Part of the delight in going to Lijiang lies in the journey itself. Formerly, one had no choice but to go by road from Dali, a magnificent 196-kilometre (122-mile) journey through narrow fertile valleys, mountains and forest glades of rhododendrons and azaleas, all culminating in an unforgettable view of the Jade Dragon Snow Range above Lijiang. Today, however, the rail line has been extended from Dali to Lijiang, and a small airport between Heqing and Lijiang handles flights from Kunming; the short trip affords a spectacular hour in the air.

Lijiang is the home of the Naxi people, who speak a language of the Tibeto-Burman group, and dress in black or deep blue. Other smaller minority groups live around Lijiang, including the Lisu, Pumi and Nuosu Yi. The Pumi are more brightly clad than the Naxi people, and the Lisu can only be seen by visiting the more remote districts close to the Nujiang (the Chinese name for the Salween River).

Lijiang, elevation 2,400 metres (7,800 feet), falls into clear parts: old and new (though the “old” part is in fact virtually all new too, since a 1996 earthquake levelled most of the original buildings). The old town is infinitely more interesting, with its pebbled paths, potted mountain plants and small restaurants serving baba—deepfried wheat cake, offered with a variety of fillings. It is now a ‘‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’’ (the entire old town has been rebuilt and even enlarged but using strictly authentic traditional methods and materials). The park known as Black Dragon Pool is the principal attraction of the town, with its Moon Embracing Pavilion (a modern reconstruction, since the Ming pavilion was burnt down in 1950 by a drunken cadre and his mistress in a fit of suicidal romanticism—or vandalism). An adjacent building is used to house the Dongba Cultural Research Institute, and another, the Dragon God Temple, is a setting for flower and art shows. The Five Phoenix Hall, a piece of whimsical architectural bravura, was once part of the now defunct Fuguo Temple. The hall is one of two buildings from the temple which were transferred intact to the Black Dragon Pool park in recent years.

Fuguo was one of the Five Famous Temples of Lijiang, the remaining four of which dot the hillsides that surround the Lijiang Plain. These temples were founded under the patronage of Mu Tian Wang, the 17th-century Naxi king. He was a religious man, instrumental in the growth of the Red Hat Sect of Buddhism in his domain. The Jade Summit Temple (Yufeng Si) is famous for its setting in a pine forest, and for a camellia tree which in late February or early March flowers in such profusion that locals claim it has 20,000 blossoms. A trip to the Temple of Universal Benefaction (Puji Si) includes a pleasant walk up a mountain trail. In the temple, Tibetan thangkas have survived destruction, as have a few Buddha images. A few miles south of the town, the Peak of Culture Temple (Wenfeng Si) was famous in its time as a meditation centre. Above the temple is a hole in the earth, near a sacred spring where monks would stay for over three years to engage in intense meditation. The fourth temple to survive, the Zhiyun Si, in the nearby town of Lashiba, is now a school.

The mighty Yangzi River sweeps through the northern part of Yunnan, and can be seen at the dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiao Xia) as it roars through a deep canyon that rises nearly two miles to the snowy summits above. According to legend, a hunted tiger was able to make its escape from one side of the narrow gorge to the other in one single bound. At the point where the Yangzi makes its great turn northwards lies Shigu (Stone Drum) village, so named because of a memorial stone drum commemorating a victory by Chinese and Naxi troops over a Tibetan force in 1548. Shigu is known in modern Chinese history as a crossing-point of the Red Army on its Long March. During the winter of 1934–1935 the Red Army troops reached Shigu, where the local citizens helped ferry them across the river to escape the Nationalist troops in pursuit.

The village of Nguluko (Yuhu) is typical of the smaller Naxi villages in its setting. In the 1920s it was the home of the Austro-American explorer and botanist, Joseph Rock, who pioneered research on Yunnan’s flora and Naxi ethnology. Joseph Rock’s summer house is now open to visitors. It includes a small exhibition of Rock memorabilia and some period photographs. The ancient town of Baoshan, to the north of Lijiang, is a rare sight because it is one of China’s few remaining walled towns.

Baisha, once the capital of the Naxi kingdom, is now a sleepy farm village at the foot of the Yulongxueshan. The collection of 15th century Baisha murals is housed in an original 15th century Ming structure. They incorporate the pragmatic nature of the Naxi—Tantric Buddhist deities; Mahayanna Bodhisattvas, Daoist immortals and Naxi shaman coexist in an etheral netherworld that reflects the Naxi’s sense of tolerance for different beliefs. .