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Lost in Time in Lijiang

The charms of an ancient town in China

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Text and images by
Joshua Berida

My trip to China came at an inopportune time it was at the height of the ruling in favor of the Philippines regarding the West Philippine Sea. I didn’t realize the bad timing because I booked the plane tickets several months before. I had doubts leading up to the date of my flight, but I thought that it was just like many of my other trips where uncertainty was almost always the only certainty.

Old town of Lijiang

Old town of Lijiang

Time Traveling in Lijiang

After a few days in Kunming, the biggest city in Yunnan, I was looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. The first destination that came to mind was the UNESCO-listed old town in Lijiang.

The journey to the town took a couple of hours, the bus drove through labyrinthine roads that zigzagged and pierced through the verdant, rolling hills. The landscaped changed from flat farmlands as far as the eyes could see, towering trees, with spots of traditional houses along the way. As we approached the city, concrete replaced wood, and familiar establishments and commercial centers took the place of the idyllic countryside.

The city traces its history to as far back as the Warring States Period from 476 BC to 221 BC. It reached its economic apex with the construction of the Ancient Tea-Horse Route that linked Tibet, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces commercially and culturally during the Tang Dynasty. I saw remnants of this prominence in the preservation of the city’s Old Town, which paralleled the developments that took place in modern times.

Longshen temple

Longshen temple

The hustle and bustle of the shop and restaurant vendors within the ancient town mirrored those that took place outside of it. I heard the shop owners and their assistants calling out to passersby, as they walked along the cobbled and narrow streets. I felt lost in time as I walked by the well-maintained houses and shops made of wood and concrete. The old homes mingled with small eateries that served fried noodles, chicken, and beef, and local delicacies to weary tourists.

Despite the crowds, I found some charming alleys and corners where the odd local sat in a corner smoking or drinking a cold beer, or pulling a rickshaw that carried goods. These slow moments contrasted with the blur of tourists zipping to and fro, trying to catch a glimpse of history with their iPhones.

As night arrived, blue hour turned the clear skies to a darker shade while the soft light of lanterns illuminated the alleys and narrow streets. In some parts of town, lights brightened the shops, bridges and inns, in different hues of red, orange, and white. The idyllic town turned into something like a bustling and vibrant city with almost every corner filled with people entering restaurants, bars, and dance clubs that opened for the night.

Is this how it’s supposed to be? I asked myself of the mass commercialization. Then a thought crossed my mind, centuries ago merchants, ordinary citizens, peasants, and probably some government officials came and went with their wares, staying at the inns, rendezvous with an amorous intent, restaurants with liquor pouring all night were likely a norm, too. They crossed, entered, and left the Tea-Horse Route looking for a better life, for trade or simply passing by.

Heilongton Pool or Black Dragon PoolHeilongton Pool or Black Dragon Pool

Heilongton Pool or Black Dragon Pool

Black Dragon Pool Park

The Heilongtan Pool or Black Dragon Pool, which is just as culturally and historically significant as the old town, is an ideal place to unwind after a day of exploring. The 40-hectare park teems with flora and fauna; on a clear day, one may catch a glimpse of the snow-capped peak of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Even on a cloudy day, however, the mirror-like waters reflected the surrounding landscape.

The centerpiece of the park is Longshen Temple; ‘Longshen’ is a Dragon God in Chinese mythology. Built in 1737 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, it has a great hall and a gatehouse with two wings.

Jade dragon snow mountain

Jade dragon snow mountain

Voyage to the Blue Moon Valley

Lijiang’s charm may keep you in town for a few extra days, but its proximity to the mountains makes it a gateway to Blue Moon Valley, which is inside the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain scenic area.

It got its name because of the blue river that passes through the verdant valet of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. When viewed from a distance, it looks like a crescent moon at the base of the towering peaks.

I didn’t have enough time or the right clothes to hike up the trails, but the flatness of the pathways made it easy to trek along the scenic area. The glass-like waters of some of the ponds bear the reflection of the surrounding mountain range or the low, verdant hills around it. The White Water Terrace located upstream resembles fan-shaped stairs with the river running down it.

The Blue Moon Valley isn’t just popular to the outdoorsy; it’s also the ideal destination for lovers shooting their wedding photos. It comes as no surprise because of the intimate setting. With the snowcapped mountains and the river passing through serving as a background, the allure of nature creates an atmosphere of love.

The charming and idyllic old town of Lijiang is a meeting point between past and present. The hustle and bustle of the city outside of it mirrors the vibrancy and busyness inside. Black Dragon Pool Park has a serene atmosphere where one can enjoy nature and get a marvelous panorama of the mountains in the distance. A trip to Blue Moon Valley is an outdoorsy adventurer’s dream with the verdant hills, glass-like and blue-tinged waters, and the view of the cloud-veiled or snowcapped peaks. All of these make a visit to this part of China worth the adventure.

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