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June 23, 2019

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Black Dragon, Snow Mountain

SET on a plateau at more than 2,400 meters above sea level in southwest China, Lijiang Old Town is one of the most beautiful ancient towns in China, with its unique architectural style.

The charm revolves around diverse cultures and the ingenious architecture of the picturesque town north of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province — one of China’s most ethnically and geographically diverse provinces. Its authentic townscape has earned a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1997. Its cobblestone alleys and stone-arch bridges share the Old Town with dozens of fast-running streams.

The town’s architectural style is a perfect combination of ethnic groups of Han, Bai, Yi and Naxi. Unlike many Chinese ancient towns that comply with the traditional layout rules of “nine” — often built in an area of nine square kilometers, nine main streets from south to north and another nine from east to west, Lijiang Old town was built in a more free, casual way.

Without well-organized roads or a fortified city wall, the old town was in the green arms of three mountains nearby and linked with crisscrossing narrow, quiet streets, traversed by three major canals that give birth to multiple rivers, streams, ponds and pools.

Bridges makes the town’s traffic convenient. There are more than 350 bridges in varied architectural styles, which means every square kilometer has about 90 bridges, mostly built between the 14th and 19th centuries.

Sleepy canals may add to the town’s picture-perfect look, but they are part of a complicated water network, supplying the town with water from Black Dragon Pool, fuelled by many mountain springs on the town’s outskirts.

Northwest of the town and overlooking the still waters of Black Dragon Pool is the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. At 4,000 meters, its peaks are covered by snow year-round.

The waters from melting glaciers irrigates surrounding fields and serve as a water source. Other mountains near the town are also well preserved, including Lion Mountain in the west and the Elephant and Golden Row mountains in the north.

The town was built around 800 years ago, during the late Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). It was the earliest settlement of the Naxi ethnic minority, with the Mu clan as their chief.

An intriguing fact is that the town has no fortified city walls, a rare feature in China’s ancient cities.

When the Chinese character mu has an outer frame, it is transformed to another character kun, which means “besiege.”

The Mu clan was afraid that being surrounded by a city wall meant the village was under siege.

To avoid such a predicament, building city walls became forbidden in Lijiang Old Town.

The houses, mostly built by bricks and wood, mixed the architectural elements of central China, Bai and Tibetan ethnic groups with soil-and-stone walls, overlapping roof and green tiles.

The most basic architectural style is the “three fang and one screen.” Fang means a soil-and-wood building in the Yunnan dialect. The highest building, facing the south with a stone screen in front, is normally for the elders in a Lijiang family, while two lower houses in the east and west are for younger generations. The courtyard, paved with cobblestones and decorated with flowers, functions as an activity center.

The only known hieroglyphic writing system still in existence is also found in this old town. The Dongba script is the written language of the Naxi people. With more than 1,300 pictographic characters, it records the history and culture of the Naxi people.

The town may have been first inhabited by the Naxi people, yet it is home to a myriad of other cultures. Since the 12th century, it has been a vital commercial hub between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Cultural exchange between ethnic groups such as the Naxi, Han, Tibetan and Bai was common. This led to a cultural blend visible in everything from the architecture and landscape to the customs and arts in town.

The Square Street is the town’s busiest thoroughfare. With four main streets that divert into different directions, it connects to every corner of the town. The central Square Street resembles the crowded bazaar of an ancient town, with buildings in the Ming and Qing (1368-1911) styles.

Visitors can also visit the town’s various natural and cultural attractions. The Mu’s Residence is worth a visit for its architectural heritage in Naxi, Bai, Tibetan and Han styles. It is also the former mansion of the Mu clan and was rebuilt after an earthquake. For breathtaking scenery, visit Black Dragon Pool Park for clear spring waters and ancient monuments such as the Longshen Temple and the Deyue Pavilion.

In the heart of the town, Lion Hill Park provides panoramic views of the area. The hill massif resembles a lion, thus its name. At the top of the hill is the Wangu Tower, with views of Lijiang Old Town on the east and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the north.

No admission fee is charged at Lijiang Old Town, but tourists are expected to pay 80 yuan (US$11.66 ) as maintenance fee.


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