The old town of Lijiang is located in a fertile valley, at 2400 meters above sea level and the foot of the 5596 meters high Jade Dragon Mountain (Yulong Xue Shan). The area around Lijiang is home to the Naxi ethnic minority. Originally descended from the Qiang Tibetans, they settled in this area for an estimated 2000 years. In addition to their religion, the Naxi are also known for their Dongba script, which was created more than 1000 years ago and consists of combinations of symbols and illustrations, somewhat comparable to the ancient Egyptian language.
Lijiang was almost destroyed by an earthquake in 1996. During the reconstruction, UNESCO also became aware of the old town of Lijiang, and a year later Lijiang was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the vicinity, by bike or bus to reach, are smaller villages, such as Shuhe or Baisha, which can be explored during a day trip and compensate for the somewhat hectic Lijiang old town.
The old town of Lijiang is crisscrossed by narrow cobbled streets and a network of canals. It is one of the best preserved ancient cities in China. The old houses usually rest on a stone foundation and walls of whitewashed mudbrick, have doors, balconies, and shutters of red wood and typical curved tiled roofs. Center of the city is Sifang, the marketplace. Goods from Tibet and southern Yunnan used to be transhipped here. Today, arts and crafts are sold. South of the Sifang there are the most traditional neighborhoods and markets, while the corners north of the Sifang have been prepared with great effort for tourists.