In China, preservation often comes as an afterthought, if at all. For a glimpse of what life was like long before Shanghai built the world's most futuristic skyline, Stephan Faris heads to where the Chinese go to see old China, a city called Lijiang.
When the Communists took power in China, Beijing's once-famous city walls were knocked down for construction material. In their place now runs a traffic-clogged road. In the center of the magnificent Forbidden City, just beyond the last colossal door before the emperor's private quarters, a Starbucks has opened. At a Buddhist temple outside of town, a roller coaster runs in between mountaintop pagodas.
All across China, countless buildings and entire neighborhoods have been buried and built over in a dash toward modernity--the one-two punch of revolutionary communism and robber capitalism. During the year I lived in Beijing, I craned my neck for the occasional tiled roof of a temple, lost in a crevice between tall office blocks and the inevitable construction site, to find hints of the authentic, ancient China.
At some point I became fascinated with the preserved old city of Lijiang, near the borders of Myanmar and Tibet. Nicknamed the Oriental Venice for the canals that weave through its maze of footpaths and narrow streets, the city spent much of the past 800 years as the center of the Naxi Kingdom, which ruled the striated mountain valleys until it was absorbed by the Chinese empire in 1723. Once a major trading post on the southern Silk Road, Lijiang served briefly during World War II as a staging ground for daredevil aerial attacks against the Japanese. But mostly Lijiang slipped away from the modern world. By the 1950s, when Russian historian Peter Goullart needed a title for his book about the region, Forgotten Kingdom seemed like an apt choice.
Nestled deep in the cascading Himalaya mountains, Lijiang was founded at the time of Kublai Khan--or perhaps far earlier (no one really knows). The city's rulers are said to have used inflated animal hides to float the Mongol's army across a nearby river as he marched on another kingdom. The ruling Lijiang family's name was Mu, which in Chinese uses four strokes: a cross and two symmetrical curves flaring down and away from the cross's junction. Written alone, mu means "wood," "timber," or "tree." The same four lines inside a square, however, are a completely different character, kun, which means "stranded, hard-pressed, besieged."
Riding in from the airport in a taxi, I found Lijiang nothing if not besieged. An army of white tile and gray concrete surrounds the old city. Phalanxes of shoe shops, banks, and cell-phone dealers are shoulder to shoulder. Taxis, trucks, bicycles, and rickshaws scuttle back and forth.
The ancient city was in there somewhere, a gem wrapped in grit, like a pearl in reverse. Sure enough, once I broke past the last packed corner shop and honking driver, the bedlam fell away. A walkway widened into a cobblestone plaza where children played. I strolled along twin canals, which eventually split and disappeared behind low houses.
Locals call the old city Dayan, a Chinese word for the stone on which calligraphers mix their ink. Old Lijiang presses up against the side of a hill, and the streets spill like streams from its sides. Foot-polished paving stones meander through shop-lined lanes on routes that seem to follow the logic of puppies. A path might skip along a canal, dip behind a shop, lurch back to the water's edge, leap over an arched footbridge, and tear off again into an alley.
Rooftops are uniformly slate, and at every corner, a single row of tiles crooks up. I was told these edges represent the wing tips of a phoenix, but the way they jut past the roofline reminded me of gargoyles, stylized hawks scoping the lanes below. Houses are built in a traditional style, around a central courtyard that serves as a garden and gathering place. Most buildings are two stories tall, and the narrowness of the space between them gives the lanes a canyon-like closeness.
All clocks in China share a single time zone, so in Lijiang and the far west, darkness falls late and mornings are slow in starting. But as the shops open, the shutters come off the doors and the streets seem twice as large and full of life.
Hotels and shops sell maps of the old city for about 75¢, but they don't help much since the streets have neither rhyme, reason, nor discernible names. By the time I reached my hotel, I was thoroughly disoriented. Even with the help of the prominent Wangu pagoda on the hill, I needed days before I felt comfortable navigating by landmarks--a café, a footbridge.
The preservation of Lijiang was more accidental than planned. During ancient times, the city lay on the far, forgotten frontier of the Chinese empire. Distant from the capital, it was of little strategic importance. The emperors built the Great Wall to keep out waves of northern barbarians, but in remote Lijiang there was little to fear. There were only the mountains and scattered hill tribes. Consequently, Lijiang is one of China's only ancient cities not to have a city wall.