City in a Glance
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.