Travel along the ancient Tea and Horse Road
Travel along one of the oldest trading routesMap
Travel the Yunnan part of the Tea and Horse Road
The Tea and Horse Road was an extensive network of routes connecting the important tea-growing regions in Yunnan and Sichuan with the Tibetan highlands. Tea, salt and sugar were once transported along these important trade routes to Tibet and, in the opposite direction, Tibetan horses were brought to China. During the Song Dynasty in particular, the sturdy Tibetan horses were a valued trading commodity; they were used as warhorses against the wild nomadic tribes from the north.
The Tea and Horse Road led through one of the most beautiful and yet most dangerous regions of China. It wasn't unusual for tea caravans to be attacked by robbers and bandits on their way to Yunnan.
This trade meant that in the towns along the route there was always plenty of hustle and bustle, markets invited visitors to spend their money and to exchange news. Even today, the aura of those times can still be felt in the villages and high valleys nestled against the mountainsides. Looking closer, in Zhongdian, Lijiang and Shaxi you can still find the old caravanserais, where caravan drivers once indulged their horses in a well-earned rest after the long and sometimes dangerous section of road behind them.
This tour will lead you in the tracks of these old tea caravans, from Zhongdian in the Tibetan highlands through the one-time caravan halts of Lijiang and Shaxi, to the former imperial city of Dali on the banks of Erhai Lake. You will fall in love with the unique landscape, ancient villages and historical background to this journey!
JOURNEY ALONG THE TEA AND HORSE ROAD: KUNMING AND THE WESTERN HILLS
The city of Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province and the starting point for your journey along the Tea and Horse Road. Kunming, with a population of 7 million, is situated at 1900 meters above sea level and has a pleasant, spring-like climate almost all year round. Hence the local government also describing Kunming as the "City of Eternal Spring". The city of Kunming is one of the most pleasant cities in China with comparatively little smog and plenty of sunshine.
On this Yunnan Tour you will visit the Stone Forest of Lunan. The Stone Forest of Lunan is located approx. 1.5 hours south-east of Kunming and is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the area around Kunming. The bizarrely shaped, needle-sharp pinnacles are some of the most remarkable rock formations in China. Numerous winding paths lead left and right through the Stone Forest, enabling you to take an extended walk and easily leave the large tour groups behind. Getting lost on these paths is quite simply part and parcel of a visit to the Stone Forest of Lunan.
After visiting the Stone Forest of Lunan, you will travel back to Kunming where you will visit the Western Hills. From the Western Hills there are fabulous views across the city of Kunming and Dianchi Lake to be enjoyed.
The Western Hills are also often called the "Sleeping Beauty Hills" in reference to their contours which are supposed to resemble a reclining woman whose long hair is said to reach all the way down to Dianchi Lake. The Western Hills are a popular recreation spot for the inhabitants of Kunming, particularly at weekends. The actual highlight of the Western Hills is the Dragon Gate which can be reached after climbing a number of steps. At vertiginous heights, the monks here chiseled numerous grottos, sculptures and pavilions from the steep cliff face in the late 18th century.
FLIGHT FROM KUNMING TO SHANGRI-LA (ZHONGDIAN)
Your journey continues in comfort by plane to Zhongdian.
The city of Zhongdian is situated in the north of Yunnan province, at an altitude of 3200m. The colorful prayer flags, constantly turning prayer wheels, and monasteries are clear signs that you are now on Tibetan soil.
In 2001 the local government decided to rename Zhongdian “Shangri-La”, after the mysterious "Shangri-La" described by the British writer James Hilton in his novel "The Lost Horizon" published in 1933. "Shangri La" is a Tibetan word and means "Land of sacredness and peace". Zhongdian used to be an important stopover for the tea caravans on the Tea and Horse Road, on their testing journey to Tibet.
When travelling to Zhongdian – or indeed Shangri-La – a visit to the Tibetan Songtsam Monastery is not to be missed. The Songtsam Monastery was founded in the 18th century and was personally dedicated by the 5th Dalai Lama.
From Zhongdian (Shangri-La), a cycling tour around beautiful Napa Lake is to be recommended. The ride along the shores of Napa Lake is around 30 km and can easily be managed in an afternoon.
