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One Year in Yunnan (Part One) Posted by on Jul 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

After over four years of living in Beijing, I decided to head south for cleaner air and better weather to live in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. I had a great job, nice apartment, and an amazing circle of friends, all of which were tough to leave behind. Before we even got to Kunming, the jobs that we were supposed to have lined up for the year fell through, and there was a moment when I really doubted the decision. One year later, and I’m happy to say it was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. While Kunming itself isn’t the most interesting city, living in Yunnan has been an incredible experience. There’s just so much to see here – from towering mountain peaks, to stunning lakes, to the colorful ethnic minority villages that dot the countryside.

Visiting one of Kunming's many temples.

Visiting one of Kunming’s many temples.

To give you an idea of what it’s like living in this corner of southwest China, here are some highlights from my year in Yunnan:

Kunming (昆明 – kūn míng)

The famous seagulls that flock to Kunming every winter.

The famous seagulls that flock to Kunming every winter.

Known as the Spring City, Kunming is famous for its moderate weather and laid back pace of life. Whereas everything is “hurry up” in Beijing, you’re more likely to hear “take it easy” in Kunming. Although we’ve missed the vibrant culture and nightlife of Beijing, there’s plenty to do here to keep you entertained. Whether it’s a short stroll around the Green Lake in the center of town, visiting some of the many temples and hiking trails in the area, or rocking out with great live music on the weekend, Kunming has been a great home base for the past year.

Downtown Kunming

Downtown Kunming

Dali (大理 – dà lǐ)

Panoramic view of Erhai Lake.

Panoramic view of Erhai Lake.

One of the most popular tourist towns in all of China, Dali attracts visitors by the busload throughout the year, who come here to breathe in the fresh air, cycle around the massive Erhai Lake, or hike high up in Mt. Cang. The old town is a bit much for us, with all of the packaged tourists wielding selfie sticks, wearing cowboy hats, and peddling novelty 4-person bikes around, but the villages that line the lakeshore are much more relaxed and scenic. Even on the very busy May Day holiday, we managed to have a great time staying out here. Should you visit Dali, consider staying in one of these villages outside of the town for a much more enjoyable experience.

Dali from above on the Cloud Traveler's Path of Mt. Cang.

Dali from above on the Cloud Traveler’s Path of Mt. Cang.

Lijiang (丽江 – lì jiāng)

Black Dragon Pool of Lijiang.

Black Dragon Pool of Lijiang.

This ancient town is also very firmly on the beaten tourist path in China, which you’ll notice the second you step into town and walk by the countless knick-knack shops that all seem to be selling the same bongo drums and yak meat jerky. That being said, the town is quite beautiful when seen from above at the tower, and there’s even more stunning scenery just a short bike ride away. Just like Dali, you should consider staying slightly out of the town here unless you want to be smack dab in the middle of endless tour groups. One or two nights here is good enough, and it serves as a good base for our next destination.

The old town as seen from above.

The old town as seen from above.

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡 – hǔ tiào xiá)

Beginning the hike.

Beginning the hike.

For adventure travelers and nature lovers, this epic 2-day hike high above the Yangtze River is an experience not to be missed in Yunnan. Our trip almost ended before it even began when my girlfriend got bit by a village dog after we took a wrong turn, but she powered through thanks to a little medical help from fellow hikers and we kept on the trail. Walking high up in the mountains, taking in the beautiful surroundings, and wandering through packs of wild mountain goats was an unforgettable experience, and one that should be high atop every traveler’s list when visiting Yunnan.

It really feels like you're in the clouds up here.

It really feels like you’re in the clouds up here.

Haba Village (哈巴村 – hǎ bā cūn)

The simple life in a Yunnan village.

The simple life in a Yunnan village.

Rather than head back to Lijiang or go straight to Shangri-la, we decided to spend a night in this small village to recover a bit from the epic hike. Originally, we thought it would be a good place from which to visit the White Water Terraces (白水台 – bái shuǐ tái), but as it turns out they’re actually quite far away and there’s usually only one bus a day. It’s also possible to hike up the snow mountain here, but we had neither the time nor the energy to do that. Either way, we enjoyed a quiet night and a tasty home-cooked meal from the very kind owners of the hostel.

Nice views outside of the village.

Nice views outside of the village.

Shangri-La (香格里拉 – xiāng gé lǐ lā)

Shangri-la from the town's temple.

Shangri-la from the town’s temple.

Officially called Zhongdian (中甸 – zhōng diān), this town in northwest Yunnan was renamed after the fictional paradise in James Hilton’s novel “The Lost Horizon” for marketing reasons to draw in more tourists. Unfortunately, most of the town burned to the ground in an accidental fire a few years ago and they’ve still got a lot of work to do to rebuild it. That being said, the area is incredibly beautiful, and it’s a great place to spend a day or two cycling around taking it all in. It feels more like Tibet than mainland China, which is a great experience for those not willing to put forth the extra effort and RMB it takes to actually make it there.

Cycling around Shangr-la's lake.

Cycling around Shangr-la’s lake.

Shaxi (沙溪 – shā xī)

Peace and quiet in Shaxi.

Peace and quiet in Shaxi.

Before heading back to Kunming, we decided to include one more stop on our trip when we heard about this scenic town, once an important trade stop on the ancient Tea-Horse Road (茶马古道 – chá mǎ gǔ dào). Much effort has been put into restoring the town and building a little tourism infrastructure here, and so far they’ve done a great job. Let’s just hope it doesn’t grow beyond its means and turn into a new version of Dali, because the town will lose a lot of its charm if that happens. For now, it’s a great place to spend a few days walking or cycling in the countryside and visiting temples. If you should find yourself here on a Friday, you can check out the very interesting market – people come from surrounding villages to buy and sell just about anything, and the many colors of Yunnan’s 25 ethnic minority groups really shine bright.

Grocery shopping with mom in Yunnan.

Grocery shopping with mom in Yunnan.

If you’re a prospective traveler to Yunnan, this is a classic route that can easily be done in 10-12 days. As these are the most touristy places to visit, there are no shortage of options for transportation and accommodation for all of these locations, with Shaxi being slightly more difficult to get to but still easily doable. In the next post we’ll head south to check out the ancient town of Jianshui, the dreamlike rice terraces, and the most epic water fight you’ve ever seen.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


Comments:

  1. Nicole:

    Has it been one year in Yunnan already? I enjoyed this post as I do all the others and feel like I’ve been along for the ride. Keep doing what you’re doing 🙂

  2. 马丁:

    Great, first time seen your blog, love China travel

  3. OfficialTravelNews:

    2 years in Yunnan now ?

    • sasha:

      @OfficialTravelNews Unfortunately no… I moved to Bali after a year in Yunnan and am now back in the US! Might go back sometime, though!


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