Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lijiang - through Simon Winchester's eyes

We were in the delightful town of Lijiang recently, and only when I was there did I recall that a writer I admire, Simon Winchester, had passed through the town a decade or so ago and had written about it in his book, The River At The Center Of the World. Once I returned to Chicago, I went back to the library to see what he'd written. Here's what I found:

The town of Lijiang is one of western China's true gems — one of the very few way stations in the Middle Kingdom on what, archaically perhaps, still known as the Hippie Trail. Youngsters from around the world come to Lijiang, en route between the equally delightful towns of Dali and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan and Yang- shuo in Guangxi province. They are on a circuit — the same people who visit the back streets of Chiang Mai, Kathmandu and Lhasa, or Panajachel, Goa and Trivandrum, end up with equal enthusiasm and curiosity and camaraderie in towns like Lijiang. No matter what regime is in power, nor what rules are in force, there is a universality in the appeal of such places — laid-back, easygoing, with colorful people and cheap and wholesome food. In the normal and depressing order of business, the youngsters come to such a place first as rucksack-carrying pioneers and discoverers; the tour buses come next; and then the airports and the big hotels.

Lijiang is currently poised delicately between the first two phases of this evolution — the youngsters are still making it here, but on buses as well as by hitchhiking (1 picked up two young Israelis, taking six months off from their kibbutz, and they were typical of the breed); and the hotel lobbies have notices offering the day’s program to the tour groups of Dutch and Belgians who have found out about the local delights. No groups of Americans or Japanese, nor of Chinese "compatriots" from Taiwan and Hong Kong, not yet; no airport yet, either, though one was due to open, imminently); and no Holiday Inns or other chains, although I met an unpleasant Frenchwoman who had plans for a Sofitel, once the airfield opened. The developers are eyeing Lijiang, greedily and warily at the same time.

Of course, that was 12 years ago. Yes, the airport is there now. There is KFC, right outside the old town, and judging by the crowds, it is very popular with the Chinese teenagers. Lijiang's Old Town had the feel of completeness to it (which we didn't find in Dali.) So it looks like the developers that Simon bemoans have come, done their work and left.


  1. The developers have moved on to Zhongdian - or Shangri-la - and the old town is now going through its rebuilding stage.

    There's more info about this area, including Shigu where Simon went to at

  2. Keith,

    Yes, even in tourism development, there is a sort of a race going on -- in this case the desire to develop ever newer and more remote places.

    We seriously considered going to Shangri-La and the Tiger Leaping gorge, but had to give it up due to time constraints. We enjoyed an extra day in Lijiang instead.