Yunnan Tour: South of the Clouds
The in-depth tour of Yunnan Province in China with 3 days hiking in the Tiger Leaping GorgeMap
Yunnan (云南) – “South of the Clouds”
A journey through the delightful Yunnan Province with all its wonderful variety.
“South of the Clouds” – that name, which sounds rather romantic, is the literal translation of Yunnan, and is symptomatic of one of the most diversified and exciting provinces in the Middle Kingdom. Its cuisine, ethnic variety and landscapes make Yunnan Province one of the most appealing regions in Asia.
Over secluded roads, this journey takes you through the rice terraces of Yuanyang, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, along the border with Laos as far as the fertile tea-growing areas of Xishuangbanna in the far south of the province. From Xishuangbanna you travel further in the footsteps of the tea caravans along the legendary Tea and Horse Road all the way up onto the Tibetan Plateau at 3,300 meters above sea level.
Travel to Xishuangbanna in the south of Yunnan Province
Xishuangbanna is the most southerly district in Yunnan Province. In the south-west, it shares its border with Burma and in the south-east with Laos.
The name Xishuangbanna is a Chinese version of the Dai words Sip Song Ban Na, which translates, more or less, as “twelve rice-growing districts”. The sub-tropical climate does in fact make Xishuangbanna one of the most fertile regions of Yunnan Province. Not only rice, but vegetables, bananas, coffee, and sugar cane are grown.
Xishuangbanna is also the home of many of the ethnic minorities of Yunnan Province. Here you find Dai, Zhuang, Hui, Bai, Yao, Lisu, Miao (Akka), Wa, Hani, Bulang and Jinuo. However, you will have to travel far into the mountain regions of the south of Yunnan Province to meet these peoples in their traditional environment. Modernization has also taken hold of this part of China, with all of its advantages and disadvantages. But, there are still many local markets and festivities around Yunnan where you have a good chance to meet the ethnic minorities of Xishuangbanna in their colorful traditional costumes.
Travel to Jinghong, capital of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan
Jinghong, the capital of the autonomous prefecture of Xishuangbanna, is situated on the south-western bank of the Mekong River, which in China is called Lancang Jiang. As soon as the Lancang River crosses the border into Laos further to the south, it changes its name and becomes the Mekong River. Despite modernization that has taken place in recent years the relaxed atmosphere is still dominant in Jinghong.
In recent times Xishuangbanna has developed into a very popular holiday destination for Chinese tourists. Buying jade from Burma is particularly high on the list with the Chinese. In China there is a general belief that you gain health, success, and a long life in harmony with nature through jade. As a result, many Burmese are active in the jade industry.
For botanists and lovers of plants a visit to the botanical garden in Jinghong is recommended. Here you will find over 600 varieties of tropical plants. Not far from the botanical garden there is another garden with sub-tropical medicinal plants used in the Chinese medicine.
Thanks to the modern airport, Jinghong has become very easy to reach. Via the freeway from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, it will take you only six hours to reach Jinghong. There is plenty of accommodation in Jinghong, everything from simple backpacker accommodation to modern 5-star hotels.
Travel from Jinghong to Dali in China
From Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna in the south of Yunnan Province, you fly to the former royal city, Dali. The flight from Jinghong to Dali lasts about one hour.
The old Town of Dali is situated on the western bank of Lake Erhai in the shadow of the 4,000 meter Cang Mountain Range. During the Tang Dynasty, Dali was once the capital of the Kingdom of Nanzhao, which stretched as far as northern Thailand, Burma, and Tibet. Later Dali became the capital of the Kingdom of Dali, whose destruction was sealed by the invasion of Kublai Khan in 1253. The area around Dali is inhabited mainly by the ethnic group “Bai”. The Bai are regarded as simple, hard-working people, noted for their excellent handicrafts. The members of the Bai ethnic minority near Dali live mainly from agriculture and tourism.
The many small bars within old town offer a cozy atmosphere and make Dali a popular destination for backpackers. Not least because of its pleasant climate, Dali has also become a popular destination for Chinese tourists in recent years. So, particularly in the evenings, it can be quite noisy and boisterous in the bars and lanes of Dali Old Town.
If you find the Dali Old Town too touristy, you can find overnight accommodation a little further on in the village of Xizhou. This village is known for its well-preserved Bai architecture and its relaxed atmosphere. Any traveler to Xizhou should visit the wonderful residence of the Yan family. Several internal courtyards, running in succession are to be found in this two-story building. This impressive residence was recently renovated and is again resplendent in its former glory! From Xizhou you can undertake fantastic bicycle tours along the nearby Lake Erhai.