THE TEA AND HORSE ROAD – TRAVEL FROM ZHONGDIAN TO LIJIANG
Your journey along the Tea and Horse Road takes you through Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Threading between Haba Mountain and Jade Dragon Mountain, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the world. There is an impressive 3900m of altitude difference from the Yangtze River in the bottom of the valley to the highest peak of Jade Dragon Mountain at 5596m. According to legend, a tiger once leapt over the gorge in order to escape a group of hunters. Hence the name "Tiger Leaping Gorge".
If you enjoy walking, a scenic 2 or 3-day hike will take you through Tiger Leaping Gorge on a beautiful high trail.
Your journey continues to Shigu, to the "First Bend" in the Yangtze River where the 3rd longest river in the world makes a 180 degree bend and flows on northwards, practically parallel to its earlier path.
YUNNAN TRAVEL: THE OLD TOWN OF LIJIANG/THE VILLAGE OF SHUHE
The confusion of alleyways and canals leading through the well-preserved old town of Lijiang are simply captivating.
The best time to discover Lijiang's old town is early in the morning, before the invasion of the Chinese tour groups. At this time of day you will have the old town of Lijiang almost to yourself.
Somewhat outside of Lijiang, the snow-covered peaks of Jade Dragon Mountain soar upwards into the deep blue sky. There is a beautiful view of Jade Dragon Mountain from "Black Dragon Pond" which is just a few minutes walk from the old town.
On a trip to Lijiang you should think carefully about whether to stay in the old town of Lijiang or whether it's preferable to spend the night in the somewhat quieter village of Shuhe.
The village of Shuhe is approx. 9 km north of Lijiang and can easily be reached by public transport. Shuhe offers very good hotels in all price categories in much the same way as does Lijiang. In addition, Shuhe is also well suited as a base for extended bike rides along the Lijiang Valley.
SHAXI VILLAGE: ONCE A PROSPEROUS TOWN ON THE TEA AND HORSE ROAD
The town of Shaxi was once an important and prosperous trading station on the "Tea and Horse Road", a spur of the southern Silk Road. On the "Tea and Horse Road", it was primarily tea from Xishuangbanna which was transported to Tibet and, in the opposite direction, salt and horses (hence the name: Tea and Horse Road).
Shaxi (formerly Sideng) lost its significance as a stopover for the tea caravans when the water level in Erhai Lake dropped, enabling a quicker and safer passage to the east of the Cang mountains. The village of Shaxi (Sideng) fell into obscurity and was only recently lovingly renovated with the support of the Swiss government.
Very close to Shaxi is Shibao Mountain where you can spend time marveling at the beautiful 10th century Buddhist stonework. Shibaoshan can be reached either on foot (approx. 2 hours' walk from Shaxi) or you can take the car up there.
You can easlily spend 2 or 3 days in Shaxi, allowing time for relaxation and a well-earned rest. There is plenty of accommodation available in Shaxi. There are many beautiful, tastefully decorated boutique guesthouses very close to the village square. Prices for accommodation in Shaxi are moderate.
JOURNEY FROM SHAXI TO XIZHOU AND DALI
On the way from Shaxi to Dali you make a stop in the village of Xizhou. Xizhou is located approx. 20 km north of Dali on the banks of Erhai Lake. Xizhou is famous for its well-maintained old buildings in the Bai style. Many of Xizhou's old buildings are officially protected by the government.
If you prefer to avoid the tourist crush in Dali, an overnight stay in quieter Xizhou is to be recommended. In Xizhou, numerous old Bai houses have been converted into tasteful boutique hotels. The village of Xizhou is also ideally suited for extended bike rides along the shores of Erhai Lake.
South of Xizhou is the old town of Dali. Dali is situated at an altitude of 1900 meters above sea level, between Erhai Lake and the Cang Mountains at over 4000 meters in height. From the 9th to the 13th centuries, Dali was the capital city of the once influential Nanzhao Kingdom which then stretched to Burma, northern Thailand and Tibet. Later, Dali became the capital of the Dali Kingdom, the demise of which was sealed with the invasion of Kublai Khan in 1253. Under Kublai Khan, Dali became an important military outpost for the Mongols.
Over the following 600 years life in Dali became very quiet. As the water level in Erhai Lake slowly began to drop, a new, faster route to the east of the Cang Mountains opened up on the legendary "Tea and Horse Road" and Dali developed to become an important place for the loading and unloading of goods on the route to and from Tibet.
