Yunnan: Mighty Rivers & Holy Mountains
Travel the Yunnan Province off the beaten trackMap
Travel the impressive mountain landscape of northern Yunnan
The north of Yunnan province, still largely undiscovered by Western tourists, was for a long time regarded as one of the most remote corners of China. Deep valleys, raging rivers, and snow-covered mountain peaks up to 6700 meters high shape the landscape.
However, with the improvements of the infrastructure it became now easier to access the remote valleys of Yunnan Province.
In the first part of this fascinating journey through Yunnan you travel in the footsteps of the old tea caravans: you travel on a part of the legendary “Tea and Horse Road” that stretches from the idyllic village of Yiwu in south Yunnan up to the Tibetan Highlands. Old villages, splendid temples and colorful markets still today bear witness to that once important but long forgotten trading route.
Meet some of the 56 ethnic groups in Yunnan province in Southwest China and get an insight on the rich Tibetan cultures. A fascinating journey full of contrasts - away from the big tourist groups - to the remotest corners of Yunnan Province.
Travel along the wild rivers of south-west China
Three of China’s most important rivers, the Mekong, the Salween, and the Yangtze, flow for about 300 kilometers parallel coming from Tibet through the northern parts of Yunnan province, till the Yangtze turns north at the so-called “first bend of the Yangtze" at Shigu, while the two other rivers continue their way south to the Bay of Bengal and the South Chinese Sea respectively.
That unique natural landscape was recently placed on UNESCO’s list of world natural heritage sites as the “Three Parallel Rivers National Park”.
In the heart of the “Three Parallel Rivers National Park” is the village of Liming. The main attraction of Liming and of the “Three Parallel Rivers National Park” is the secluded Lao Jun Shan (Mount Laojun), which excites visitors with its gigantic red Danxia sandstone rocks. The Danxia sandstone formations are among the most beautiful and spectacular sandstone formations of their kind in China.
In Liming there are a couple of rustic guesthouses where you can spend the night.
Meili Mountain: A Journey to the holy peaks of Yunnan, South-West China.
The second leg of the journey takes you for the most part along the headwaters of the two rivers Yangtze and Mekong. Both ethnically and from the point of view of the landscape the traveler is immersed in what seems to be a different world.
The Buddhist monasteries, brightly-colored prayer flags, and decorated stupas along the route are clear signs that you are now travelling on Tibetan soil, and they make a beautiful contrast to the majestically looming, snow capped peak of Meili Mountain further north.
At 6700m Kawa Karpo (also called Mount Meili) is the highest peak in Yunnan province, and at the same time one of the fourteen holy mountains of the Tibetans. Mount Meili – or Kawa Karpo – is one of the few peaks in the world that has yet to be scaled. In an attempt in 1991 seventeen climbers met their death. Out of respect for Tibetan culture and religion the Chinese government has since then forbidden further attempts to climb the Kawa Karpo mountain.
Yunnan journey to Cizhong in the Mekong Valley
On your Yunnan journey along the Mekong River you spend the night in the idyllic village of Cizhong.
The village of Cizhong is situated on a sunny terrace high over the Mekong River. 150 years ago French and Swiss Jesuit missionaries of the „Mission Etrangère de Paris“ settled in Cizhong and built a Catholic church which still today is used and maintained by the Christian community.
Since then about 80% of the population of Cizhong belong to the Catholic faith. The missionaries of that time quickly noticed that the climate of Cizhong is perfectly suited to cultivation of vineyards.
Until recently wine was being produced in Cizhong from vines brought in by the missionaries. Because the vines gave less and less of a harvest they were replaced by younger local varieties in recent years.
So, apart from Christianity, the missionaries also brought with them good wine to Cizhong and the Mekong Valley.
Journey to Shangri-La in Yunnan province, China
Through the fascinating landscape of northern Yunnan your journey continues in the direction of Zhongdian. The city of Zhongdian is situated at 3,300 meters on the south-eastern end of the Tibetan Plateau.
Not least for reasons of tourism the city of Zhongdian was recently renamed Shangri-La, an allusion to the Shangri-La described by James Hilton in his novel The Lost Horizon, which appeared in 1933.
On a trip to Shangri-La a visit to Songtsam Monastery should not be left out. Shangri-La’s Songtsam Monastery is a little to the north of the city. For those who prefer an upscale accommodation can spend a night either in Songtsam Retreat Hotel or in Songtsam Lodge, both of which are within sight of Songtsam Monastery.
Songtsam Monastery was built in the 17th century and is one of the biggest Tibetan monasteries in Yunnan province. Likewise, you should also visit the old town of Shangri-La.
