Chinese Language Blog

The Classic Yunnan Backpacking Trip Posted by on Feb 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

There’s been a lot of posts about Yunnan province (云南省 – yún nán shěng) here recently. That’s partly because I spent a year living there, and also because it’s just a downright awesome place. I mean, what other province in China has 18 oddities about it? I’ve also given you 20 reasons why you should visit the land “South of the Clouds.” With so much to see and do across this beautiful corner of China, you’ve got tons of options for traveling there. First of all, I’d recommend making your first trip there exactly that – your first one. Unless you’re going to spend a few months moving around, you’ll need to save some places for a return visit further down the road. That being said, there is a classic backpacking route that most folks tend to stick to more or less on their first visit to Yunnan.

Doing this trip is relatively easy in terms of transportation, all places have a solid infrastructure in place for tourists, and you’ll be able to get by even if you don’t speak Chinese too well (although that always helps no matter where you are in the country). For all you backpackers out there, here’s a rundown of this classic trip through Yunnan, including useful information on transportation and hostel recommendations:

Kunming (昆明 – kūn míng)


Another beautiful Kunming day.

It makes sense to start your Yunnan trip off in the provincial capital. Known as the “Spring City” (春城 – chūn chéng) for its mild weather and green surroundings, Kunming is a much better place to visit than other Chinese mega-cities. In fact, we often joked about how it was more of a concrete village than a city after we moved there from Beijing. Although it’s not full of famous attractions like the ‘Jing, and it’s not exactly a cosmopolitan metropolis like Shanghai, there’s quite a bit to do in Kunming. Spend a few days here to start your trip, walking around the Green Lake, hiking up in the Western Hills, wandering through the Bird & Flower Market, and getting acquainted with Yunnan food such as the famous “over the bridge rice noodles” (过桥米线 – guò qiáo mǐ xiàn). There’s also a solid nightlife scene, with plenty of local bars to choose from and live music just about every night of the week.

  • Transport: Kunming has an international airport with direct flights to most big cities in China and quite a few in SE Asia. There’s also a train station and four long-distance bus stations connecting the city to all corners of China. It’s even possible to get there via bus or train from the border with Vietnam, making Kunming a logical first stop for backpackers entering China via SE Asia.
  • Hostel Recommendation: Seeing as how we moved to Kunming and found an apartment straight away, we never actually stayed in a hostel there. However, we know from others that the Hump is a good choice, and we often enjoyed beers on their rooftop. Other backpackers have also had good things to say about both Lost Garden and Upland.

Dali (大理 – dà lǐ)

Erhai Lake

Panorama of Erhai.

This is one of the most popular places to visit in not only Yunnan but all of China, and for good reason. Surrounded by the Cang Mountain range on one side and the massive Erhai Lake on the other, the old town of Dali is set in an incredibly scenic place. Although it can get insanely packed here during the summer and major holidays, it’s still possible to avoid the crowds. Base yourself out of the town in a lakeside village, rent some wheels, and do some hiking in the mountains or swimming in the lake. Head into town later in the day when a lot of the packaged tour groups have left, and you can enjoy a wide variety of eating and drinking establishments.

  • Transport: There’s a small airport in Dali which has direct flights to a few major cities in China (Kunming, Beijing, Guangzhou). The train station is actually in the new city, Xiaguan (下关 – xià guān), but it’s easy to get to and from by local bus. Trains go to both Kunming and Lijiang a few times a day. Of course, you can also catch buses to both of these places and many other towns in Yunnan.
  • Hostel: On our first trip to Dali, we had a great stay at the Sleepy Fish Hostel in the Old Town. There’s a nice garden, two awesome dogs, delicious food, and comfy rooms. On our last trip, we decided to base ourselves in a lakeside village for a quieter, more relaxing stay. If you want to avoid the crowds, you might want to follow suit.

Lijiang (丽江 – lì jiāng)


Take in the views from above.