EXTENSION OF YOUR YUNNAN TOUR TO WEISHAN AND DONGLIANHUA
If you would like to extend your Yunnan tour along the Tea and Horse Road, we recommend undertaking a journey to Weishan. The picturesque village of Weishan is situated 50 km south of Dali, and is far less frequented by tourists than is the old town of Dali.
Weishan was once an important and prosperous trading place during the Nanzhao Kingdom in the 8th and 9th centuries. Anyone seeking the original China will be well rewarded by a journey to Weishan.
Nearby Weibaoshan is dotted with numerous interesting temples and pavilions from various periods and is perfectly suited for short walks. The old town of Weishan is very easy to get around. The Cheng Gu Lou is situated in the centre. This massive tower was erected in 1390 during the Ming Dynasty and served as the east gate of Weishan. From the Cheng Gu Lou a single street leads both north and south.
On your journey to Weishan you could make a stop at Donglianhua. This primarily Muslim village was once an important trading point and controlled large sections of the Tea and Horse Road. The inhabitants of Donglianhua are the ethnic Hui people. Most of them are descended from Muslim soldiers who conquered Yunnan province for Kublai Khan's Mongol armies on their way to Burma in the 13th century. After the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1386), many of these soldiers remained in Yunnan. The former horsemen gradually became traders and farmers and the village of Donglianhua developed to become an important trading base on the Tea and Horse Road, and later on the Burma Road for goods from Burma.
"...a truly inspiring journey...thank for organizing this tour for us..."
Matt from Australia
"...we enjoyed our stay at Shaxi. The hotel staff were really friendly and helpful..."
Ursula from Switzerland
Day 1: KUNMING - STONE FOREST - WESTERN MOUNTAINS
Drive to the Stone Forrest near Lunan, one of the most prominent tourist attractions of the Yunnan Province. Years of rain and erosion left behind a bizarre and impressive landscape of limestone pillars which, with a little imagination, indeed resembles a forest.
You take a walk through the maze of paths and walkways leading through this natural wonderland and learn more about the Sani people, an ethnic minority populating the area around the Stone Forest.
Head back to Kunming where you visit the Western Mountains. The Western Hills are also often called the "Sleeping Beauty Hills" in reference to their contours which are supposed to resemble a reclining woman whose long hair is said to reach all the way down to Dianchi Lake. You climb up the stairs to the Dragon Gate and enjoy the beautiful view over Dianchi Lake and Kunming.
Drive back to Kunming. Overnight accommodation at Kunming.
Day 2: KUNMING – FLIGHT TO ZHONGDIAN (SHANGRI-LA), YUNNAN PROVINCE
One hour flight to Zhongdian, which recently changed its name and is now called "Shangri La".
Zhongdian is situated amongst a stunning landscape on the eastern Tibetan Plateau at about 3200 meters above sea level. Upon arrival drive to a view point from where you enjoy breathtaking views over the scenic Napa Lake.
Continue to the picturesque old town of Zhongdian. Take a walking tour around the old town. You climb Turtle Hill and spin the world’s biggest prayer wheel three times for a good karma.
You visit the 300 years old Songtsam Tibetan Monastery. Destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the Songtsam Monastery is now again one of the most important Buddhist monasteries in the area. Head back to Zhongdian Old Town.
Dinner takes place at a rustic, traditional Tibetan house with a history that goes back over 200 years.
Day 3: ZHONGDIAN - TIGER LEAPING GORGE - LIJIANG
You leave Zhongdian and the eastern Tibetan Plateau and drive through a magnificent landscape toward Lijiang.
On the way, visit the impressive “Tiger Leaping Gorge” (Hu Tiao Xia), where the Yangtze waters are squeezed through a narrow, at some places only 15 meters wide gorge. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest canyons in the world. It got its name from a story describing how a tiger escaped its hunters by leaping across the Yangtze River in one go. You climb down into the gorge (many stairs), to experience the forces of nature from close-up.
Continue to Shigu village, to see the famous "First Bend", where the Yangtze River is making an abrupt 180 degree turn and flows for several kilometers, parallel to itself towards the north again. Take a walking tour through Shigu village before driving to Lijiang. The lovely ancient Naxi town of Lijiang is in a fertile valley 2’400 meters above sea level at the foot of the 5’596 meters high Yulong Shan or Jade Dragon Mountain. Check-in at the Hotel.
