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Ancient traditions live on in one Chinese town

From Karen Trosset, TODAY producerLijiang, China, is not just beautiful, it is an awe-inspiring glimpse into life in ancient China. First settled some 800 years ago, it is located deep in China's southwest. Lijiang boasts the sprawling snow mountains and one of the country's deepest gorges -- the breathtaking Tiger Leaping Gorge -- but its people and their culture seem ripped from the pages of his

From Karen Trosset, TODAY producer

Lijiang, China, is not just beautiful, it is an awe-inspiring glimpse into life in ancient China. First settled some 800 years ago, it is located deep in China's southwest. Lijiang boasts the sprawling snow mountains and one of the country's deepest gorges -- the breathtaking Tiger Leaping Gorge -- but its people and their culture seem ripped from the pages of history books.

Image: Lijiang, China
Robert Colvill

Lijiang is home to 25 of China's ethnic minorities. Its very heart is the "Naxi Kingdom," a group dating back centuries that still practices ancient customs and follows its Dongba religion, a belief that man and nature are brothers. They use the only remaining hieroglyphic language left in the world. 

And you can't miss them. They still wear traditional clothing, Naxi women wear wide-sleeved loose gowns with jackets and long trousers, tied with richly decorated belts at the waist. They wrap large black cotton turbans around their heads.

Image: Naxi women in Lijiang, China
Robert Colvill
Naxi women wander the streets of Lijiang, China.

Their simple way of life still makes up life in this town, where it is common to see little old ladies washing their vegetables in the town well. Others are hard at work on an ancient loom, weaving scarves for sale in the market, or on a street corner selling vegetables, fresh-picked from their farms.

In order to paint a picture of this way of life, I will share with you my Friday morning.  I was standing on a street corner in Baisha, the neighboring Naxi village, sipping my morning coffee and admiring the quaint old-fashioned town square.  I turned around, and making its way past me was a massive herd of cows. Leading the way was an elderly farmer, wearing traditional ancient garb. He shepherds all of the town's cows through the square every day at the same time to the neighboring fields.

All I could think was what would be the equivalent of this in the United States? If Paul Revere, dressed in colonial garb, rode his horse through Faneuil Hall and nobody thought twice about it? And it was normal? And it wasn't Halloween? Inconceivable.

The most striking aspect of this way of life is that a bustling modern city, "New Lijiang," is just beyond Old Lijiang's borders. Discos, restaurants, even KFC loom like a dark shadow over the ancient town, almost like a beacon of the trials and tribulations of western ways. One can see why the United Nations recognized the preciousness of Lijiang and named it a World Heritage Site in 1997, helping to preserve this historic site. It also helped turn Lijiang into a major tourist destination in China. Despite crowds and notoriety that threaten the ancient way of life here, there is a strong effort by the Naxi and the government to nurture this culture and preserve it in modern times.

I hope they prevail.

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