In Spring 2018 Ollie and I spent a month in China, on what was our first trip to this hugely diverse country. We landed in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, which is the most diverse in all of China.
More than half of the country’s minority groups can be found in Yunnan, along with arguably some of its best scenery and landscapes. From tropical jungle in the south of the province, bordering Thailand, to stunning snow-capped mountains in the north towards Tibet, Yunnan is a sensory overload that definitely left its imprint on our hearts and memories.
We arrived in Kunming in the very early hours of the morning and took a bus into the city centre, followed by a taxi to our hostel, which we had luckily notified of our inconvenient arrival time.
Kunming is nicknamed ‘city of eternal spring’ because of its pleasant year-round climate; it has a laid-back charm that’s often missing in big cities. We only spent one night in Kunming, though there is enough in and around the city to have warranted a far longer stay. However, despite having only arrived in the early hours, we were back up and out bright and early, ready for a full day of exploring!
Although Kunming is quite spread out, the city centre, where all the key sights are located, is relatively compact so we were able to save money by exploring on foot. We headed first to Green Lake Park, just a short walk from our hostel, which looked beautiful in all its springtime glory. Pretty pink blossom was everywhere, looking even more radiant against the perfect blue-sky backdrop. Trendy cafes, tea-houses and shops line the park roads and locals practice tai-chi in the mid-morning warmth; it was a perfect welcome to China.
That day, as we ambled around the city centre, we noticed the seamless blend of traditional and modernity. Amid the shopping malls and hectic city traffic we enjoyed Yuantong Temple, the city’s largest Buddhist complex, and the East and West Pagodas, both Tang structures.
We will certainly return to Kunming; aside from being a great starting point from which to explore more of Yunnan, there are also many worthwhile sights just outside the city. These include the Bamboo Temple, Xi Shan (Western Hills) and Lake Dian.
Yuanyang Rice Terraces
From Kunming we took a long bus seven hours south to the Yuanyang Rice Terraces, which had been on our China bucket list for a good long while. Covering roughly 125 square km and hewn from the land by the Hani throughout the centuries, they are certainly one of Yunnan’s most impressive sights.
The best time to visit is when the terraces are flooded with water, when they are turned into an artist’s palette at sunrise and sunset. We just so happened to be there in the perfect season.
We spent an enjoyable few days hiking around the area, catching different terraces at their best, rolling fog and cloud banks adding to the effect at sunrise. We based ourselves in picturesque Pugaolao, a traditional Hani village set amidst the rice terraces. The tranquil pace was much needed after Kunming and having the spectacular Duoyishu Terraces on our doorstep meant getting to the viewpoint in time for sunrise was an easy walk away.
Exploring the surrounding villages, dodging water buffalo, chickens and pigs, we wandered the timeless stone pathways; it gave us a real sense of traditional China and gratitude that modernity had not completely taken over.
From Yuanyang we journeyed on to Dali, Yunnan’s original backpacker hangout. Lying on the western edge of Erhai Lake at an altitude of 1900m, Dali has a fascinating old city and a stunning backdrop of the imposing Cang Shan – Green Mountains.
We arrived early in the morning, having broken the journey in Kunming the previous night, and spent the day exploring the old walled city. It’s a beautiful place, full of traditional Chinese architecture and temples, making for some wonderful snaps. Despite it being a pretty touristy place, we were able to wander round, unhassled, and soak up the historical energy of the place.
The city is full of handicraft stores, the products made by the local Bai population, and opportunities abound to taste some of the local delicacies. Bai food makes use of local flora and fauna, some of which is unrecognisable!
We managed to find a really great little restaurant and ate there every night during our stay in Dali. The vegetable dishes were fresh and plentiful and the mapo tofu turned out to be some of the best we tasted throughout our whole month in China.
Hiking the Cang Shan
The following morning we were ready to get out of town and into some more natural surroundings; the rampant commercialism and presence of Starbucks within the old city was enough for one day! Hiking the Cang Shan is a world away and offers an enchanting respite from the hustle and bustle below.
We completed a full-day 11km hike, emerging back at the town’s edge as the light was beginning to fade. The path, called Jade Belt Road, is paved and easy to walk yet we saw few other hikers, Chinese tourists preferring to see the main sights by chairlift access.
We spent our final day in Dali exploring some of the area around Erhai Lake, which, at 1973m above sea level and covering 250 square km, is the seventh largest freshwater lake in China. We cycled from our guesthouse to Caicun, a pleasant little village at the lake’s edge. From there we headed a little further around the shore; we didn’t, however, attempt the full circuit which, at 98km, is too much for one day!
It’s possible to take boat trips on the water and also to visit the east side and a number of lakeside villages. We didn’t but would love to another time. Shuanglang town is reportedly very beautiful, with a labyrinth of winding alleys and traditional homes, as are Putuo Island and its temple, set on a photogenic rocky outcrop.
There are also colourful markets almost every day of the week around Dali, selling everything from food products and clothing to jewellery and local batik. The one in Yousuo is apparently the largest in all of Yunnan!
After Dali we spent two nights in Shaxi, one of only three surviving caravan oases that stretched from Yunnan to India and the only one with a functioning market; on Fridays Bai and Yi villagers converge on the tiny hamlet. Shaxi is a throwback to the days of the Tea Horse Road, when Yunnan tea was exchanged for the prized horses ridden by the Tibetan warriors.
