The Yunnan region is probably one of the most beautiful in China. Located in the southwest of China, on the border with Tibet, Vietnam, Laos and Burma, it is a rural and mountainous region that offers extraordinary landscapes, such as the rice terraces of Yuanyang and the mythical Gorges du Leap of the Tiger or even ancient cities like Lijiang or Jianshui. Yunnan is also a cultural discovery thanks to the presence of many ethnic groups with traditions that are deeply rooted in everyday life. Follow my full 15-day itinerary to visit this incredible province of China on your own.
China was far down the list of country that I would like to visit. When I spoke of this country, I had in mind images of polluted megalopolises, overpopulation, vast chaos. So I didn't have particularly want to travel there. I forgot that the country is actually extremely large and cannot be limited to its large cities, which exist beautiful and good but which should not catalog an entire country.
When Asian Roads, a Brittany-based travel agency that offers tailor-made tours in Asia, invited me to visit the Yunnan region, which I only vaguely knew by name, I was curious. I can still see myself reading the program and visiting blogs and travel sites and saying to myself “Is this really all in China !? ". Here I am convinced, I want to visit this country in an immersive way with guides based on site and who speak the language, as the agency offers and who will show me what China really has to offer. SPOILER ALERT: I was not disappointed.
Kunming, the capital of Yunnan (1 night)
Kunming will only have been my base for one night. I arrive just after sunset at my hotel, so I didn't have time to explore the surroundings. However, I am in an old quarter, so I am immediately immersed in historic Chinese architecture just by walking around. The weather is cool and pleasant. Far from the usual 30 ° C in Kuala Lumpur, in Kunming it is rather around 20 ° C all year round. This is why it is nicknamed the "City of Eternal Spring".
If you have more time than I do, take a trip to Emerald Lake where the locals love to walk and dance, especially on weekends. There is also the Yuantong Buddhist Temple, or “Temple of Understanding of All Things”, one of the oldest in Kunming and also the largest in Yunnan. As for the flower and bird market, there is no need to dwell there because, obviously, it is rather sad to do with animals crammed into cages and withered flowers.
Or staying in Kunming
I was lucky enough to stay at the Moon & Chalice even before it officially opened. This boutique hotel has a unique decor and the staff is very attentive. Right after my arrival, they knocked on my door to offer me a typical Chinese cake. Adorable! It is also in a great location, in the heart of the old quarter.
The shilin stone forest
A 2 hour drive from Kunming, on the road to Yuanyang, I stop for a few hours at the Shilin Stone Forest. It is a territory classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ensemble of karst rocks which indeed looks like a forest of stones. Arriving at the site gives the impression of being in an amusement park, but once inside and away from the first marked trails, you quickly find yourself alone to enjoy the calm and the magic of the place.
|Entrance fee: 130RMB and supplement of 25RMB for the shuttles (which I recommend you take), or 155RMB in total in low season (20 €).|
The Yuanyang rice fields (3 nights)
Yuanyang rice fields are also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. Here we have probably the most beautiful rice terraces in the world.
On the program for these 3 days:
- Sunrise from the viewpoint on the Duoyishu terraces. A spectacle that left me speechless as the colors, the reflection of light on the water in the rice fields and the intermittent fog made the places magical.
|Cost of access to the platform: 70RMB in low season (100 in high season). The ticket includes access to 3 other panoramas for 1 day.|
- Meet with ethnic minorities: The best way to meet minorities in an authentic way is by going to local markets like those in Niujaozhai and Shengcun. Ethnic minorities come from all over the region to do their market in traditional dress. Another way, less authentic but just as interesting: to go to a traditional show (dance, song, music). I went to Malahu for this.
- Paddy Field Hikes: Don't just look at the paddy fields from above. Walking in the middle of the rice fields allows you to see them from different angles and, above all, to see the local life with the farmers and their buffaloes, the village children having fun, etc. Several hikes start from The Twelve Manor.
Where to stay in Yuanyang?
