Lijiang is an 800 year-old town with a richly storied past. It once served as an important hub on the Ancient Tea-Horse Trail, a trade route that linked Tibet, southwestern China, present-day Myanmar and the Indian Subcontinent. For nearly a millennium — even well into the 20th Century — traders traversed its 2200-kilometer network of roads and mountain passes bearing valuable commodities. They brought horses from the Tibetan plateau into Sichuan. Porters lugged twice their weight in tea from China up to Lhasa and down into Bengal. Mule caravans hauled salt to pretty much everywhere the roads would go. And it was through some of the most inhospitable territory in all of Asia. It was infamously lousy with bandits and subject to blizzards and torrential rainfall.
Today, those treacherous mountain passes are all but obsolete. And if it's a hub for anything it's herds of selfie-snapping tourists. Nowadays, Lijiang gets a bad rap. Naysayers will accuse it of careening toward wanton Disney-fication. There may be some truth to that. After all, it even has its own McDonald's and KFC branches now.
But at the heart of any tourist magnet is something worth seeing. So if you can get over the endless storefronts hawking the same bongo drums and bamboo bongs, Lijiang has plenty to offer for a long weekend. All you have to do is take a few wrong turns and get lost.
The city itself, at least the Old Town district, is irresistibly charming. Spring-fed canals crisscross cobblestoned streets under the shade of sweeping roofs. The local Naxi-style architecture, with its ornate gates and serene courtyards, is ubiquitous. It's as if Lost Heaven started multiplying and overtook an entire town. But unlike Lost Heaven, most of these buildings are still made with a traditional wooden frame and then filled out with brick and adobe.
There are copious opportunities to buy keepsakes. And yes, there's plenty of junk, but with a meticulous eye you can find plenty of gems. Silversmithing is a widespread craft here, and you'll see countless artisans plying their trade — pounding bowls, etching patterns on elegant silver bangles. Many of the locals hand-weave bright and intricate patterned textiles like scarves, too.
It's also a fun place for the gastronomically adventurous. If it's sensationalist eating you're into there are stalls everywhere frying up bugs and worms. The local cuisine goes deeper than this, though, with fried goat cheese, hot and sour hotpot and fried blood sausage, which I assure you is way better than it sounds.
At night, the throngs of tourists dissipate, and a surprisingly hip and young local crowd emerges to hit Lijiang's bar scene. Most watering holes here follow the same template: dim lights, live music, excessive quantities of beer. Most tables order it by the case. For a taste of where the locals go, try Yu Jian (遇见酒吧) at Yinyu Gang, near Zhenxing Gang (饮玉港，近振兴巷). Better yet, if you can find it, check out Maxituan (马戏团 ) , a cozy little upstairs lounge owned by a musician and rock music enthusiast. You'll find it at 86 Wu Yi Jie Wen Zhi Gang (五一街文治巷86号). Admittedly, neither will be terribly easy to find, maybe you'll just stumble upon them. Good luck!
Outside of Lijiang are plenty of outdoorsy activities that can be tackled with a day. Yulongxue Shan, or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is arguably the most popular. It's about 25 km outside of town. There are two ways you can ascend: by mule or by cable car. You can rent mules at nearby Baisha Village. You pay by how far up you go. The cable car is the more popular option. That's 170rmb round trip. Cold weather and limited layers made this an unappealing day trip on my visit. Still, plenty of people make the trip year round, provided the snowfall isn't too heavy.
Lower down the slopes of Yulongxue Shan at around 2500 hundred meters above sea level lies picturesque Lashihai, Lijiang County's largest lake. Like a lot of relatively untouched bodies of water in western China, Lashihai is the winter home for nearly 60 different kinds of migratory birds. Several of them, like the black stork, the black-necked crane and the whooper swan, are threatened species. So in 1998 the Chinese government declared the area a protected nature reserve.
A few outfits in the area offer horseback rides. It's supposed to be one of those "Lijiang" things you do. You know, the experiencing the former glory of the Ancient Tea-Horse Trail. Something tells me, however, that this ride isn't quite so glorious. It's about a 45-minute loop up the mountainside that stops at a Buddhist shrine on a pond. For more money you can spur off the main loop for a longer ride. The whole experience is tame but good fun nonetheless. When you live in Shanghai sometimes trees, fresh air and a clear blue sky are enough of an escape.
Once you dismount you can head to the shores Lashihai where you can take a boat ride on the lake. It's little more than quick venture to the end of the cove — just far enough for a few photo opps and to float by a guy in a canoe roasting freshly caught fish. Oh what coincidence! They happen to be for sale, too! They're tasty enough for five or 10 kuai. Grab one; snack on it as the boatman paddles you back. There are certainly worse ways to kill 15 minutes.