My friend Caroline once told me I was ‘the worst tourist’. It was the early 2000’s and I was visiting her in Melbourne, we had taken a trip to the Twelve Apostles about a 4hr drive away. When we arrived we got out the car, I took some photos and we got back in the car and drove back. For me it was simple; I had seen what I wanted to and didn’t feel the need to stay longer. I was a ‘drive by tourist’ fitting as much in as possible and taking photos as evidence to show I had been. Recently, when we told a friend we were going to Lijiang for 6 days they were shocked ‘What on earth are you going to do in Lijiang for 6 days?’. But I have changed. Now when I plan trips I like to spend longer in once place rather than rush about. I am very lucky; I get a lot of holidays and have the luxury of taking my time getting to know a place. I think I am a ‘better’ tourist now than I was 20 yrs ago. I am absolutely not the person who gets up, has breakfast and wanders around at dawn (unless I have jet lag) and returns to the hotel 12hrs later. Nor am I the person that crams as many sites as possible. My holiday planning is based around a sleep in, a couple of cups of tea, a wander around, a long lunch, afternoon nap, dinner then more wandering. So, if you are looking for a packed full itinerary of what to do in Lijiang you may want to stop reading now, this blog post is mostly based on us eating, drinking, getting lost and seeing the main sites Lijiang has to offer.
I love travelling around China by train but unfortunately there is no direct train from Shenzhen to Lijiang. I hate flying but this time we didn’t have that much choice, so we flew with China Southern from Shenzhen to Lijiang which took about 2hr 15min. The scenery on the flight was amazing, we flew West along the coast before heading North. Lijiang airport is pretty small and even with the extra Covid paperwork we were through arrivals within 30 min of landing. We then took a taxi to our hotel in the old town which, using the toll road, took about 30 min too and cost 120 RMB. The taxis at the airport are regulated with a supervisor making a note of the license plate, destination and ensuring the meter is on. You can opt for the non toll road ( we did this on the return journey) this takes about 10 min longer but is also 40 RMB cheaper!
After lots of research we decided to stay at Zen Garden Hotel in the old town. I made the reservation via Booking because I wanted the assurance of it being fully refundable but it may be more cost effective to book directly. As soon as I booked the hotel they added me on WeChat and communicated with me about how to get to the hotel, our expected arrival time and if we had any special requirements. When we landed they also came and met us at the gate of the old town to help us with our luggage as the old town does not allow vehicles. The location is only a 2 min walk from the gate and is set high up with amazing views across the city. Due to its location there are a number of steps to get to the hotel so if you have mobility issues it might not be suitable but for us it helped with some daily exercise!!
Our room was absolutely beautiful. The decor was very authentic and suited to the atmosphere and style of the ancient town. We had an incredible view across the rooftops and it was spotlessly clean and spacious. I would definitely recommend this hotel – the staff were very friendly and helpful, the breakfast was good and they also assisted us in finding a driver to take us to Tiger Leaping Gorge.
I won’t list everywhere we ate but I will give you some highlights!
Our favourite meal was at A Ma Yi Naxi Snacks a traditional restaurant serving local specialities and very reasonable prices. We ate here a couple of times
V Sherry is also serves local food but I felt it was a little more touristy, the food was delicious and the service was good.
N’s Kitchen is a more western restaurant with nice views across the grass market. The local goats cheese with honey was delicious as was the local beer. They also offer guides, trips and drivers here too so it is a bit like a tourist information while you eat and drink!
Stone the Crows is a western bar which had amazing local style fries (be prepared for heat) decent pizza, good whiskey and an impressive playlist.
The Cornerhouse in the new town had good mexican food – especially the quesadillas – and friendly service.
For street food we loved the ice cream blocks with meringue which are heated in front of you with a blow torch. Lijiang is also famous for the flower pastries. Far too sweet for me, Greg said they were similar to Arabic desserts due to the rose flavour. There are also lots of shops selling yak meat, donkey and huge legs of ham. Don’t be tempted by the pretty looking ice lollies though, they are absolutely tasteless!!
For those looking for more familiar chain restaurants there is a McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks.
The old town is just picture perfect and a fabulous place just to wander around. The small waterways and bridges criss cross the town and there are lots of smaller streets to discover if you leave the main areas and escape the crowds. The old town is fairly small so you could definitely spend most of the day exploring. The architecture is charming and we decided it was a bit like Venice and Bruges in China! There are not a huge range of shops here -it does get pretty repetitive but most shops are selling cured meat, cheese, juices, jewellry, tea, shoes and scarves.
Mu’s Mansion is one of the main attractions in the old town and is easy to find (the town is well signposted). We spent about 2 hrs at the palace and then climbing to the top of Lion Rock to get a good vantage point. At times it was pretty hard going due to the altitude but it is manageable with a couple of breaks. Initially you pay for the palace then you can choose to pay more to go up to Lion Rock.
The one day it rained heavily we stayed local and visited Black Dragon Pool. It is very easy to walk there from the old town and even though the views weren’t great because of the low cloud it was still pretty to wander around for an hour.
Our main trip was to Tiger Leaping Gorge, a place I have wanted to go to for ages. I researched guided tours on line but I thought they were very expensive. Most private tours were about 2000 RMB each and involved the journey from Lijiang to the gorge with a stop at the first bend of the Yangtze River, lunch, a driver and guide. Personally I did not want a guide as I felt it would be a straightforward trip and we did not want to spend a whole day there. I asked our hotel for a driver and they said it would be 800 RMB for a driver to take us there, wait and bring us back. This is what we ended up doing. The driver picked us up at the gate near our hotel and drove us the 90min to the Gorge.
He waited whilst we bought our tickets then drove us to the entrance where he waited while we made our descent. There are no words to describe how impressive it is. The heavy rains the day before meant it was flowing at full force and it was absolutely mesmerising. Seeing the force of the water is also terrifying, it made me quite nauseous. Unless you really want to learn in detail about TLG I do not think you need a guide. There is information everywhere and it is very easy to navigate. You walk down 500 steps (you can pay for the elevator if you want), follow the path along the gorge and then at the end you can walk back up or pay 50 RMB each for the escalator up – you can guess which we did!! We spent about 2 hrs here before heading back to Lijiang.
Unfortunately due to the ‘special time’ in which we were visiting (Covid) we found ourselves ending our trip 1 day early. As we were travelling from Shenzhen where there had been some local outbreaks, we were hearing about people being collected from hotels and put into local quarantine. We did not want to take this risk so, despite us both having 2 vaccinations, a valid negative test result and green codes, we chose to go back to Shenzhen and not push our luck. Sadly this meant we did not get to Dragon Snow Mountain which was our final activity we had planned. However, I am so happy that we made it to Lijiang for a few days, it is such a lovely place to explore and very relaxing. Despite our one day of rain the weather was so much nicer there, a lot cooler and less humid than Shenzhen. The people were very welcoming and we loved finding out about Naxi culture. I really recommend it as a place to visit!