Sugar and salt were also carried by the caravans of horses, mules and yaks and the trails were used by the likes of Buddhist monks and foreign armies to move between Myanmar, India and China. In WWII it was a vital supply route for the Allied troops fighting the Japanese in China. However, peace and the communist takeover in 1949 put an end to the road.
Shaxi is a delight to explore with its rustic wooden houses, courtyards and narrow winding lanes; it was the traditional rural China we had been searching for. The scenery is especially evocative down by the river, where it is possible to rent a pony by the hour and ride part of the trail yourself. We stayed in a cute, compact guesthouse just off from the village square, where there was a big black Tibetan mastiff for company!
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Our three-day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest in the world, was the best part about our Yunnan experience. Almost every step of the way, gorgeous scenery was there to take our breaths away. From snow capped mountains to lush green oasis villages, this is an unmissable hike if you’re in the province.
We started in Qiaotou, where we left our big backpacks at Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse. From there we spent two nights on the trail, first at Naxi Family Guesthouse, which had stunning views from the rooftop and was set around a pretty courtyard, and then at Tibet Guesthouse, near Walnut Garden.
On the third day we picked up a mini van from Tina’s Guesthouse, a short walk back where the trail met the road, and were on our way to Shangri La, looping back on the way to collect our backpacks in Qiaotou.
Before we departed Tina’s, we took a short yet extremely steep trail down to the middle rapids and the Tiger Leaping Stone, where the gorge gets its name. A tiger is said to have once leapt across the Yangzi at this point.
Aside from the incredible scenery, another highlight of the trek is the fantastic food along the way; it was definitely the best of our entire month in China. The veggies are wholesome and organic and the rice is locally grown; the tea is also some of China’s finest.
At an altitude of 3200m, Shangri La was extremely cold in March and we were very grateful for the log burner in the communal area of our guesthouse to keep warm by. In fact, it was hard to steal ourselves away when it came to bedtime! Yet, despite the biting chill, Shangri La was another huge highlight of our trip with its intriguing blend of Tibetan and Han Chinese culture and unmistakable Tibetan monasteries and architecture.
Surrounded by mountains, lakes and grassland, Shangri La was meant to be our last stop in Yunnan before an epic adventure through Western Sichuan to Chengdu. However, fate was not on our side; Western Sichuan used to be part of Tibet proper (the old region of Kham) and the Chinese government periodically closes the region to foreign travellers, especially during Tibetan New Year in March. We have plans to do this rugged road trip another time.
Shangri La is divided into the larger modern side and the old town, which was devastated by a fire in 2014 but which has now been almost completely rebuilt. Fortunately, the two are within walking distance, as are the key sights, so getting around is easy. The old town is a place to soak up the unique Tibetan vibe and explore traditional temples and winding cobbled alleys.
There is Zhuangjin Tong, a huge prayer wheel standing at 21m high and containing 100,000 small prayer wheels, Guishan Temple and 100 Chickens Temple, which offers amazing views over Shangri La. We also visited Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, a 300-year-old Tibetan monastery complex with around 600 monks. It is impressive to say the least.
Options around Shangri La are endless with villages, mountains, meadows and lakes all waiting to be explored; the only issue can be getting to them independently. Public transport is scarce in these remote parts.
Having hastily re-planned the remainder of our trip in Shangri La, we turned on our tails and headed back south to the popular old town of Lijiang, somewhere we’d purposefully planned to avoid. However, we were pleasantly surprised and actually really enjoyed our short time there; it just shows that sometimes you have to make up your own mind about a place.
With its winding maze of cobbled streets, old wooden buildings and gushing canals, Lijiang sucks in over 8 million people a year, but not without good reason. It is a very, very pretty place. The old town is a must to explore but, with the predictable number of other explorers, we had to do it in small doses!
Just a short walk away, Black Dragon Pool Park offers an obligatory photo opportunity of Yulong Xueshan, also known as Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. If you want to avoid paying the entrance fee, do as we did and enter via the back door after having hiked Xiang Shan – Elephant Hill. The hike started just up from our guesthouse and meanders across a spiny ridge, with stunning views over the surrounding area, to the other side of the hill and the park.
Baisha and Shuhe
During our time in Lijiang, we also visited nearby Baisha village and Shuhe old town. Baisha is known as a centre of Naxi embroidery; this minority descend from ethnically Tibetan Qiang tribes and, until recently, lived in matrilineal families.
Shuhe, on the other hand, resembles Lijiang in many ways, complete with hordes of day trippers seeking a marginally more tranquil setting. It was also a staging post on the Tea Horse Road.
We enjoyed wandering the cobblestone alleys and streets south of the main square, which were picturesque at the foot of Yulong Xueshan. If you have more time, you can head to Jade Peak Monastery, on a hillside 5km past Baisha, or up Jade Dragon Snow Mountain itself, which is kitted out with chairlifts and exorbitant entrance fees!
Having been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, Lijiang is firmly on the tourist trail, both for Western and Chinese travellers alike. Yet, it is a quintessential part of the Yunnan experience that we were glad not to have missed.
Read more about China in Xi’an: The Old Silk Road Begins!