Living in Hong Kong, I wanted to discover the Chinese culture and to explore more of China -so far I've only seen Beijing. When I ask to other travelers, the Yunnan province often appears as their favorite region of China. I've heard they make the best food of China, have stunning mountains (with yaks!) and lots of Tibetans live there. That was it. I was already packing.
Yunnan is the most southwest region of China, bordering the beautiful countries of Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Within these borders, it has a large ethnic diversity -not to forget it is the door to the Tibetan heritage. It's perhaps the most diverse province of China, both in its extraordinary mix of people and in the majestic beauty of its landscapes.
Whatever time you've set aside for Yunnan, you have to know it will never be enough. We've started with a 5 days trip plan to change it to 10. Even so, I see that trip as an introduction to Yunnan, and I know I will be back whenever I'll get the opportunity.
We weaved our way through old villages, incredible mountain sceneries and gorgeous nature treasures via the most popular Yunnan tour route, from Kunming to Shangri-La.
Kunming - Morning tai chi by the Green Lake
Dali Ancien City - Traditional Bai ethnic folk houses + Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple
Historical Weishan - Untouched village from the old Tea & Horse Road, old Ming-Qing houses
Weiboshan National Park - Taoist mountain with 22 temples widespread on the hills
Lijiang Old Town - UNESCO World Heritage Site, gorgeous old alleys, waterways and bridges, view on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain + great local food
Tiger Leaping Gorges - Stunning trek along a scenic canyon of the Jinsha River (3900m depth)
Haba - Tiny muslim village with eight different ethnic minorities, no tourists at all
Bashuitai Terraces - Natural mineral terraces
Shangri La - Dukezong Ancient Town, Songzanlin Lamasery, Dabao Temple, local beers & yak cheese
10 Yunnan Road Trip Tips
1. Be reasonable with your itinerary
Everywhere is tempting and with so many things to do/see in Yunnan you'll want to see it all. But the truth is, if you don't plan to go for months, you will have to come many times to explore all the most beautiful places in Yunnan. And as the weather is changing, it's better to stay long enough in each place to fully appreciate it.
2. PACK LIGHT AND SMART
You will walk a lot. And you will get lost. A lot. You might hate your backpack sometimes. So pack light. Take enough clothes for cold weather and sunshine. Tiger balm, sunscreen, conversation guide and you're almost set.
3. Choose the best time to visit Yunnan
November to April is the dry season, with some nice clear skies and abundant sunshine. Try to avoid Chinese holidays.
4. Include time for spontaneity
We had it all planned, but kept a few days buffer just in case, and I'm glad we did. Thanks to that, we were able to follow our Tibetan friend's advices and go exploring Haba village. Make sure you have time to take a road when you have no idea where it will lead you to. This is how the adventure begins.
5. Be aware that china leads the world in flight delays
Don't do like us. Don't book a night train only 4 hours after the time you are supposed to land in Kunming. Our 3 hrs flight delay wasn't anything unusual at all. It was just routine, in China.
6. Take local transports
It's much cheaper. And it's much more fun.
7. Get a map (in chinese and in your own language)
If you don't, you will regret it. We did!
8. Eat local
You don't know what's on the menu? Look on your neighbours' plate and show what seems appetizing to the chef. Most of the dishes we tried were delicious : the Mi Xian, the fried yak cheese, the hot pot, the Dai style food, the sticky rice stick...
9. Watch out for yaks on the road
10. Take your camera when you go to the bathroom
You might see some stuff you won't forget there. Everything is an adventure in Yunnan! Even the toilets -well, especially the toilets!
It wouldn't be honest from me to say it was easy, but we did well. China can be a tough place to travel due to the language barrier. Fortunately, we crossed the way of kind locals and travelers who were always willing to help us -even when it meant walking 20 minutes to show us the right direction because they didn't speak a word of English.
We traveled mostly by bus. They've got a lot, so any time you go on a big city such as Kunming or Dali, it's easy to find one. It's really cheap, per instance, we paid 13US$ for Dali to Lijiang which takes 3 to 4 hours. We took a private driver to go to Haba village and Dabao temple, as only few travelers go there. If you go to Weiboshan, don't do like us: don't take a tuk-tuk. The road is long and bumpy, it's cold, in short: bad idea. Take a taxi. For a smoother trip, get a map before going, and write all the names of the places you want to visit in Chinese. It will save you some time!
China can be cheap. Like, really cheap. I spent average 45US$ per day all included -bed, good food, visits, transport, local beers. It's easy to live like a local in Yunnan, as the local food is delicious, there's generally not much shopping temptations, and local transports are convenient.
Plan in advance... Especially if you're French or American -I've heard it's much more complicated for us. No visa on arrival. We need at least 4 working days to get the tourist visa.