Forgotten Kingdom

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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.

During most of the last century, the isolation continued, and the government never bothered to make a master plan to rebuild the city. Modern construction occurred slowly on the periphery of old Lijiang, but an attempt to drive a road through the ancient town stalled after a few hundred yards. The builders ran out of funds. "It wasn't that the people had the idea of preservation," Wang Shiying, a local researcher, told me. "The people were too poor."

In 1997, UNESCO declared the old city of Lijiang a World Heritage Site. Since then, business owners and town planners have conformed to strict guidelines concerning restoration and new construction in the designated zone. The upgraded status has also brought hordes of domestic tourists. Whenever I ventured along the central streets of the old city, I ran into gaggles of camera-trussed Chinese. They bobbed behind the raised flags of tour guides on their way to the next designated photo site, just like at popular attractions all over Beijing and Shanghai.

I was almost invariably the only foreigner, a curiosity. One afternoon a visiting group of Chinese students asked if they could take my picture, and then all 10 of them ran up to pose with me. It seems inevitable that outsiders will find their way to Lijiang before long. There are more and more English-speaking guides, and restaurant proprietors are starting to learn the language, along with a sprinkling of French. Which isn't to say it's easy to communicate. I know a bit of Mandarin, but the local accent barely corresponds to anything spoken in Beijing. And when I occasionally tried basic English words, such as "food" or "taxi," they drew blank stares time and again.

With one turn off the main drag, I'd leave the Chinese tourists behind and catch little glimpses of everyday life: a family playing cards by the teakettle, an old woman and her dog fetching water in a leather bucket, young girls laughing and doing their laundry by a well, a woman carrying a large wicker backpack of vegetables into a market and walking out with a small plastic bag of meat. On several occasions, as I admired a traditional home's elaborate entryway, I was invited in. I would praise the courtyard's circular-stone floors and be offered a cup of tea as well as a seat in front of the television.

One day, I rested at the end of a rock-strewn path, where a door displayed the faded red posters and lanterns of the Chinese New Year. An empty can of "natural coconut juice" nailed to the wall held half-burnt sticks of incense. In small patches by the canal's edge, someone had planted lettuce and what looked like mint and chives. From across the water came the barking of a dog, and upstream a man washed his vegetables. He dropped the shucks into the water, and I watched them zip downstream until the last sped away.

Most afternoons, I sat at my favorite café, Piao Yi, which has no sign outside. The owners have strung up strands of hanging bells that jingle merrily as patrons walk to their tables. I ordered the Yunnan coffee, percolated in the French style in portions big enough for four, and watched the tourists pose for photographs in front of the Mu Palace gates, across the way.

I also attended a performance of the Naxi Orchestra, conducted by 76-year-old Xuan Ke. Even before the Cultural Revolution, when China descended into chaos--youth groups were sicced on intellectuals, Taoist and Buddhist frescoes painted centuries before were defaced, and temples in the hills around Lijiang were sacked--Xuan was arrested for his Western leanings. He spent 21 years in a labor camp, and returned to Lijiang in 1978. "There was no classical Chinese music," he told me. "But it had been there when I was young." By 1981, Xuan began to seek out the old musicians; it was safe to perform again. Lijiang became one of the few places in China where ancient music was being played on ancient instruments. The city's remoteness had served it again.

Xuan, who has the cheek muscles of a trumpet player, is famous for his loquaciousness, and he lengthily introduced every piece. I couldn't understand many of his words, but enjoyed the rhythms of his storytelling, and the audience regularly broke into laughter. The musicians were happier when they were playing: The few young members shifted in impatience as Xuan carried on, and their older colleagues appeared to fall asleep.

The night's music kicked off with a gong, the first note of a piece written in A.D. 741 for the dedication of a Taoist monastery. It began as a cacophony, all bells and drums, but as the flutes and strings swung in, it shifted into harmony. In addition to Han and Naxi orchestral pieces, the night's repertoire included an a cappella song called "Swine Herder," bits of which sounded like the squeals of a lost piglet.

My favorite song was one that had been handed down in one family for 12 generations. "Local music, not outsiders'," said Xuan. A flute solo had a full sound you wouldn't expect from a bamboo instrument, especially with acoustics created by I-beam pillars and a fiberglass roof. When the flute finally broke from the soloist's lips, the hall was quiet. Rain pattered on the rooftop like distant applause. And then the real clapping broke out in full force. After the concert, people lined up for Xuan's autograph.

