Market trading Lijiang 1995. [Photo by Bruce Connolly]
In the early 1990's a documentary series,'Beyond the Clouds', introduced British television viewers to a remote town and its people high in the mountains of Southwest China. The filmmakers had serialised the lives of the Naxi ethnic nationality living within Yunnan province's Lijiang. Their traditional existence continued, seemingly in a time-warp, contrasting with rapidly evolving eastern coastal areas.
Nestling below icy peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (yulongxueshan) Lijiang was on the ‘Tea Horse Road' (chamagudao) between Yunnan's Pu'er and Tibet's Lhasa. The Naxi, as middlemen, prospered as did Lijiang with its unique, spacious domestic architecture - distinctive two-floor homes with rear courtyards set along a network of fast-flowing canals. Apart from horse, no vehicle traffic meant narrow, stone-laid alleys wound between a dense maze of buildings centred on the Market Square. The unique tiled rooftops and the sheer compactness of the Old Town is best viewed from Lion Hill.
Having lived and worked in bustling Guangzhou and keen to discover more of China, I knew within my heart that I wanted to go ‘beyond the clouds', to Yunnan. At that time tourism was in its infancy, transport links were long, difficult, potentially arduous with accommodation often basic. There was no on-line searching - the few available travel articles stressed the area's remoteness while suggesting it could have been an inspiration for the Shangri La of James Hilton's ‘Lost Horizon'?