Old Town of Lijiang (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
While it is certainly striking to see the level of tourism development and the ubiquitous souvenir shops and bars, there is still a unique charm to the Old Town of Lijiang and a certain elegance that can be felt while wandering through the maze-like side streets. Characterized by a complex mix of waterways, bridges and winding streets, the city dates back 800 years and its architecture remains largely unchanged, save for the plumbing. However, its designation as a World Heritage Site has had the undesired effect of forcing many of the local residents to move out in favor of tourist shops, as the rent became increasingly unaffordable.
In addition to visiting the Old Town market place, a short walk can lead visitors to the Black Dragon Pool, which offers a magnificent view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towering above the landscape in the distance. Another short hike can take you to the Bell Tower, which offers panoramic views of the Old Town and surrounding area.
Lijiang is found on the itinerary of almost every traveler who makes his way through Yunnan, not only for the must-see features listed above, but because it is an ideal launching point for Tiger Leaping Gorge, Lugu Lake and Shangri-La.
Originally founded in the 17th Century, the Songzanlin Monastery is one of the largest “Yellow Hat” monasteries outside of Tibet. It is still an active monastery both for worship and education, and while it once housed over 1000 monks, the number today is currently much lower with many only congregating on holidays. Like many religious structures, the monastery was a target for the People’s Liberation Army and was bombed in 1959 during their invasion of Tibet. However a thorough restoration was performed in the 1980’s and all of the structures are intact today.
Shibao Mountain Grottoes
Shibao Mountain rises above the Shaxi valley in central Yunnan, an important destination on the old teahorse trade route. Near the top of the mountain there are three temple structures that date back to the Nanzhao Kingdom of the 9th Century, which include elaborate and detailed Bai stone carvings of the bodhisattva Guanyin and other Buddhist images. These highly detailed and well-preserved structures offer insight into the life and culture of the people at the time. Getting to the grottoes entails a short hike through a dense forest that is also a nature reserve for monkeys.