Journey from Dali ancient town/ Xizhou on Lake Erhai to Shaxi
You interrupt your journey from Dali or Xizhou to Shaxi with a visit to Shibaoshan. Mount Shibaoshan is situated 12 kilometers north-west of Shaxi. The highlight of the trip to the mountain is the visit to Shizhong Temple. In the grottos above Shizhong Temple you can admire Buddhist stone sculptures more than 1,500 years old. These fine and detailed sculptures date from the Tang Dynasty, when Mahayana Buddhism started to spread in Shaxi Valley.
From Shizhong Temple you can follow a well-maintained hiking path taking 1.5 hours to reach Shaxi. The walking route from Shizhong Temple to Shaxi offers a glorious view of Shaxi Valley and the surrounding mountain landscape.
Shaxi was once an important trading station on the legendary Tea and Horse Road, where tea from the south of Yunnan Province was transported to Tibet, and in exchange, salt and Tibetan horses found their way into Yunnan Province.
Because of the trade on the Tea and Horse Road, Shaxi developed into a cultural center for the region. Many mansions and caravanserai were constructed, and Peking operas were presented on the stage in the village square. It was also over the Tea and Horse Road that Buddhism entered the area around Shaxi. A hint of that former prosperity can still be felt there today.
Hiking along Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province, China
The three-day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge is a unique experience and without a doubt is one of the highlights of your trip to China.
The marvelous path through high country leads you along the slopes of Mount Haba through Tiger Leaping Gorge and offers breathtaking views of the impressive Jade Dragon Mountain and of the Yangtze Valley. The hike through the gorge is quite suitable for families with children aged seven or over. A mule can be hired to take smaller children or for carrying backpacks. If you like it a bit more sporty, you can do the trek in 2 days.
Nowadays, there is quite good accommodation in Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Naxi Family Guesthouse, the Tea Horse Guesthouse, and the Half Way House all offer attractive overnight board and lodging. For the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge we recommend that you take a daypack that can hold everything you need during the hike. Your main luggage will stay with the driver or can be deposited in Qiaotou. If you do not want to make the whole hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, you can hire a local taxi in Qiaotou and be driven up to your chosen guest house.
Travel via Baishuitai to Shangri-La (Zhongdian)
Your trip to China takes you out of Tiger Leaping Gorge along a winding road to Zhongdian, which recently has also been named Shangri La. En route you make a stop in the village of Baidi, where you can view the glorious limestone terraces of Baishuitai.
Baishuitai literally means “white water terraces”, which refers to the crystal-clear water from whose limestone sediments the Baishuitai terraces are formed. The ethnic minority of Naxi, who live in this area, regard the surroundings of Baishuitai as sacred because they are believed to be the birthplace of the mystical Naxi-Dongba cult. From the village of Baidi a short path leads to the Baishuitai terraces. If you wish you can go by horse along this short track.
From Baishuitai the road winds up to the Tibetan Plateau, up to 3,300 meters above sea level. The view of Mount Haba, 5,396 meters high, is overwhelming. The trip from Tiger Leaping Gorge via Baishuitai to Shangri La lasts a little over four hours.
Yunnan Travel: Zhongdian / Shangri La
The city of Zhongdian is situated on the eastern Tibetan Plateau at 3,300 meters above sea level.
In 1997 the city of Zhongdian was officially renamed by the local government Shangri La, probably in reference to the novel The Lost Horizon by the British writer James Hilton, which was published in 1933. Today both Shangri La and Zhongdian are used as the name of the quickly developing city. Tibetans refer to the Old Town of Zhongdian as “Gyanthang”.
The Old Town of Shangri La (Zhongdian) has a very Tibetan character. Everywhere there are prayer flags fluttering in the wind, prayer wheels rotate continuously in a clockwise direction, and the gold colored roofs of Songtsam Monastery are in contrast to the dark blue sky.
On a trip to Shangri La you should pay a visit to Mount Shika. Mount Shika, 4449 meters high, lies about seven kilometers west of Shangri La (Zhongdian). The first section of the cable car trip leads up to a plateau, on whose grassland many herds of yak scrimmage in summer.
From there another cable car leads up to the peak of Mount Shika. On a clear day you have a glorious panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, Lake Napa, and the city of Shangri La.
On a hiking trail, you can walk from Mount Shika back down into the valley. Many springs feed the several mountain lakes with clean spring water. From one of these springs on Mount Shika the water is used to produce the well-known Shangri La beer in Zhongdian. For an outing to Mount Shika you must plan half a day.