I slept at The Twelve Manor, a nugget located in the heart of the rice fields, perfect for exploring. The hotel is elegantly decorated down to the smallest detail and the wood present everywhere makes the place all the more warm, the large picture window in the rooms allows an incredible view of the rice fields. The staff is very caring. You can choose between traditional or western breakfast. The hotel also offers themed dinners. I tried their Chinese fondue and barbecue, it was delicious.
Jianshui, preserved Yunnan (1 night)
Jianshui is one of the oldest towns in South of Yunnan and home to some treasures of history and architecture.
- The Temple of Confucius (40 RMB – 5 €)
- The Chaoyang gate (20 RMB – 2.5 € to go up)
- The Zhu family garden (35 RMB – 4.5 €)
- The double dragon bridge
This is also where we find a street entirely devoted to the traditional making of tofu. Tofu from Jianshui has a very good reputation and is exported all over China.
Or staying in Jianshui
Xiu Ju Xian Ting: sleeping in this hostel is like sleeping in a museum. It is an old house which is 100 years old and has kept its period furniture. A haven of peace.
Stop at Tuanshan, preserved village
Very close to Jianshui is the entirely paved village of Tuanshan. Lose yourself in its alleys and do not miss the Zhang family residence. Many art students come to Tuanshan to paint and draw old buildings. It is also the perfect place to stock up on local crafts.
|Entrance fee to the village: 35 RMB (4.5 €)|
In the countryside, in Xizhou (3 nights)
To get to Xizhou, I returned to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, to take the train to Dali (2:30). Xizhou is one of the small villages located north of the old town of Dali. The village is surrounded by a lake, mountains and rice fields. The architecture here is of Bai tradition.
To discover Xizhou, you can:
- Stroll through the local market in the early morning
- Discover silk embroidery
- Rent a bike to ride along Lake Erhai
If you have rented a bicycle, you can extend to the pretty village of Zhoucheng and its murals.
About 20 km from Xizhou is the temple of the 3 pagodas. Unmissable! Plan a few hours there as the place is large and deserves to linger.
|Entrance fee: 75RMB (10 €) / Mini bus: 30RMB (4 €)|
In the vicinity of Xizhou, do not miss the old town of Dali. Further on (2 hours drive), is the sacred mountain Weibaoshan where you can hike and stop at the many temples on the way (access to the hike: 40RMB – 5 €). On the way back to Xizhou, stop at the village of Donglianhua with houses made of red earth and inhabited by a Muslim minority.
Where to stay in Xizhou
The Linden Center is not just a hotel. This place has a story and a soul that Brian, the owner, will brilliantly tell you about. It participates in the preservation of culture and traditional architecture. The Linden Center is thus a perfect blend of modern and old.
The Tiger Leaping Gorges, landscapes Breathtaking
The first images I have in mind when I think back to Yunnan are the dizzying landscapes of the Tiger Leaping Gorges. Surrounded by peaks that can reach up to 5,600m above sea level, and below, a choppy river that no one has ever managed to descend… landscapes like these, it marks.
You must first stop at Qiatao to pay for the entrance (45 RMB – 6 € in low season and 65 RMB – 9 € in high season). Then, several hikes are possible. For my part, I only did the part between the Tea Horse Guesthouse and the Halfway Guesthouse.
Shangri-La, China's little Tibet (3 nights)
With almost half of the Tibetan population, everything makes us feel like we are there. The architecture, the food, the altitude and the climate. In Shangri-La, we are at an altitude of 3200m, on the edge of the Himalayas, and you can feel the effect of the altitude.
