Lijiang in the Yunnan Province of China boasts a beautiful and incredibly atmospheric old town and stunning mountain scenery on the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. This combination draws millions of domestic tourists who clog the tiny alleys of the old town during high season and cause hour-long queues for cable cars up the mountain.
There seems to be a running debate among backpackers: is Lijiang a great alternative to the horribly touristy Dali located further to the south? Or is Dali the town that has retained its charm, while Lijiang deserves to be skipped? I liked them both, but it helps if you view them as an opportunity to observe the new Chinese middle-class on vacation (truly a unique and shocking experience that needs to be seen to be believed), not a visit to an ancient town. Besides, Lijiang is a jumping off point for the wonderful Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek, which virtually no Chinese tourist has any interest in doing and is worth the trip all on its own.
Best Time to Go
A low latitude and a high elevation give Lijiang a very temperate climate, with short, mild and dry winters and warm, rainy summers. The weather is never all that unpleasant here, but the best times are just before and just after the rainy season, which runs from June to September.
Getting to Lijiang
Lijiang’s airport is located about 35 minutes from the city and handles mainly flights from Kunming, Chengdu and Chongqing, but also has some flights from all major cities in China as well as a few international ones. A taxi downtown will cost up to 100 Yuan, while the airport bus costs 15. It will drop you off at the Blue Skies Hotel about one kilometer from the Old Town.
Trains from Kunming and Dali arrive at the Lijiang Railway Station 7 kilometers south of the Old Town. Taxis from the station will try to overcharge quite a bit; aim for a price of 15-20 Yuan if you can. Take the public bus to avoid the hassle.
The bus station is located just south of the old town and serves mainly buses from Kunming, Dali, Shangrila and Deqin, as well as a direct bus from Chengdu. To get to the old town, take bus #8 or try your luck with a taxi.
You’ll have to walk around the tiny alleys of the old town. For the rest of Lijiang, I’d recommend the public buses or minibuses, but taxis are relatively cheap too, if you can find one that will use the meter.
Lijiang has a ridiculous amount of options when it comes to accommodation. Most people will want to stay in the Old Town, since it is by far the most pleasant area of the city and the budget hostels there generally offer the best value for your money as a western tourist. Chinese hotels can make a nice alternative though and you can find some great bargains, especially in the low season.
I went to Lijiang during the high season (July) and ended up walking around the Old Town for several hours in search of a bed, so it might not be a bad idea to book ahead. That said, I would have easily been able to find a room, had I tried outside the Old Town.
I ended up staying at Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse and can definitely recommend it. The owner may be a bit crazy, but her communal dinners taste great and are one of the best values I found in China. The hostel is nice, too and the room prices are low.
Another one to try is the Timeless Hostel. I would have preferred it slightly over Mama Naxi’s, but it was full when I was there.
If you prefer to get out of the incredibly crowded Old Town, the Panba Lakeside Lodge is perhaps the nicest hostel in town and is located in a much less hectic area. Personally, I prefer to be in the middle of the action, though.
For hotels, try the Lijiang page on Agoda. Their excellent accommodation map can be a great help even if, like me, you prefer not to book a room in advance.
Eating & Drinking
The nightlife in Lijiang is very Chinese for the most part (read: pretty unbearable for most non-Chinese), but there are a handful of western bars scattered around.
The Old Town is much too touristy to get anything to eat on a budget, so you’ll have to leave the area to save. If you do eat in the Old Town area, you’ll generally get more for your money at the western restaurants, but the best values are the communal meals offered at some of the hostels (like Mama Naxi’s). Outside the Old Town, you’ll find the standard assortment of cheap little restaurants and some street food.
As a major tourist destination, Lijiang has its share of pickpockets and petty thieves, but the biggest dangers to tourists are the streets themselves. The cobblestones in the Old Town have tripped up many a tourist, especially in the dark after a few drinks. When it rains, they additionally get incredibly slippery and with open canals everywhere, the alleys can turn into little obstacle courses.
Things to Do
- Old Town: this is the reason most people come to Lijiang and it’s beautiful and atmospheric; it’s also incredibly crowded, but you can have it nearly to yourself if you get up early enough
- Mu Palace: a large complex that offers good views over the rooftops of Lijiang Old Town (I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures); entry fee is ¥60
- Jade Dragon Snow Mountain: beautiful and incredibly crowded mountain 25km from Lijiang; you can rent mules (from ¥180 depending on what elevation you want to go to) or take a cable car; it gets cold on the mountain, even in summer, so bring a coat; if you don’t have one, you can rent a coat, but it’s kind of a rip off; I went in a t-shirt on a cold, rainy day and while I was far from warm, I didn’t freeze to death either—you can read about that here: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain: Choose the Correct Chairlift or Suffer; definitely don’t bother renting an oxygen bottle; the cheapest way to get there is bus number 7, which leaves Lijiang across from the Mao Zedong statue and costs 10 RMB; entrance to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is ¥190 (part of that is the Lijiang Old City Protection Fee, which you may have already paid—hope you kept the receipt); you can visit several areas of the mountain:
- Dry Sea Meadow: the closest chair lift to Lijiang; a large meadow located at 3050 meters; this one gets crowded and you may wait several hours for the lift; I wouldn’t bother; ¥160 return
- Glacier Park: the most popular area with incredibly long waits for the cable car; you may need oxygen here, as you’ll go past 4500m (buy it in Lijiang to save a lot), but you’ll probably be fine without it; I’d avoid this area, unless you really want to see a glacier—it’s much too crowded and overpriced; ¥172 return
- Cloud Fir Meadow: much less crowded than the previous two, but also pretty unspectacular; not even close to being worth it in my opinion; ¥110 return for the cable car plus another ¥50 for a vehicle to the meadow
- Yak Meadow: the furthest from Lijiang and by far the least popular; I have no idea why, as it’s the cheapest and you won’t have to wait at all; not much to do at the top, but you can hike around, the meadow is beautiful and you’ll come away with hundreds of yak photos; there’s a Tibetan temple up there too; ¥60 for a round-trip
- Naxi Villages: to visit villages surrounding Lijiang, you can hike, rent a bike, take a minivan from Shangrila Road (should only be a few yuan, but the driver will almost certainly try to rip you off) or hire a private van for ¥100-300
- Tiger Leaping Gorge: probably the most famous trek in China and well worth the effort
- Shuhe: an old town that many prefer to Lijiang, as it is much less commercialized; take bus #5 from Lijiang Old Town; homestays in town for under 100 Yuan with some bargaining
- Black Dragon Pool: the view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain over the pool with the bridge is one of China’s most famous views and the one photo every single Chinese tourist has to get while in Lijiang; apparently the pool is now empty, but that will likely change; ask your hotel staff before you go
Money Saving Tips
- take the shuttle bus from the airport
- take the public buses and minivans to get around and avoid the taxis
- don’t eat in the Old Town, unless it’s one of the communal meals at a hostel, as they are generally good deals; other than that, the second you leave the Old Town, prices drop considerably
- don’t take the overpriced cable cars to the more popular meadows
- if you buy anything in the Old Town, bargain very hard; almost everything you can buy there can be found in the newer parts of Lijiang at a much lower cost