Incredible scenery, history, and culture. Overrun destinations, touristy shops, and luxury chain hotels. In Lijiang, Yunnan province, there is a constant push and pull of cultural value versus cultural commodity, authentic experiences versus commercialized sites.
After what many consider Lijiang’s tragic transformation from quaint town to loud, touristy hub, is there any beauty left in Lijiang?
We consulted Huang, one of WildChina’s top guides in Lijiang and a true expert on local culture and history, on his views regarding tourism in the area and beyond.
WildChina Travel (WCT): What, in your mind are the best aspects of tourism in Yunnan?
Huang Huaihai (HH): Yunnan’s rich variety is certainly its best trait. From the southeast to the northwest, Yunnan boasts an incredibly diverse array of climates, minority cultures, topographies, cuisines, historical sites, and more. In one province there is so much to experience.
WCT: What about the worst?
HH: The downside of such an attractive area is that Lijiang and Zhongdian [Shangri-La] have become commercialized and, to some degree, artificial. UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] World Heritage Sites are often overcrowded with tourists, and many shops and restaurants now cater exclusively to travelers. At the same time, these and other travel-friendly towns boast the best infrastructure in the province. Tourists can easily access these areas, whereas other parts of Yunnan, or China, may be incredibly difficult to reach.
WCT: To combat over-commercialized sites, where do you think you should take clients instead?
HH: Dali, in northwestern Yunnan, is less touristy and still has a lot of cultural and historical value. In addition, I suggest the outskirts of Lijiang. Rather than simply visiting the Old Town, traveling to meet a Bimo (a very special and exclusive experience) and explore local villages makes for a great 1-2 day trip. Lijiang acts as a good access point from which to travel to these lesser-known communities.
WCT: So, why don’t more people do this already? What are potential setbacks of going to off-the-beaten-path destinations in Yunnan?
HH: Transportation is certainly the biggest issue here. Flights and other modes of transportation can become quite costly when there aren’t direct connections to more remote areas. In some cases, it is not practical at all, because road infrastructure is poor and distance between locations is too great. Comfort also becomes an issue, when long drives on bad roads create discomfort for clients. A bad lengthy travel experience poses the risk of canceling out the enjoyment of the cultural experience.
WCT: What, if anything, can travel operators like WildChina do to fight mass tourism in Yunnan, and China as a whole?
HH: This is a difficult question, because the local government is always in favor of development. Development means money for their province, which means infrastructure, prosperity, and a higher quality of life. They will stop at nothing to develop. Thus, off-the-beaten-path becomes a sort of sacrifice – you must be passionate enough to always be in search of unique and different ways to experience life, culture, and history here. This means engaging in sustainable adventure travel in China: trekking to explore remote communities, doing exhaustive research to gain more local knowledge, and re-thinking ways to travel sustainably.
WCT: If you could give advice to those visiting Lijiang today, what would it be?
HH: The crowds at historic sites speak to their cultural and historical value. Visit them early for a quieter look at Lijiang’s marvels. And, focus your attention on personal interactions when you travel – that’s when you’ll truly learn about what life is like for local people. Experiences like this can surpass any tourist trap.