I arrive at night at the superb Arro Khampa hotel. This is followed by 2 days of exploring the region including a visit to the magnificent Songzanlin Monastery (entrance with shuttle 90 RMB – 11 € in low season / 115 RMB – 15 € in high season). It is a group of temples still inhabited by around 700 monks, which gives it a sacred soul. Don't miss Lake Napa not far from the monastery. You will see lots of animals around: yaks, pigs, horses, etc. A very pleasant corner of nature! And for an even more intense experience, I also climbed to 4500m altitude on the mountain Shika Snow, thanks to a cable car (200 RMB – 25 €). A breathtaking experience … literally 🙂
Shangri-La, on the other hand, is not very authentic. Starting with his name. ‘Shangri-La’ actually comes from the novel The Lost Horizons in which James Hilton describes an imaginary place with a peaceful Tibetan Buddhist monastery near the Himalayas. As the description of this place closely resembles Zhongdian (its original name), the local authorities simply renamed the town to boost tourism to the area. The old town was also partially destroyed by fire and its reconstruction brought its share of souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, etc., which helps to lessen its charm. We actually feel that the city is dedicated to tourists. Still, I didn't hate my time there. The cobbled pedestrian streets, the wooden houses, the local dances in the evening and the Da Gui Shang temple and its huge prayer wheel make the old town pleasant for a stroll by day or by night.
Or to stay in Shangri-La?
I was greeted at the beautiful Arro Khampa hotel, located in the heart of the old town but quiet. The decoration, wood and stone present everywhere, the stove in the reception area and the underfloor heating, the luxurious suites, the attentive staff … everything is done to make you feel good and relaxed, and it works!
The Lijiang Old Town (2 nights)
As soon as I arrived in Lijiang, I set off to explore the Black Dragon Pond Park (entry 70 RMB – 9 € in low season) from where we have a spectacular view of the snow-capped peaks of Jade Mountain . Direction the old town then to walk the cobbled streets, walk along the canals, do some shopping and climb a little higher to have a view over the roofs of Lijiang. In Lijiang Old Town, you will see the traditional houses of the Naxi community and you can also visit the Mu Residence and Wanggu Pagoda.
Lijiang is a very beautiful city, but being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it attracts a lot of tourists. To be more peaceful, I went to Baisha. Small village, less crowded and very charming.
Where to stay in Lijiang?
I highly recommend the Arro Khampa by Zink Journey, a hotel with indescribable charm and unique character. An interior courtyard with ponds filled with fish and water lilies, a small garden, a bar heated by a stove, spacious and modern rooms, an incredible welcome, in short, we feel good here!
Stopover in Chengdu (1 night)
Bye Yunnan, hello Sichuan. Just for one night and to catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur the next day. The program included a visit to the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center. You surely know my great skepticism about places that lock up animals, whether they are parks or zoos. As for research and reproduction centers, it all depends on how they are managed and whether the goal is to save an endangered species. If so, then why not. So I inquired about the center of Chengdu and heard rather good feedback.
The reality there was a little different and unfortunately I felt like I was at Disneyland. Hundreds of loud tourists clustered around the enclosures, feeders calling out pandas and enticing them with food to amuse the gallery, babies behind glass where people push each other to see them.
I am aware, however, that the center is actually helping the conservation of the species, and they need the tourists' money to continue, but I just wish it would do it in a more ethical way.
I took advantage of my quick trip to Chengdu to stroll through the People's Park where a lot of locals come to practice different sports, martial arts, dance. I even got a lady invited to dance with her a mix of salsa and traditional dance. I have fond memories of it.
I also walked around Jinli and Kuan Zhai streets, which are completely pedestrianized and very old. However, again, their renovation a few years ago turned them into very commercial and crowded streets.
Where to stay at Chengdu?
I stayed at the Chengdu Wenju Mansion Hotel (Kuanzhai Xiangzi Branch) which has beautiful architecture and interior courtyard and is in a perfect location, close to historic areas, several parks and the metro. The rooms are very large and clean.
Yunnan was a real nice surprise for me. I didn't expect to like this part of China so much and yet a lot of things convinced me like the delicious and varied food, the discovery of ethnic groups and their traditions, the incredible landscapes… For my first trip to China, it's a full box!
This 15-day trip to Yunnan took place thanks to China Roads, a travel agency of the Asian Roads network, which concocted this superb program for me. Thank you to them and especially to Antoine, Estelle and Paul!
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