Remarkably enough, many renowned tourist guidebooks advise against a trip to Shangri La in winter. In fact, the surroundings of Shangri La in winter are definitely worth a visit. There is barely any precipitation, a lot of sunshine, the sky is deep blue and there are hardly any tourists. By day it is a pleasant temperature in the sun. But during the night the temperatures fall well below freezing. With many good hotels with heated rooms, a stay in Shangri La can be pleasant in winter too.
Trip from Zhongdian via Shigu to Lijiang
Your Yunnan journey continues with a trip to Lijiang. It is worthwhile making a short stop near Shigu, where the Yangtze, flowing from the north, makes a 180 degree turn, and flows back to the north practically following a parallel course.
The village of Shigu is chiefly known as a town on the “first bend of the Yangtze River”.
In Chinese history Shigu twice played a central role. On the way to Burma in the 13th century, Kublai Khan forded the Yangtze with his army at Shigu.
In the same way, a part of the Red Army on its Long March is said to have reached the other side of the Yangtze River at Shigu with the help of the local population. That event is still commemorated today by a big monument, from which you enjoy a beautiful view of the “first bend of the Yangtze River” and of the village of Shigu.
In the village of Shigu there are many indigenous restaurants that provide a welcome midday break.
Your Yunnan journey ends in the attractive old town of Lijiang. The well preserved old town of Lijiang is known for its apparently confusing jumble of lanes and canals that crisscross its center. It is best to visit the old town in the early morning before the invasion of Chinese tourist groups.
A many-faceted journey through Yunnan, full of spectacular landscapes, culinary experiences, brightly-colored ethnic groups, and colorful markets.
Day 1: YUNNAN PROVINCE: FROM KUNMING TO JIANSHUI
From Kunming you travel to Jianshui. On the way stop a Xingmeng, a village inhabited by a Mongol minority left behind by Khengis Khans army over 700 years ago.
Continue to Tonghai where you visit Mount Xiushan with an array of traditional Temples and Pavilions in various styles of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism some of which are from the late Jin Dynasty (265-420).
Continue to Jianshui. Visit the recently renovated Confucius Temple „Wen Miao“. The "Wen Miao" of Jianshui is the third largest Confucius Temple in China and construction started around 1285. There is a small lake (“the sea of knowledge”) within the compound which, during the early summer months, is full of beautiful, blooming Lotus flowers.
You also visit the “East-Gate” from the late Ming Dynasty.
Overnight in Jianshui.
Day 2: TRAVEL FROM JIANSHUI TO THE YUANYANG RICE TERRACES
In the morning you visit the magnificent garden and residence of the Zhu Family.
Drive to the traditional Zhuang-Village of Tuanshan with its unique and well preserved architecture.
On the way you also visit the "Twin Dragon Bridge", an ancient stone bridge from the Qing Dynasty.
Drive to the Swallow’s Cavern, a magnificent cave that has been dug out by the Lu River. During spring and summer hundreds of thousands of Swallows can be seen flying around inside and outside the cave.
After that you drive through magnificent scenery towards Yuanyang, the gateway to the stunning and spectacular rice terraces of Yuanyang. Stay overnight near the Rice Terraces of Yuanyang.
Day 3: JOURNEY TO THE YUANYANG RICE TERRACES IN YUNNAN PROVINCE
You leave the Hotel early to witness a colorful sunrise over the rice terraces.
The best time to visit the Yuanyang (Xinjiezhen) rice terraces is during the harvest in late September and October or during the winter month, when the terraces are filled with water, which transforms the area into a colourful fairyland for photographers, as every pond reflects the sunlight in a different colour.
If possible will visit one of the bustling weekly local markets in the area where we can observe the local people from various ethnic groups (Hani, Yi, Zhuang, some Miao) doing their weekly shopping. In the afternoon scenic hike through the magnificent rice terraces of Yuanyang to a nearby Hani village.
Overnight accommodation is at Yuanyang.
Day 4: JOURNEY FROM YUANYANG RICE TERRACES TO JIANGCHENG
Drive through magnificent, ever changing landscape and experience some of the most spectacular rice terraces of the region. There are countless photo opportunities along the way.
The area around Luchun is home to the Yi and Hani ethnic minorities. Lunch in Luchun before continuing towards Jiangcheng. The area between Luchun and Jiangcheng is one of the major tea growing areas of China. Here grows the famous Puer Tea, which in recent years became popular also in the West.
