Lijiang, China as it used to be

The rooftops of Lijiang, China, photo by Sean Rocha
I am early, and late, to this video about Lijiang in the southwest corner of China along the Tibetan plateau. It was produced by the BBC nearly a quarter century ago and somehow I have only heard about it now; but I was early to it, too, because as it happens it was made in 1994, the very year in which I made my first trip to Lijiang.
Things change, of course, but I can hardly think of any place on my travels that has changed as much as Lijiang, which was a traditional town full of weeping willows and meandering canals and once one of the most spectacular places I’d ever been. A year after this video was made, a devastating earthquake struck the region. It caused some damage in the exquisite old town, where the architecture was mostly wood, and quite a lot in the charmless new town, where it was all concrete. Fearing that Beijing would use the damage as a pretext for leveling the old town as it had so many others elsewhere in China, UNESCO offered to assist in restoration and a devil’s bargain was struck: the physical town of old Lijiang was preserved but the vibrant communal life, which (as evident in the video) had been predominantly ethnic minorities for centuries, was destroyed. A regional airport was built and today Lijiang is one of the most visited places in China, especially popular with roving bands of Chinese men lured into the rowdy bars by Han Chinese girls dressed up as the ethnic minorities who once lived there. Every single street level space you see along an alley in this video is now a tourist shop selling trinkets.
A sad end, then, for Lijiang. As I discovered on a return visit in 2007 (I’d gone to write this article about the provincial capital Kunming for the New York Times) the weeping willows and canals and eaved roofs all remain so it is still possible — just — to fall in love with Lijiang if you’d never seen what it was. This video, despite some cliche music and rather suspect narration, gives a sense of what was lost.


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