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Notes on the Geography of China: Dali and Lijiang

Dali and Lijiang, like Zhouzhuang near Shanghai, have become national and even international tourist attractions.  The transformation is especially remarkable for Dali and Lijiang because they are in western Yunnan, which until recently was very remote.  Both towns now have regularly scheduled jet service to Kunming, however, and the flood of tourists has begun.

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China: Dali and Lijiang picture 1

Dali sits on a fertile plain flanking the west side of Lake Erhai, but it's much more than an agricultural center: for more than 200 years it was the capital of an independent state.  Nanzhao ("South Kingdom") had been created by the Bai and Yi peoples under the leadership of a ruler named Pileguo.  He initially relied on Tang support, then broke free and in 738 established his capital at Taihe, a few miles south of Dali.  The kingdom expanded rapidly, even conquering Chengdu in 829.  The Chinese regained Sichuan, but Taihe remained independent until its demise in 902.  A few decades later, the Duan clan established a kingdom at Dali proper, and it survived from 937 until the arrival of the Mongols in 1253.

China: Dali and Lijiang picture 2

Although there's a modern town a few miles to the south, old Dali follows the classical Chinese town-building canon, with a cardinally oriented rectangular wall and gridded streets.  The previous picture showed the walled town in its entirety.  This one, also from a mountain to the west, zooms in on the city's mid-section: the central gate of the city's west side appears near the left edge of the image.

China: Dali and Lijiang picture 3

The previous photos were taken from Zhonghe Shan, a peak in the Jade Green (Cang) Mountains; the slopes of the mountain are dotted with thousands of graves facing east.

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The south wall of the city was extensively rebuilt in 1998.

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Inside, there's a Disneyesque quality to the place.

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A fine example of instant heritage: office of the Dali Old Town Constructional Engineering Company.

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Still, the strollers and shoppers come.

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Dali is still a real city, though.  Here: one of the classic winged gates built by the Bai people, a locally prominent minority.

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A well, still in regular use by the adjoining householders.

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Characteristically, walls are of adobe brick laid on a stone base. 

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A hardware store caters to residents, not tourists.

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Video games.

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Given a choice, will residents continue to live in the town's traditional courtyard houses?

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Or will they prefer the invading modern?

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We're heading north, past the lakeshore paddy fields.

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The country is too high and cool for rice: enter, potatoes.

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Wheat, too.

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Briquets.  They are made of pulverized and compressed coal.

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A preliminary step: screening the coal.

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The fines are moistened and molded.

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There's local brick-making, too, with buffalo-trodden clay.

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Then, Lijiang.  The old town is a mile to the east; the new town is especially new because it was levelled by an earthquake (intensity: 7) in 1996. This was not Lijiang's first quake: there had been powerful jolts in 1481, 1515, 1624, 1751, 1895, 1933, 1951, and 1977.

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Perhaps the new housing will fare well when the next quake comes; certainly Old Lijiang won't be much bothered, because the buildings there have flexible wood frames supporting their heavy walls.

China: Dali and Lijiang picture 24

Old Lijiang, which began to grow in the 13th century, was part of the Dali Kingdom until the arrival of the Mongols, but from the beginning it's been the ethnic center of the Naxi people.  Slowly--though now not so slowly--the Naxi have been displaced by the arrival of Han Chinese.  Physically, though, the city looks much like it always has: no wall, no gridded streets, and everything shaped around a canal that branches and threads its way through the town.

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The name Lijiang in fact means Beautiful River.  It was first used in 1382, when the town then known as Dayechang or Dayan came under Ming rule.

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The canals are said to direct water into every house.

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There are plenty of bridges: by official count, 354.

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The town was designated a historic city in 1986, and an Old Town Protection Plan was created two years later.  Since 1994 there has been legal support for preservation. What really launched the tourist wave, besides the new airport, was the city's listing in 1997 as a World Heritage Site.

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The main street is Sifangjie, and it's washed by periodic releases of canal water.

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The street pattern is full of dead-end alleys.  Behind the shops often lie courtyard residences. Many have been restored with help from the Global Heritage Fund, a California NGO. 

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Spanking clean.

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The town's not just for tourists, though: at the downstream edge there's a real market, for residents.


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