Day 4: YUNNAN TRAVEL: THE LIJIANG OLD TOWN
Before the big tourist-influx, you take a stroll through the apparently countless narrow lanes and canals crisscrossing the old town. This time of the day, you have the old town of Lijiang almost on your own. You also learn more about the secrets of the mystic Naxi-Dongba culture.
Lijiang was hit by a devastating earthquake that flattened most of the new town in 1996. During the reconstruction, Lijiang came also to the attention of the UESCO, which added Old Town Lijiang to the World Cultural Heritage List in 1997.
Continue to the wonderful "Black Dragon Pool" Park from where, weather permitting, you will enjoy a spectacular view of the 5'596 Meters high "Jade Dragon Mountain" (Yu Long Shan).
Drive to the village of "Baisha", the birth place of the first King of the Naxi kingdom. Visit the Liu Li Temple, with its beautiful, well preserved wall paintings. Continue to the village of Yuhu, a romantic village where the Austrian-American Botanist Joseph Rock used to live from 1922 to 1949. His house has been transformed to a small museum about the live and work of Joseph Rock. Head back to Lijiang.
Tip for the evening: Visit of a Dongba Concert, the typical Naxi Music.
Day 5: TRAVEL FROM LIJIANG TO SHAXI IN YUNNAN PROVINCE
Today you travel to Shaxi. The picturesque Shaxi village was formerly a pivotal stop on the Tea and Horse Road from Yunnan to Tibet. Over hundreds of years, tea and other goods were transported on this ancient trading route network from the tea producing areas in the southern Yunnan Province to Tibet.
During the 1990s Shaxi village has been renovated with the help of the Swiss government.
Visit Shibao Mountain with the Shizhong Temple. The impressive rock carvings of Shibaoshan are over 1300 years old and are testimony of the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in the region.
If you like you can make a beautiful walk along the ancient Tea and Horse Trail back to Shaxi with magnificent views over the Shaxi Valley below*. Check-in at the hotel and walking tour around the village.
Overnight accommodation at Shaxi in a rustic guesthouse near the old market square.
Day 6: SHAXI - XIZHOU - DALI
On your way to Dali, you make a stop at Xizhou. The picturesque Xizhou village is famous for it well preserved Qing style architecture. You make a walking tour around the old town. Visit the magnificent former residence of the once influential Yan Family.
Continue to Dali. Dali is situated on the western shores of the Erhai Lake at the foot of the 4000m high Cang Shan mountain range.
Dali is mainly inhabited by people of the Bai ethnic group, which is renowned for their handicrafts.
Check-in at the hotel. Walking tour through the old town.
Visit the 3 Pagodas of the San Ta Si Monastery from the 9th century.
Overnight accommodation is at Dali within walking distance of the old town.
Day 7: DALI – DONGLIANHUA – WEISHAN – DALI
Drive to Weishan, located about 50km south of Dali Old Town. Along the way, you make a stop at the Village of Donglianhua.
This idyllic ancient village Donglianhua is mainly inhabited by the Hui Muslim ethnic minority group. Most of them are descendants of Muslim soldiers who conquered the Yunnan province for the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan in the 13th century on their way to Burma. The former horsemen became gradually farmers and merchants and the village Donglianhua developed into an important trading point of the Tea and Horse Road and later it controlled large parts of the trade for goods from Burma along the Burma Road.
Continue to Weishan.
The picturesque town of Weishan used to be an important and wealthy trading town during the powerful Nanzhao Kingdom throughout the 8th and 9th century.
Take a walking tour around Weiban before heading for nearby Weibao Shan. Weibao Shan is located 14 kilometers outside of Weishan and is considered as one of the 14 sacred Daoist Mountains in China. Weibao Shan is also regarded as the birthplace of Xinulou, the founder of the Nanzhao Kingdom. Visit Wencheng Temple which was recently renovated and is now home to an interesting exhibition about the Nanzhao Kingdom and its various Kings. Drive back to Dali. Overnight accommodation is at Dali.
Day 8: DALI DEPARTURE
Transfer to the Dali/Xiaguan Airport or train station. From Dali you can travel by high-speed train to Kunming in about two hours.