China's Lijiang is a dichotomy of the new town and, thankfully, the old town, separated by one street and several centuries. In the new, is everything a modern non-descript town can offer - crushing traffic, soulless concrete buildings, tree-less streets, dirty air. In the old, as one guidebook puts it, is "everything that China should be, but so rarely is".

This home to the Naxi minority people is a maze of narrow flagstone streets and arched bridges, worn smooth by thousands of feet over hundreds of years, meandering beside and crossing several clear streams that are also the town's water supply.

The buildings are made of hand-hewn timber, some intricately carved and painted bold-gold or blood-red, sun-baked brick, tiled roofs and, after 800 years, it smells organic. Unlike most other Chinese cities, it never had a protective wall.

Peter Gorllart, a Russian living here in the 1940s, wrote: "Likiang [sic] has no cars, carriages or rickshaws. Everyone walks, rich and poor, generals and soldiers, without distinction of caste or class. No millionaire has a chance to show off his Cadillac or Rolls-Royce and no Chinese general can roar in his armoured limousine through the peaceful streets of Likiang."

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This World Cultural Heritage Site, a junction on a centuries-old trading route between Tibet, India and China, is no longer visited by traders with their lengthy yak, horse and ox caravans or fur-wearing mountain people with hunting knives strapped to their hips, but a skyrocketing number of tourists come here and walk the narrow, vehicle-less streets.

The quietest time in Lijiang, whose volume-operandi hovers between rowdy and riotous, is dawn, when the only sound in Square Street, as the football field-sized square is known, is the rhythmic swishing of 12 brooms on flagstone.

The first of many strong smells of the day waft from half a dozen breakfast stalls cooking deep-fried bread, dumplings, boiled eggs, noodles, a derivation of porridge and the ubiquitous green tea. A clutch of sleepy locals order the usual, laugh as usual, and dawdle off.

The mumbling and cackling gets louder until a couple of sprightly farmers appear on the way to market, pulling carts, much like a rickshaw, each loaded with a pig; gutted, cleaned, organs to one side, with an official looking stamp on their white skins.

Men, women and children straggle into the square, carrying baskets, bags and bottles on their heads, shoulders and carts, and reassemble their small market stalls for another day's trading. With growing numbers, they usurp the morning silence with their goading, laughing, shouting, spitting, clanging and banging. They hawk everything from tin teapots and plastic buckets to singing caged birds, thin musical instruments with two strings, and herbs making promises medicine won't believe.

My regular stallholder ladles from four separate buckets to create a river-green drink with white chewy globs floating on top. I couldn't get through the hot days without one or two cups of this most refreshing drink.

Over on the stone-arched bridge by my hotel, a 40cm monkey with two 40cm long white feathers sticking out of a yellow headband, a yellow coat with full-length sleeves, an orange cloak and red waist band clambers over its owner, picking out nits from his hair, hat, and hairy ears.

The old dude, crouching and smoking a long pipe, mumbles to the monkey and growls children away. A few days later he ups the cute ante by introducing a fat white puppy that the monkey holds and preens. That really brings in the money.

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The erhu, an instrument that can't help but sound Chinese, is often heard in the streets but rarely do locals stop, listen and donate money like they are today. It's Li Wong Kai, a 60-year-old itinerant. He's dressed in a filthy white shirt, two worn suit jackets, trousers with a patched bum, worn canvas shoes with no socks, has a lidded jar of cold green tea favoured by the older generation and one small bag containing all of his possessions, including three other instruments.

He tells me, "I am Buddhist. I travel around China. I am trying to attain sainthood and forgo worldly things. I want to get money to repair the temple in my village. I've been travelling for nine years and I have less money now than when I started."

I pass several Naxi, the Chinese minority group numbering about 280,000 that centres itself on Lijiang, mourning a loss in the whanau by wearing white turbans for seven days. The younger women prefer fashionable western-style clothes, but older Naxi women still wear their traditional costume of blue hat, layers of voluminous dresses, pants, tunics with broad white trimmings about the waist, silver circles across the back and a crossed white sash on front.

The Naxi religion, called Dongba, has no church and is a selective mix of Lamaism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Animism and Shamanism.

Every Naxi strives for many happyisms that include multitudes of jars of wine, abundant sexual strength, good health and a succession of picnics and dances with congenial companions on flower-strewn alpine meadows. With all that to lose, it is not surprising Christian missionaries converted no Naxi.

