Whether you travel through the tropical south, the fertile central, the thermal-active west, or the mountainous north, Yunnan offers something for everyone. The Tibetan region in northern Yunnan has great trekking.
In China’s Yunnan province many people are Tibetan. Explore the mountains and villages with very distinct Tibetan culture. Lijiang and Shangrila are great travelers only stay in the “party /shopping / food” towns such as Lijiang and few venture onto the unbeaten-paths.
Lijiang is known for its historical old town (a UNESCO Heritage Site) with a history going back more than 800 years to the Song Dynasty at which time it was an important town at a confluence for trade along the old “tea horse road”. The town is known for its lovely system of waterways and bridges and is mainly occupied by the Nàxī (or Nakhi) people, one of China’s many minority groups. However, several other minority groups, as well as China’s largest ethnic group, the Han people, call Lijiang their home.
Start your trip in Lijiang by flying in via Kunming (Yunnan province), Chengdu (Sichuan province) or a few other Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Spend at least two full days in the town of Lijiang to enjoy the sights of the old town (such as the Naxi Orchestra, cosy guesthouses and restaurants), the good Yunnan food and all too vibrant (albeit somewhat annoying and kish karaoke and open-bars.
Visit during the shoulder-months such as February and March when it is considered too cold by local back-drop.
When done with Lijiang, head up north until you eventually get to the interesting Tibetan part of Yunnan province.
TIGER LEAPING GORGE AND SHANGRI-LA
After days of strolling the cobbled stoned alleys of Lijiang and nearby villages (all with their own entrance fees) you will be glad to leave these touristy places for a few days of solace when hiking the northern mountains.
Head north, past the Yulong Snow Mountain, to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Spend two or three days hiking high in the mountains and down to the narrow Yangtze River as it rushes through the gorge. The river is only three kilometers wide at the Yangsze River Delta near Shanghai before it flows into the East China Sea.
From the Tiger Leaping Gorge, take a 5-hour bus ride north to the town of Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-La. Zhongdian is well known for its old town – though much smaller (and less crowded) than Lijiang. At an altitude of 3,000 meter, the town is less touristy than Lijiang as it is more difficult to reach (in particular via the very bad roads) and is generally colder than Lijiang to the south. The town’s inhabitants are mainly Tibetan which gives it a whole different flavour than Lijiang. Good Tibetan restaurants abound in the old town and several scenic spots can be visited on day trips.
Don’t miss the impressive Songzanlin consider a “scenic spot”. This includes old towns, villages, mountains, rivers, hiking paths, ladders, famous rocks, and the list goes on and on. Villages regarded as “scenic spots” do not only require an entrance fee, but also painfully offers an endless number of tourist shops with the usual tourist junk. My advice is to avoid any designated “scenic spots” and get off the tourist trails to where you can experience real life in small-town China.
After two or three days in Zhongdian (Shangri-La), rent a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle with driver for the five to six hour trip to the town the Deqin – close to the Tibetan border. Pass Deqin and head higher up to the small town of Feilai-meter. Get on a minibus (or use your private car and driver) for a 90 minute bumpy ride down the gorge and over the narrow Mekong river. Yes, this is the same Mekong river which is so mighty big in southern Vietnam. Your long hike starts about 30 minutes after crossing the Mekong.
This is a strenuous hike over the mountains and if you get a lot of rain or snow, the path becomes very muddy and slippery. Expect at least a few spectacular slips and slides. Make sure to bring your two hiking sticks. Four legs are better than two!
You’ll be glad to eventually descent into the little isolated and small Tibetan village of Yubeng. There are no roads to Yubeng and all supplies come in on donkey back over the mountains. Don’t expect anything luxurious – and that includes a nice chocolate bar which seems like gold in this little forgotten village. Accommodation is limited to very basic rooms (most with an awesome view of the lower village and the mountains). Stay in the upper village and make sure the hot water works before you move in.
You will live off locally grown veggies and home-made noodles, and a freshly slaughtered goat if you are lucky. Avoid beef and pork – or any meat for that matter. Pork is mainly slices of fat, large chunks of raw meat is partly dried-out and not so appetizing to even look at. As is unrefrigerated meat, you’ll promise yourself to become a vegetarian right away!
There are many lovely hikes around the village, including the so-called “base-camp”, “ice-lake”, “sacred-waterfall”, etc. The problem with traveling in this area is to choose the right month. From December to April it can be very snowy which means hiking is difficult and dangerous. Most paths will be inaccessible.
Even though you will pay a hefty entrance fee to this “scenic spot”, none of the money is used to maintain the paths. Summer months are very rainy, which makes paths very muddy and tough to hike. Frankly, the safest and most comfortable hiking season may only be early May and probably November.
When you’re done with the village and need some better food, a nice bed, and clean body, get out of Yubeng and head back to Feilai-safe but be ready for a tough hike over the mountain on slippery paths when raining.
Enjoy the hiking and Tibetan hospitality of northern Yunnan province. However, just like me, you will probably say “Been there done it. Next please” and “Once is enough!”.
YUNNAN TRAVELER TIPS
Some recommendations for traveling in Yunnan province:
1. Be prepared to pay entrance fees at any place which can even remotely be described as a “scenic spot”. This includes villages, mountain viewpoints, hiking paths, foot bridges, ladders up the hill, monasteries, etc. Hefty camera fees also apply at monasteries, in particular for video cameras.
2. Carefully plan to hike here only in the dry season. Most of the hiking paths are along dangerous cliffs and Globerovers would not like to see some of his readers disappear into the abyss.
3. This is not south east Asia so don’t expect a land of smiles.
4. Bring along your hiking gear such as hiking sticks. They are very handy along these treacherous paths.
5. A private car and driver are highly recommended in northern Yunnan. It allows greater freedom to get wherever you want to. Currently, and possibly for the next five years, major road construction makes the road extremely bumpy.
Further Reading: Globerovers blog post on trekking in northern Yunnan province.