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Introducing Lìjiāng

Lìjiāng’s maze of cobbled streets, rickety old wooden buildings and gushing canals makes it one of the most visited sites in northern Yúnnán. But its popularity has grown faster than its ability to absorb the microphone-toting tour groups. In peak visiting periods, frustrated locals share stories of 30-minute journeys just to move one kilometre through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.

While it’s true many of the Naxi stalls have made way for the souvenir stands of Han entrepreneurs and that some of the old town’s soul has gone with them, don’t worry too much about the locals. Many are making a fortune leasing their highly coveted property in historic Lìjiāng and have happily decamped to slick, modern apartments in the new town.

But don’t let the crowds – or any grumpy travellers you may meet on your way here – discourage a trip. Get up early and it will be just you, Lìjiāng and a handful of intrepid photographers. Just make sure you get the hell out of Dodge by 8.30am, when the tour group onslaught begins. There’s a number of interesting sights around Lìjiāng, some of which can be reached by bicycle, offering a week or more’s worth of excursions.

Apart from the writings of botanist-explorer Joseph Rock, another venerable work on Lìjiāng that’s worth reading if you can find it is the Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goulart. Goulart was a White Russian who studied Naxi culture and lived in Lìjiāng from 1940 to 1949.

Beyond the Clouds is an excellent nine-hour documentary about Lìjiāng, made in 1994 by Britain’s Channel 4, that is well worth seeking out.