They hold more than 30 rituals, including Worshipping Heaven, Worshipping Wandering Spirit, and Praying for Long Life Rite, performed by sages, also called Dongba, parts of which are performed nightly at the Dongba Palace.

This 380-seat concert hall resembles a festive marquee with several yellow, tassel-fringed banners, each two metres wide by six metres long - adorned with Dongba pictograph scriptures, the world's last such language still read - hanging from the ceiling, and 24 traditional red Chinese lanterns that softly light the hall, all permeated by incense smoke.

The 20-member orchestra and 78-year-old Dongba, He Xu Huang, draw gasps and applause from the full house throughout the 90-minute concert. He tells me later; "Since I started performing here three years ago, I haven't had so much time on the farm, but I think it's good that more people get to see our Naxi culture."

In 1957, Mao Zedong decided to loosen his hold on cultural and public expression, declaring, "Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend."

However, intellectuals attacked the system so Mao, who didn't take too kindly to criticism, jailed these 100 Flowers. Xuan Ke spent 21 years behind bars for his views but is now the celebrated president of the Dayan Naxi Ancient Music Troupe.

This group of nearly 40 part-time musicians and full-time printing-factory workers, farmers, and construction workers, ranging in age from 19 to 90, play songs from the 619-907AD Tang Dynasty on instruments like the Sugudu, that looks like a cross between a mandolin, ukulele and banjo. Apart from the rare international tour, this ancient Naxi music is only heard at their nightly concerts in Lijiang.

Through clouds of ever-present cigarette smoke, they clang worn cymbals, tingle bells, beat timpani-sized drums, breathe through bamboo flutes, scrape the erhu and pluck the sounds of flowing water and conversing geese from the pipa.

Although I'm sure it's not part of the Tang, or any other dynasty, the concert also featured nine loud cellphones ringing and the ensuing nine loud cellphone conversations.

I talk to Xuan Ke a few days later at the venue and in between constant public requests for his autograph, photograph, a few words, or all three. He shows me a 6.5-centimetre-square book, somehow containing 168 pages, titled Dayan Naxi Ancient Music Association, with a photograph of him on the cover. He holds it like a child does a favourite toy and relishes showing me a photograph of him as a child in the bathtub, a photo of him as a youth, a photo of him with the orchestra, a photo of him with the Vice-President of the National Peoples Congress, "and look," he says, "here's a photo of me with the King of Norway - very nice man".

So many photos of himself in this handy little book and he insists I take one. I take it to a restaurant, order chicken feet and a random item off the Chinese-language menu that turns out to be fried bees, but abandon the book in favour of observing.

A group of six order so many dishes that they not only pile them on each other on the table, which is invariably knee-height, but also on nearby windowsills or ledges. With chopsticks, diners reach and stretch to each plate in a dining version of Twister, laughing and shouting above one another, often pausing mid-meal to send more cigarette smoke my way.

When there are three or four or more such groups, each building a head of conversational steam, it moves from the raucous to the riotous end of the volume scale. A local tells me she only eats at a Western restaurant when she wants a romantic dinner.

Whenever I walk past Mama Fu's Restaurant, it is invariably full of Western tourists talking, eating Western food with forks and knives, and listening to Western music. Even so, it is the quietest place in town.

Restaurants favour being beside the multitude of clear streams flowing through Lijiang that originate from the Jade River and all day, every day, as people are paid to remove rubbish from them, locals are throwing rubbish back in and washing everything from vegetables to hair and tables.

Throughout Lijiang, most store owners look bored and generally disinterested in Westerners as they try to sell what another 20 stores are trying sell in the neighbourhood while watching little loud televisions.

When one of the Chinese tour groups appear - about 30 bellowing, haggling, smoking people in the same coloured hats following a guide with the same coloured flag bellowing into a megaphone - they become animated and aggressively pursue sales.

I stroll down side alleys where traditionally clad Naxi women placate grumpy grandchildren, old men gossip, twittering as much as their caged birds and cooking smells rise from centuries-old homes when, unexpectedly, I pop into the 21st century on a traffic-clogged street separating the new and old Lijiang. It's immediately disagreeable and I return to the street and stream maze of an endlessly fascinating ancient Chinese town.

CHECKLIST

Lijiang is in China's southwest province of Yunnan, 400km from Yunnan's capital, Kunming.

How to get there: Silk Air flies from Kunming Lijiang in 35 minutes. Singapore Airlines flies from Singapore to Kunming in 3 1/2 hours.

Steve Sole flew to Lijiang courtesy of Singapore Airlines and Silk Air.