Preserving traditional architecture has been a real challenge in many parts of China, which makes Leju (乐居), which is situated in the foothills of Phoenix Mountain, all the more special. Just a 40-minute drive west from central Kunming will bring you to the middle of this attractive little village which features plenty of historic buildings designed in a combination of Han and Yi nationality styles.
The present name of the village is derived from the term 'luoji' in the Yi language which means, appropriately, "village at the foot of the mountain." Many of the buildings here are well-preserved examples of the local courtyard style known as yikeyin – the neat square shape which is said to resemble the imprint of a Chinese ink stamp.
According to local lore, Yi people settled here in the late Yuan or early Qing Dynasty, making the village over six hundred years old. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, northerners migrated here bringing with them the concept of the courtyard dwelling, which the Yi people then combined with their own architectural styles to create the fusion yikeyin homes we see throughout the Kunming area to this day.
There are more than 80 historic residences here today – many of them built over two hundred years ago. The Yongsheng River flows along the south boundary of the village before it joins the larger Tanglang River. A tuzhu (local god) temple, nestled amongst the well-preserved old houses, even offers something of a sacred feel, and the surrounding thickets of bamboo and dense woodland remind visitors that this is a place that retains a close connection to nature.
The original houses here were simply built, and the rows of residences ascend the slopes of the mountain, providing a vista that would not be out of place in an oil painting, especially at sunset or sunrise when the light brings out the vibrant pinks of the village architecture.
Just a couple of decades ago, the village had a somewhat neglected feel, with some uninhabited residences even collapsing during the rainy season. Fortunately, in 2008 investment was provided by local enterprises in order to protect and develop Leju and its special architectural heritage.
As a result of this, visitors today will arrive to find a vibrant village that is home to boutique inns, tea houses, restaurants, bakeries and a variety of art and craft studios such as painting and embroidery.
Overnighting in one of the village guesthouses is a great way for anyone visiting Kunming to get up close and personal with local culture and traditions, as well as offering a truly bucolic and tranquil escape from the bustling city center not far away.