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THE WANDER YEAR

Effortlessly Enjoying Local Color Amid the Canals and Cobblestones of Lijiang

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 21: CHINA / A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

July 02, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

LIJIANG, China — We didn't do much last week. Didn't need to. We were in Lijiang.

This is an effortless travel destination. You needn't seek out activities, performances and events to enjoy the place. Its character and culture are on display every day in the streets, a living museum. All you need do is show up.

The old town of Lijiang, the nucleus of a modern city of the same name, looks much as it did when it was settled 800 years ago, during the transition between the Song and Yuan dynasties. It is the base for China's colorful Naxi (pronounced nah-shee) minority, descendants of Tibetan nomads, who constitute most of the old town's 40,000 residents. Their home is a marvelous maze of cobblestone streets, narrow canals and weathered wooden buildings.

Lijiang lies in a green valley 7,900 feet above sea level, in the upper reaches of Yunnan province, near the Tibetan border. The region enjoys spring-like conditions most of the year.

This was our last stop on a three-week tour of southwest China, which also included visits to Kunming, the provincial capital, and Dali, home of the Bai minority. Of all the countries Andrea and I have passed through on this journey, China has held the most surprises. Its stunning scenery, outstanding cuisine and warm, helpful people far exceeded our expectations.

Our taxi from the Lijiang bus station stopped where pavement gives way to cobblestone. The only wheels allowed in the old town must belong to bicycles or carts. The twisting streets teemed with women dressed in traditional Naxi outfits of blue blouses and pants, worn under vibrant aprons. Old men in blue caps puffed on pipes. Cats dozed in doorways.

The red wooden dwellings are so uniform--each topped with gray ornamental tiles and a crown line with upturned ends--it's hard to tell those built centuries ago from those built last year. Typically, three generations live in a complex of one main house and two side houses, or in one large structure set around a courtyard.

The architecture owes a lot to nearby cultures. The Naxi borrowed tile and brick making from the Han, China's dominant ethnic group; woodcarving designs from the Bai; and wall painting styles from the Tibetans.

The hybrid structures have served the Naxi well. On Feb. 3, 1996, the area was hit by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. It killed 309 people and devastated the new part of the city, but most of old town Lijiang was still standing.

Lijiang boasts an ingenious and intricate water system. Glacial runoff from Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, an 18,000-foot peak 20 miles north, reaches Lijiang via the Yu-He River. As the river approaches the city, it splits into three streams, which are diverted into 10 canals that wend through the old town.

The canals, lined by willow trees and potted marigolds, flow by every home, providing residents with water and a place to do laundry, wash dishes and rinse vegetables. Houses, shops and restaurants are accessed by tiny stone or wood bridges, under which floats the occasional youth on a tire tube.

Such a tranquil and harmonious setting naturally draws visitors. Lijiang is especially popular with domestic tourists, although new cafes specializing in banana pancakes and Bob Marley tunes point to an influx of Westerners. Tourism and outside influences are changing the social fabric. Some Naxi, seduced by high rents offered by Han entrepreneurs, have leased their homes and moved out.

Still, Lijiang is one of the more authentic spots we've visited. This is a place where it's actually fun to get lost. One night an aimless stroll led us to the patio of Mama Fu's Restaurant. The manager sat with us, patiently making recommendations in broken English.

We settled on the sweet-and-sour fish. The chef soon emerged from the kitchen, waded into the canal and wrangled a live fish from a cage submerged in the clear, rushing water. Moments later, the cooked fish was presented to us on a platter. I don't know if it was the best I ever tasted, but it had to be the freshest.

Considering its age, Lijiang seems a youthful town. Children are given the run of the streets, where they kick soccer balls and play badminton. On our last night, a girl of about 3 handed Andrea a balloon, instructing her to hold it by the string. The little girl laughed with glee as she repeatedly batted the balloon with her hand. All Andrea had to do was stand there like a tetherball pole.

As I said, Lijiang demands little of the visitor.

*

NEXT WEEK: A three-hour massage in Ko Samui, Thailand.

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/travel/wander.

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