The beauty of the landscape and the variety found on this journey through Yunnan cast a spell on even visitors who have seen a lot of China. On top of that, you are lodged partially in tastefully furnished boutique hotels that give an additional flair to this journey through Yunnan Province in South-West China.
"...the scenery was out of this world..."
Mike from Scottland
"...everything went smooth, we had a great time...the view from our hotel room in Deqin was fantastic..."
Denise from Germany
Day 1: ARRIVAL IN LIJIANG
Arrival in Lijiang in the beautiful Yunnan Province in China's Southwest. Lijiang can be reched by plane from every major city in China or within 3 hours by high speed train from Kunming. Transfer to your hotel in Shuhe.
Shuhe was once a busy trading station on the “Tea and Horse Road”, an extension of the southern Silk Road.
A small river flows right through the middle of the idyllic village, and many of the ancient wooden houses have been meanwhile renovated and converted into elegant bars or restaurants.
Check-in in the hotel. After that you go for a stroll through Shuhe.
Overnight stay in Shuhe old town.
Day 2: LIJIANG
Drive to Lijiang.The old town of Lijiang center is in Yunnan province at the foot of the snow-covered Jade Dragon Mountain. You take your first stroll through the wonderful old town with its innumerable narrow laneways and canals and, by doing so, you learn more about the distinctive features and mysteries of the mystical Naxi culture.
Almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1996, Lijiang was after its rebuilding placed on UNESCO’s list of world cultural heritages.
A visit to the romantic park called “Black Dragon’s Pond”, from where, if the weather is good, you have a great view of “Jade Dragon Mountain” (Yu Long Shan).
An optional tour in the afternoon:
In the afternoon you ride a bicycle for 5 km through Lijiang Valley in a northerly direction toward Baisha. Baisha was once the capital of the Naxi Kingdom and the birthplace of the first Naxi king. Visit Liuli Temple, where there are beautiful, well-preserved wall paintings from the late Ming Dynasty to be admired.
After that you ride your bike to Yufeng Temple. The lama monastery Yufeng was built in 1756. Inside is a 400-year-old camellia tree which still presents its gorgeous blossom-gown every spring. From there you ride to the village of Yuhu, a romantic village where the famous Austro-American botanist Joseph Rock lived from 1922 to 1949. Late in the afternoon you ride back to Shuhe.
Day 3: TRAVEL FROM LIJIANG TO YANGTZE FIRST BEND AND LIMING TO TACHENG VILLAGE
Today’s trip takes us over long stretches along the headwaters of the Yangtze River. You follow the valley to Shigu, where the Yangtze, coming from the north, makes a turn of 180 degrees and flows practically parallel to the north again.
Continue your journey to Liming. The main attractions of the seldom visited Lao Jun Shan (Laojun Shan) are the gigantic red Danxia sandstone rocks which are among the most beautiful and spectacular sandstone formations of their kind in China.
By cable car you go travel to the peak of Mount Qian Gui. At the peak erosion over millions of years has left us with a glorious and fascinating landscape which looks like an over-dimensional turtle shell. The view from Mount Qian Gui is overpowering.
Further travel (about 1 hour) to the idyllic village of Tacheng lying in a tributary valley of the Yangtze River. Overnight accommodation is at Tacheng.
Day 4: TRAVEL ALONG THE MEKONG RIVER FROM TACHENG TO CIZHONG VILLAG
In the morning you visit Tacheng Nature Reserve, the home of the golden Yunnan snub-nosed monkey. That rare breed of monkey lives exclusively in the remote forests of south-west China and in northern Myanmar. You leave the Yangtze Valley, and crossing the watershed reach the fertile Mekong Valley. This region is predominantly inhabited by the Lisu ethnic group.
You follow the Mekong River northwards. Just after Weixi you visit the hidden Gagyu monastery Khampu Shou Guo Si, which is situated high over the Mekong Valley, and features some beautiful wall paintings (being renovated at the moment).
You travel on along the Mekong River to Cizhong, an idyllic village where French and Swiss Jesuit missionaries of the „Mission Etrangère de Paris“ built a well-preserved Catholic church 150 years ago. It is still used and maintained today by the Christian community. About 80% of Cizhong’s population since then has belonged to the Catholic faith. Stroll through the village. Overnight stay in Cizhong.
Day 5: CIZHONG – FEILAI SI
Straight after Cizhong the road winds out of the Mekong Valley up to 3,000 meters above sea level. The view of holy Kawa Karpo (6,700m) and of the whole Mekong Valley is stunning and one of the highlights of this journey.
With a bit of luck en route you can watch how daring locals with the help of a simple pulley cross over the Mekong River hanging onto a rope. Check-in at the hotel.
