China has a history that spans some 5000 years and thus has no lack of historical sites across its terra. The UNESCO Heritage city of Lijiang is historic to say the least, but in more ways than one might expect. C T reports.
Trade between ancient empires has cradled a plethora of distinctive cultures along its routes, with many surviving into the modern era. The Tea Horse Road was one such path, long trodden by the traders of yore bringing tea and salt from modern day Yunnan and Szechuan to Bengal, Tibet and central China.Yunnan is a land of great cultural diversity with a rich and colourful history that stems from the many tribes anchored throughout the region. As it is with the footnotes of history, the fortunes of these ancient principalities were won and lost, some fading into oblivion whilst others evolved propitiously into the 21st century. Lijiang is one such example. The bastion of power of the Naxi tribe that rose to prominence from the Yuan epoch, Lijiang stood well against the tides of time, prospering during the Ming dynasty but neglected during the Qing before emerging intact from the tumultuous 20th century just to be completely razed by a monstrous earthquake in 1996. A true testament to the iron will and means of a rapidly modernising China, an exact replica of the roughly 750 year old town of Dayan was standing again in just 1 year, a piecemeal reconstruction that differed nary an inch from the original grids and paths of the ancient site. The gargantuan effort won the city an UNESCO Heritage status, and for decades it has featured prominently as China's heritage haven for tourists and investors alike. Without a commercial baptism it is highly unlikely any heritage sites can survive the rigours of our modern world and Lijiang, collectively the old towns of Dayan, Baisha and Shuhe, is ever brimming with entrepreneurs and inn-keepers flooding in to ring their tills, but scant on the finer concepts of hospitality.
When the human faces sufficiently spoil the welcome, the great natural terrains of the region are welcome respites. The majestic mountains and placid lakes mere hours away are ever so captivating and inviting. These are the same scenes that greeted the old horsemen plying their trades over monumental distances of time and space. Being there, even if just for the benefit of an instagram post, is legit gratification for any traveller.
Wasting no time to explore the Tea Horse Route turned out to be a rookie mistake, having paid almost three times what a pony ride through the hill over Lashi Lake normally costs. That aggravating experience etched into me an inherent distrust of local enterprises within the mainland, how more is better but only to their sole benefit. A good lesson it was, but an unfortunate mar on an experience that is otherwise fabulous. The scenes that were afforded from the vantage points of this path were other-worldly, and distinctly Lijiang.
Dayan City was the proverbial phoenix that rose from the ashes in barely a year after it was leveled in 1996. Almost every building in the remodeled city was raised 'just as it was', with the signs of time etched in for good measure. The results are truly breathtaking, but perhaps what these buildings had been reborn as - travel agents, provision shops, inns and restaurants, may not win the city the adoration it deserves. The best time to explore the city is at the crack of dawn when the gates opens, where the streets are devoid of tourists and businesses. An hour or so later and the experience will be utterly different.
Baisha Old Town dates back to the Tang dynasty, and is widely credited as the birthplace of Naxi culture. Surviving relics include the Buddhist murals of Dabaoji, a Ming Dynasty era temple complex housing 28 sets of these well preserved murals. Renowned for their superb artistry and preservation, there are reportedly 44 of these paintings in Baisha Old Town.
The Naxi folks, many of whom still dwell in the old town, are delightfully colourful people who are extremely proud of their culture and heritage. A walk through Dayan will throw up plenty of scenes like this picture where vivid wall murals and lush walled gardens point to a certain joie de la vivre amongst the tribe. Such details, and the architectural distinctions of the buildings, will have one spellbound for hours.
Many traditional artisans now ply their wares within the shops carved from the heritage buildings of Dayan City. A keen eye is required to suss out the good merchandise from mass produced knock-offs that flood the China market.
China had earlier announced that as of 28 March 2020, it would temporarily suspend the entry into China by foreign nationals holding valid visas or residence permits. Entry by foreign nationals with visas issued after this announcement will not be affected.
Story and Photographs - C T