I HAVE A fondness for traditional old towns. Cobbled streets winding among old buildings of brick or wood interspersed with town squares and waterways crossed by stone arch bridges draw me as a tourist any time. And it seems indisputable to me that no country in the world does this sort of thing as well as traditional China does it. Venice, yes, a delight to the eyes, Greek hill towns are magnificent and Brugge in Belgium (with my last name do not expect the frenchified rendering of Bruges) is an achingly charming place. There are many more in Europe. But, somehow, old towns in China (those that remain) do them all one better in portraying traditional community life and nothing in China, I have often been told, does it as well as Lijiang, high on a plateau in remote north-western Yunnan province. Thus, with two children off to university this year and our third away on school camp last week, my wife and I finally took our chance to make it to Lijiang for a short visit. We had hoped for a hotel right in the old town itself (one accepts that every old town now has a surrounding new town) but no such luck. Ours was one of a number of new hotels at the edge of the new town. It was, so a brochure in the room told us, a tobacco hotel, one of 59 proudly constructed by the Yunnan tobacco monopoly, all characterised by the same shiny tile work, darkened glass and excessive ornamentation commonly described in English as kitsch or OTT (over the top) and in Cantonese as ho leng. Lijiang has great ambitions. Directly outside this testament to the profits of nicotine, a dusty eight-lane roadway, driven as straight over the landscape as a ruler and pencil on a map can make it, is bordered on either side by long stretches of luxury housing projects, single family homes of up to 2,000 square feet. They are all empty of course, not surprising when asking prices are the equivalent of 100 years of income at local wage levels, but Lijiang is the coming thing and these will be the holiday homes of China's rising middle class, perhaps for ski holidays although ski slopes are little in evidence. This form of commercial idiocy is nothing new along the coast, of course, but how interesting to see that it has spread to even the remotest parts of Yunnan. Ah well, off to the old town, a Unesco world heritage site since 1997 reconstruction of damage caused by an earlier earthquake. Our first impression was of everything as it was billed to be. My wife and I at one point decided to sit down by a swiftly flowing stream along a stone water course, one of Lijiang's special attractions, for a cup of Yunnan coffee. In came the bill - 50 yuan (HK$46.84). Got it. Another toy town swiftly being Disneyfied just as Venice and so many of its counterparts have been in Europe. The winding lanes are scrubbed and charming, the waterways are clean, the street scenery is outstandingly picturesque (be quick, other tourists behind you want to take the same photo) and the ground floors of most of those ornate two-storey wooden buildings are occupied by overpriced eateries or vendors of tourist knick-knacks. Let me not be too scathing here. Lijiang's old town is still a remarkable beauty spot and will be for many years to come. Also within a matter of years, however, it will no longer be a real town, just a reminder of what it once was. A few years more again and it will be possible to pick it up and relocate it at the entrance of an amusement park - Old Town China just like Old Town USA at Disneyland. Save yourself the airfare. See it at home. Perhaps the tourists will still come to the original Lijiang when it happens and the tobacco hotels will be full at last. The credulity of people who sign up for pilgrimages to tourist traps can be stretched a long way. But perhaps it can be better stretched to our advantage in Hong Kong with some design changes in the next phases of Disney Park. When Shenzhen officials talk of a tourism corridor between Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, let us stretch this a little further and tap all of China, for ideas rather than just visitors. The original old towns of the United States do not draw visitors as Old Town USA does and Lijiang is not at a crossroads of international travel as Los Angeles is. Hong Kong would be a much more convenient place to see Lijiang's old town. Let us bring it here. Tourism, after all, is an industry of illusions and we would not need to stretch it quite as far as the development delusions of the Yunnan tourist authorities. Nor would 50 yuan for two cups of plain coffee be quite such an insult in Hong Kong.