Afterwards you go down into the barren and wild Mekong Valley. The landscape is spectacular!
After arriving at Glacier Park you drive in a small park bus about 4 km to the starting point of your hike. From there you hike about 1 hour up the mountain to Taizi Monastery situated at the foot of Mingyong Glacier. People who still feel energetic can hike on to the viewing platform
Trip back to Feilai Si for overnight accommodation.
Day 6: FEILAI SI – BENZILAN – ZHONGDIAN
If the weather is fine early birds experience an unforgettable sunrise against the impressive mountain background of Kawa Karpo. After a last glimpse of holy Kawa Karpo the road winds once more high up to Ya Kou Pass, 4,292 meters high, over into the valley of the Yangtze.
About 10 km before Benzilan, which is already in the Yangtze Valley, you visit Dhandrumping Monastery, one of the most significant monasteries in the region.
Dhandrumping Monastery had its origins in the 17th century, was totally destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and was then reconstructed on this site. Today Dhandrumping Monasterz accommodates 300 monks once again. You travel on to Benzilan.
The city of Benzilan is situated on the bank of the Yangtze River and was once an inconspicuous trading post where Main Road G214 meets Highway X041 from Xiangcheng. The Yangtze gives Benzilan a very temperate and fertile climate with mild temperatures. It is said that on the slopes around Benzilan Yunnan’s best apples and pears are growing.
Continue your journey to Zhongdian / Shangri-La
Day 7: ZHONGDIAN / SHANGRI-LA
A trip by public bus brings you to Songtsam Monastery, a 300 years old Tibetan monastery. The Songtsam Monastery is important from an historical point of view because in the 17th century it was personally consecrated by the 5th Dalai Lama. Songtsam Monastery is about 3 km north of Zhongdian. Damaged during the Cultural Revolution, it is now again one of the biggest and most influential monasteries in the area.
Trip back to Zhongdian where you pay a visit to the old town. In doing so you will climb up “Turtle Mountain”. Whoever wants to do something good for his karma tries simply to turn the gigantic prayer wheel three times in a clockwise direction. Time at your disposal. (Tip: from October till April warm winter clothing is necessary. A wind breaker/raincoat is recommended during the summer months as well).
In the afternoon you can undertake a bicycel tour around Lake Napa. Lake Napa is situated somewhat outside Zhongdian. In the winter months you can observe around Lake Napa black-throated cranes which make a break here on their long flight from south to north. On the way you will pass numerous Tibetan villages whose houses are still traditionally built of clay. (Bike tour: flat, about 37 km with a short climb at both the start and the finish of the tour).
Let your day be rounded off with a delicious Tibetan dinner in an authentic 200-year-old Tibetan house.
Day 8: ZHONGDIAN – BAISHUI TAI – TIGER LEAPING GORGE
On a winding road through breathtaking landscapes you reach Baishuitai. The impressive sinter limestone terraces of Baishuitai have been formed by constantly flowing water over a period of 250,000 years.
In the afternoon the journey continues in the shadow of Haba Ranges through a charming landscape to Tiger Leap Gorge (Hu Tiao Xia), where the masses of the Yangtze’s waters are squeezed through a narrow gorge, in places only 20 meters wide. Especially during the summer months that is an impressive natural spectacle.
Your driver will take you into Tiger Leaping Gorge as far as the road that leads up to the Tea Horse Guesthouse. On foot you follow the small road up to the Tea Horse Guesthouse.
Already from there you have a unique view down onto the Yangtze. After a walk of an hour you reach the Tea Horse Guesthouse high up over the gorge. You spend the evening on the terrace and enjoy the glorious view of Jade Dragon Mountain.
Overnight stay in a simple guesthouse high over Tiger Leaping Gorge with a marvelous view of Jade Dragon Mountain.
Day 9: TIGER LEAPING GORGE (Hike) – LIJIANG/SHUHE
You leave the Tea Horse Guesthouse and walk on a scenic high path for a good 2 hours along the slopes of Haba Mountain through Tiger Leaping Gorge.
During the whole hike you have a spectacular view of Tiger Leaping Gorge and the “5 fingers” of snowy Jade Dragon Mountain.
The walk is mainly flat as far as the village of Bendiwan, where you take a break and enjoy the beautiful view. Afterwards the walk is mostly downhill for another 1,5 hours as far as Tina’s Guesthouse, where your driver is waiting for you.
Drive to Lijiang/Shuhe (2 hours).
From Lijiang there is an evening flight to Beijing, Chengdu, or Kunming, or you spend a night in Lijiang. Another option is to catch the night train from Lijiang to Kunming.