On my last day in Lijiang, I asked the hotel's manager to write the name of a destination in Chinese characters so I could hand it to a taxi driver for a journey out of town. We left the tourists behind and drove past an American-style gated community, but one in which all the homes had traditional Naxi roofs. The narrow road ran through fields and orchards, and the driver dropped me off at Yuhu, a village of rough stone and mud mortar. The sky drizzled lightly, and I walked up a cobblestone path, taking in deep breaths. The air smelled of grass and horses.

I had come to see the house of Joseph Rock, a botanist, explorer, and author who lived in the area periodically from 1922 to 1949 and wrote long histories of the Naxi people. The caretaker unlocked the door and stepped inside to flip a switch, the kind one pictures being used for electric chairs. The small museum's exhibits included a dusty reconstruction of Rock's room from a photo he had posed for, including his bed, a small rug, and a Naxi prayer circle hanging on the wall. Downstairs, glass cases displayed Rock's rifle, saddle, and camera case, as well as local wares that he had collected: a lute, a suit of Chinese armor, Naxi fortune-telling cards.

Afterward, I waited out the rain on Rock's porch. Keeping me company were three old men drinking hard liquor from tall glasses. From over the wall came the sounds of cowbells and the shouts of children.

I wondered why I had been disappointed by the sight of Lijiang's ugly new city and all the tourists. Why had I expected any Chinese city--or anywhere, for that matter--to remain unchanged? I'm happy that Lijiang's old town is being preserved, but that very preservation is what's drawing tourists, who by their presence are changing the city and how it functions. It's a double-edged sword that slices deep into so many conservation efforts. Is increased tourism necessarily a bad thing? Is the commercialism that feeds on tourism bound to ruin Lijiang?

Then I thought back to the photographs on display in the Rock museum. I was particularly struck by one that showed old Lijiang's central square in 1927. It was market day, a mass of baskets and parasols, and it was no less crowded and no less commercial than when I had strolled through the city every day of my visit.

Helpful info when visiting Lijiang

A round-trip Air China flight from Beijing to Lijiang, via Kunming, costs about $600. Flights to Lijiang are also possible from Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, though connections are complicated. Ask for help from a travel agent who specializes in Asia.

A taxi from Lijiang's airport to the old city is about $20. Cars can't enter the old town; try to be dropped off near the waterwheel, the easiest entry point.

Lijiang has plenty of basic guest rooms with shared bathrooms available for about $5 to $10 a night, but several hotels are aiming to please Western tourists with higher standards. I stayed at the Zen Garden Hotel, which was clean and comfortable, with white quilted comforters (36 Wuyi St., 011-86/139-0888-3246, zengardenhotel.com, from $50). The balcony looked over the old city and up at the Wangu pagoda I used as a landmark when wandering. Most important, the Naxi owner, He Yumei, speaks English. At least twice a week she schedules speeches by cultural experts or traditional Chinese harp performances for guests in the courtyard. If the Zen Garden is full, ask He to recommend another place. The Lijiang Old Town Sanhe Hotel, for example, is slightly less charming but caters to Western travelers (4 Jishan Rd., 011-86/888-512-0891, from $40).

There's a fine selection of restaurants lining the canals around the central Sifang square. The Piao Yi Café is across from Lijiang's most popular attraction, the Mu Palace, former residence of Naxi royalty ($4). Visitors can walk through the palace and hike up the five-story Wangu pagoda for a bird's-eye view of the city ($2). The best time to check out the market southeast of the palace is in the morning, when the locals shop. Xuan Ke's Naxi Orchestra starts at 8 P.M. nightly (Dayan Naxi Ancient Music Institute, Dong da St., 011-86/888-512-7971, from $13).

Packaged excursions leaving from Lijiang often consist of some sightseeing and a lot of shuttling in and out of gift shops. Instead, rent a bike (ask at your hotel) and pedal 40 minutes to inspect the Ming dynasty murals at the village of Baisha, capital of the Naxi kingdom before Lijiang took over. You can push further on to the temples in Yuhu, also home to the Joseph Rock Museum ($1). Street names are rare: To reach the museum, walk from Yuhu's dirt parking lot up the cobblestone path for a few hundred yards, and turn when you come to the hand-painted sign on your left.

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