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677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   

Split personality

There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan. Stephen Mansfield pays the province a visit, examining the best and the worst of the same world.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain makes a superb backdrop to old Lijiang

While New Lijiang dates from the 1930s, the old city, a large, sprawling quarter of winding stone streets, tiled and lacquered houses, and clear, shallow canals, has a history that spans more than 800 years. Here in the shadow of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, among the cobblestone lanes, canals of melted snow and quaint, tumbledown Tibetan architecture, a number of ethnic nationalities-including the mainstream Han Chinese, the Bai people and settlers from nearby Tibet, Pumi, Lisu and Yi-have come together to create an important cultural crossroads.

Lijiang, however, is best known as the home of the Naxi people and their ancient culture. The Naxi are some of the few non-Chinese to have their own form of writing, a rebus-pictographic script known as dongba wen-colorful, animation-like scrolls that represent natural phenomena, deities and infernal creatures. The dongba scripts contain unmistakable references to Mount Kailas and Lake Manasarowar, including descriptions of pitching tents in alpine meadows and the business of tending to yaks.

The herbalist Dr Ho, a well-known local figure

The new town, with its uninspiring, Han-Soviet-style utility buildings and more recent air of commerce, dates from the 1950s with an overlay of contemporary white-tiled hotels and their ubiquitous blue vinyl windows and flashy touches of chrome. The bus garages, larger shops and the post office are located here.

Three-kilometer-long Xin Dajie is the main north-south street, running towards Black Dragon Pool. Mao Square, with a couple of lackluster cafes and some cheesy accommodation, is here.
The division between these two counter-worlds is, in fact, a very clear one: the ridge of Lion Hill with its large radio antenna. Roughly speaking, the development west of the ridge belongs to the new town, the eastern section to the old. In some ways, Lijiang's two parallel cities complement each other. The modernizers are allocated an area to despoil and vulgarize, while the old town goes its own way.


Lay of the land
Topographically, Lijiang lies close to the southeastern section of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, astride the transversely faulted Hngduan Mountains, which stretch into the Central Yunnan Plateau. The disadvantage of living above these shifting geological plates was felt in February 1996 when a major earthquake (registering higher than 7 on the Richter scale) hit an area 60km north of Lijiang, killing over 300 people and injuring another 16,000. Although some buildings collapsed in the old town, many survived-enough, in fact, to convince the United Nations to place Lijiang County on its list of World Heritage Sites.

The cultural geography of Lijiang would be very different without the presence of water. Nurtured by streams issuing from the Jade Dragon River, the Naxi people of Lijiang owe a lot to the gurgling brooks and waterways that run past their homes, subdividing and merging into streams and canals as they exit the town to irrigate the region's lush farmland. Flowing from Black Dragon Pool, the river splits into three branches before forming the dozens of interweaving channels the town is noted for. In the old days Lijiang's marketplace, Sifang Square, a slightly inclining expanse of stone paving, received a dousing of water at the end of each market day.


Music, mountains and old medicine
Apart from the prospect of a drunken evening of karaoke in the new town or at one of the sleazier hostess bars or discos that have opened to cater for the growing number of Han Chinese living and working there, Lijiang's nightlife might be considered rather tame. However, one of the most rewarding ways to spend an evening is to attend a performance by the Naxi Orchestra, held nightly in an old hall opposite Ma Ma Fu's Cafe in the old town. The last few years have seen an incredible resurgence in traditional music, a legacy preserved by the Naxi since Kublai Khan's invasion of Lijiang in the 13th century. Four or five orchestras have recently regrouped, including an ensemble of village elders who perform Baisha Xiyue, ritual music composed to pacify the souls of those who perished in war. By far the most renowned group is the Naxi Orchestra.

A Naxi woman carrying water back to her house from one of the local wells

Dating back to the Song and Tang dynasties, the music played by the orchestra is known as liyue, which was originally used by scholars performing Taoist rituals connected to the Dong Jin grotto scriptures. Long forgotten in the rest of China, except among a small cultural elite during the Ming and Qing periods, the music remained popular in this remote outpost of the Himalayan foothills.

The area around Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is known in China as the Home of Medicinal Plants, and more than 600 species of healing trees, flowers and herbs grow here. To the Chinese, the massif's 13 peaks resemble jade pillars holding up the sky. The highest of these pillars, the spitting image of a crystallized dragon (but only if you are Chinese) is the 5,596m Shanzidou, which is also a vast, natural pharmacopoeia of medicinal herbs.

In the village of Baisha, a few kilometers from Lijiang, a sign in Chinese and English reads the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic. This is the home and clinic of Dr. Ho Shi-ziu, one of China's most famous herbal therapists. Here, the 76-year-old doctor and his wife cultivate several rare herbs not found anywhere else.

Strolling around the walled garden, following the doctor's wife with her blue-and-white Naxi cape with its symbols of night and day and its dividing line of stars, the visitor can appreciate how self-contained this valley and its people are. Old Lijiang is a city whose links with the past seem strong enough to enable it to survive the present on its own terms.


Getting there
Most people fly to Yunnan's capital of Kunming from Bangkok, a two-hour flight with Thai Air. There are also flights from Hong Kong. Regular buses leave from Kunming for Lijiang, a trip of about 10 hours. China Air flights take less than one hour.


Where to stay
The First Bend Inn (tel: 518-1688) at 43 Minshi Alley is popular with independent travelers for its beautiful courtyard, friendly staff and location in the old town. The Guluwan Hotel (tel: 5212-1446) along Xin Dajie is a cheap option in the new town, just 5min walk from its older sibling. Naxi-style accommodation can be found at the budget Old Town Square Inn (tel: 512-7487; Ma Ma Fu's Café, located beside a stream, is a superb spot to relax and sample some of the local cuisine.


More information
December to February is cool, sunny and pleasant. June through the end of September is rainy and impractical. Supposedly, there is no malaria in Yunnan County, but it's worth checking beforehand as the disease seems to have a mind of its own and is definitely on the increase globally. Avoid drinking the tap water.

Photos by Stephen Mansfield