.

I drove twice from Lijiang to Kunming along the highway that twists and turns in high mountains wrapped in mist and clouds. The traffic was busy, the visibility was bad, and we had to travel almost bumper to bumper with the emergency lights on. It seemed difficult to get in and out of Lijiang.

I was told that to better understand Lijiang, one must keep calm and that one's visit would hardly be complete without a trip to the foot of the snowcapped Yulong Mountain to see the peaceful and idyllic life of the people who live there.

When I was in Lijiang, Bunong advised me to take photographs of old people in rural areas. According to him, they like to sit by their cropland watching the white clouds floating in the blue sky over the plateau. From the expression in their eyes, one can tell that they are free of a calculating mentality and material desires. Their eyes are clean and innocent, and most probably I will never find such eyes in the future. I love Lijiang, but I love its rural areas, my Shangri-La, even more.