Overnight accommodation in Jiangcheng.
Day 5: TRAVEL FROM JIANGCHENG TO YIWU AND ON VIA MENGLUN BOTANICAL GARDEN TO JINGHONG
Your journey continues parallel to the border to Laos via the recently enlarged route 218 towards Menglun in Xishuangbanna.
The name Xishuangbanna originates from the Thai word Sip Song Pa Na, which means literally “12 rice-growing districts.” At some places the border to Laos is just a stone's throw away.
This area is one of China's mayor tea growing areas. The tea from the area is called Pu'er Tea, which is getting more and more popular among Western tea connoisseurs. It is said that Pu’er tea is good for your health and has a regulating effect on the cholesterol level and supports the human immune system.
En route you make a detour to the village of Yiwu. The village of Yiwu is known for the outstanding quality of its puer tea. Yiwu is also regarded as the starting point of the Tea and Horse Road.
Upon arrival at Menglun you visit the magnificent Menglun Tropical Garden which situated on the shores of the Luosuo River and spreads over 900 hectares. The park has been founded in 1959 and today more than 8000 species of plants can be found within the Garden. Continue drive north along the Mekong River to Jinghong where you arrive in the late afternoon. Overnight in Jinghong.
Day 6: JINGHONG - MENGHAI - JINGHONG (XISHUANGBANNA)
The city of Jinghong is the capital of the prefecture Xishuangbanna and is situated on the south-western bank of the Mekong River. The mountains around Jinghong are home to various ethnic groups like the Hakka, Bulang or the Jinuo which have been growing tea in this area for centuries.
Today you head out to Menghai. The journey takes you to Nanno Shan, one of the major tea growing areas of Xishuangbanna.
You visit a tea plantation where you learn more about the local tea production. Depending on the day of the week we visit one of the local markets in the area where Members of ethnic minorities like Dai, Hani or Jino from their nearby villages are gathering. Continue to Jingzhen where we pay a visit at the over 700 years old Octagonal Pagoda and have a look inside the nearby Buddhist Monastery.
On the way back to Jinghong you make a stop at a local village. Overnight in Jinghong.
Day 7: TRAVEL BY PLANE FROM JINGHONG TO DALI IN YUNNAN PROVINCE
Transfer to Jinghong airport and flight to Dali. Pick up and transfer to Dali Old Town.
Dali Old Town is situated on the eastern shores of the stunning Erhai Lake on the foot of the 4000m high Cang Shan mountain range. During the 9th century Dali served as capital of the once powerful Nanzhao and later the Dali Kingdoms, before the town was overrun by the Mongols about 400 years later.
During a walking tour you visit the local market, the catholic church in Bai style and the former city gates. In the afternoon there is time to explore Dali old town on your own.
Optional Tour for the afternoon:
Visit the 3 Pagodas of the San Ta Si Monastery (Chongsheng Temple) from the 9th century. The Chongsheng Temple with its characteristic three Pagodas (San Ta Si) is located about 3km north-east of Dali old town. The Monastery was built in the 9th Century, when Dali was the capital of the once powerful and influential Nanzhao Kingdom. During the Nanzhao Kingdom the Chongsheng Temple was a significant religious center for the fast-expanding Buddhism in the region.
Day 8: TRAVEL FROM DALI TO SHAXI IN YUNNAN PROVINCE
A drive through the beautiful landscape of the Yunnan Province takes you to the Bai village of Shaxi.
The picturesque old village of Shaxi was once an important stop on the Tea and Horse trail from Yunnan to Tibet. The village has been renovated with the assistance of the Swiss Government.
On the way to Shaxi you make a stop at Shibao Mountain. The impressive rock carvings of Shibaoshan are over 1300 years old and are testimony of the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in the region. From Shibaoshan you can follow a well-constructed hiking path taking 1.5 hours to reach Shaxi. The walking route from Shizhong Temple to Shaxi offers a glorious view of Shaxi Valley and the surrounding mountain landscape.
Check in at your hotel in Shaxi and take a walking tour around the village. Overnight accommodation in Shaxi near the old village square.
Day 9: SHAXI - QIAOTOU - HIKING THE TIGER LEAPING GORGE
Your drive through ever changing landscape to Qiaotou, located at the entrance of the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the starting point for your hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Reputedly the deepest canyon in the world, the Tiger Leaping Gorge measures 16km in length. The difference in height from the Yangtze River to the highest peak of Jade Dragon Mountain is almost 4,000 meters. It got its name from a legend describing how a tiger escaped its hunters by leaping across the Yangtze River.
The hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge is as follows:
Walking: Qiaotou – Nuoyu Village: Walking time 2-3 hours/6.5km
The path climbs steadily while it follows the hillside in a north-eastern direction into the gorge. There are already some spectacular views of the Yangtze River below. After a two hour walk you reach Nuoyu Village where you stay for the night. There is some time to relax, enjoy the well-earned beer or to explore the village and its surroundings. Accommodation is at the Naxi Family Guesthouse, a very simple guesthouse which is run by a nice and friendly Family.
Day 10: NUOYU VILLAGE - BENDIWAN VILLAGE
After breakfast (own cost) you head out to face the “28 bends”, the steepest and toughest part of the trek. From the top one has spectacular view of the Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiao Xia) and the “5 Fingers” of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
From there the path is mostly flat or downhill along the hill for another hour until you reach the "Tea Horse Guesthouse".
It is recommended to have your lunch at the Tea Horse Guesthouse.
Continue walking for another 2 hours with breathtaking views of the impressive Jade Dragon Mountain and of the Yangtze Valley until you reach Bendiwan Village
You stay overnight at the “Halfway Guesthouse” where the rooms come with a nice balcony with great views of the Tiger Leaping Gorge! The right place to put your feet up, relax and enjoy the magnificent scenery!
(total walking time through the Tiger Leaping Gorge today ca. 5 hrs.)
Day 11: BENDIWAN VILLAGE - WALNUT GROVE - BAISHUI TAI - ZHONGDIAN
You leave Bendiwan Village, from where the path is mostly downhill towards Walnut Grove. The walk offers some last views of the valley below. (walking time about 2 hrs.).
Your journey continues in the shadow of the Haba Mountain Range through stunning scenery towards the impressive Baishuitai (White Water Terraces) where you arrive just in time for your lunch break.
The natural Limestone-stepped terraces where formed over a period of 250’000 years by the water that is constantly flowing over the terraces. You take a walk around the Baishuitai terraces.
In the afternoon the road winds its way up onto the Eastern Tibetan Plateau before continuing through magnificent landscape towards Zhongdian.
The city of Zhongdian is situated amongst a stunning landscape on the eastern Tibetan plateau at about 3200 meters above sea level. It recently changed its name and is now called "Shangri-La", after the Shangri-La that the British writer James Hilton described in his Novel "The Lost Horizon". Check in at hotel. Overnight in Zhongdian / Shangri La.
Day 12: JOURNEY TO ZHONGDIAN / SHANGRI LA, YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA
Zhongdian (Tibetan: Gyelthang) is situated in north-west Yunnan on the south-eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.
You visit Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, a 300 years old impressive Tibetan Monastery located at the outskirts of Zhongdian (Shangri La). Destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the Ganden Sumpseling Gompa is now again one of the most important Buddhist monasteries in the area.
Drive back to Zhongdian for a walking tour around the picturesque old town. You climb Turtle Hill and spin the giant prayer wheel three times for a good karma. Time at leisure to explore the ancient town of Zhongdian on your own.
Dinner takes place in a 200 years old traditional Tibetan house in the old town. (March to October, other time dinner at another delicious Tibetan restaurant).
Your hotel is conveniently located right in the center of the old town in Zhongdian.
Day 13: ZHONGDIAN - SHIGU YANGTZE FIRST BEND - LIJIANG
You leave Zhongdian and the eastern Tibetan Plateau and drive through a magnificent landscape toward Lijiang.
Along the way you stop at 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 2’600 meters above sea level at the foot of the 5’596 meters high Yulong Shan or Jade Dragon Mountain. The old town of Lijiang is known for its cobble stoned alleys and the confusing jumble of lanes and canals that crisscross its center.
Check-in at the Hotel. Overnight accommodation is at Lijiang in the old town.
Day 14: LIJIANG OLD TOWN
Take a walking tour around the old town. The best view over the Lijiang roof tops is from Lion Hill. Visit the local market and learn more about the mystic Naxi Dongb Cult.
Drive 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. Drive back to Lijiang.
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).
The remaining afternoon is at leisure. Time to explore the lovely ancient town of Lijiang by yourself!
Overnight accommodation is at Lijiang.
Day 15: LIJIANG DEPARTURE
Transfer to the airport or the train station for your connecting program.
"The scenery became more dramatic every day..."
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"... impressed by our very competent guide... we learned a lot about the people and the culture"
Matt, Great Britain