This ancient town was once an important stop on the Old Tea Horse Road (茶马古道 – chá mǎ gǔ dào), and it’s also up there in terms of the most popular places to visit in China. Given UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1997 as “an exceptional ancient town set in a dramatic landscape,” the town and its surroundings are indeed stunningly beautiful. Wandering around the cobblestone streets of town, you may grow weary of selfie stick-waving tourists and bongo drum sellers. Never fear, as you can escape here just as you did in Dali. Take in the views from the Wangulou Tower, relax around the Blag Dragon Pool, or jump on a bicycle and cruise into the countryside to explore other, far less crowded towns. Lijiang is also home to the Naxi (纳西 – nà xī) ethnic minority group, and their nightly orchestra performances is a great cultural experience.

  • Transport: The airport in Lijiang has flights to Kunming a few times a day, as well as flights to Chengdu, Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. It’s also reachable by train from either Kunming or Dali. Buses can take you to these cities as well as smaller destinations across Yunnan.
  • Hostel: Not wanting to stay in the belly of the beast, we opted for the quaint October Inn located a short walk outside of the town. The owner is a super nice, helpful guy and he’s done a great job making his hostel feel like home away from home. Also, this place just might have the best dorm beds we’ve ever stayed in.

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡 – hǔ tiào xiá)

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Hike the TLG in Yunnan.

For many backpackers, a hike along the Tiger Leaping Gorge is the main reason for visiting Yunnan. Dedicating two days to the trip allows you to spend the day climbing high above the rushing Yangtze River (长江 – cháng jiāng) below while you take in the views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山 – yù lóng xuě shān). There are a few guesthouses along the way, so you can get a room, have a shower, and enjoy dinner and beers with fellow travelers to split up the hike. The second day takes you down to the spot on the river where a tiger supposedly jumped over, hence the name. It’s an epic, incredibly scenic, and very rewarding hike.

  • Transport: The best way to access the Tiger Leaping Gorge is by bus from either Lijiang or Shangri-la. When we took a bus from Lijiang, we were dropped off at the start of the trail and our larger bags were brought to Tina’s Guesthouse up the road, where we collected them the next day after finishing the hike and arranged a bus onward towards Shangri-la.
  • Hostel: We stayed at the Halfway Lodge, which is very appropriately named. There are a few other places around that stretch of the trail if they’re full. If you want to turn it into a 3-day trip, you could stay at the Naxi Family Guesthouse on your first night earlier on in the trail, or get a room at Tina’s or another spot down on the road after finishing up.

Shangri-la (香格里拉 – xiāng gé lǐ lā)


Beautiful views all around.

While it may not actually be the paradisiacal town from the novel “Lost Horizons,” the Chinese version of Shangri-la is quite beautiful. Unfortunately, much of the old town was destroyed in an accidental fire a few years ago and is still being rebuilt. You won’t want to spend much time in town anyways, as the surrounding area is what people really come here for. Many come to visit Pudacuo National Park (普达措国家公园 – pǔ dá cuò guó jiā gōng yuán), the first ever in China. As we were at the end of a long backpacking trip, we opted for the much easier and cheaper day by renting bicycles in town and cruising them around Napa Lake.

  • Transport: You can fly in or out of Shangri-la via Kunming, Chongqing, and Lhasa, but chances are you’ll be getting here and leaving by bus. There isn’t a rail link yet, but there’s one in the works connecting Shangri-la with Lijiang.
  • Hostel: We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Tavern 47, an old house that thankfully survived the fire. The owners are a Korean-Naxi couple, and they’re very helpful with advice on what to do in the area. Plus, they make a yak meat burger – where else are you going to have that?

For most, this is the end of the line for their Yunnan trip. Some continue on to Tibet, others head to Sichuan, and some head back to Kunming to catch a flight or train in another direction. If you’d like to keep going north through Yunnan, you could head to the town of Deqin (德钦 – Dé qīn) next. We didn’t make it all the way there, but have heard it’s beautiful. For another stop on the way back to Kunming, we highly recommend the town of Shaxi (沙溪 – shā xī). It’s a great spot to relax for a few days after that busy trip, and if you’re lucky you’ll be able to check out the vibrant Friday market.

Have you ever been to Yunnan? Where did you go? Do you have any tips/recommendations to share? We’d love to hear them!

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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.


  1. Andrea:

    Hi Sasha,
    I’m thinking about doing a backpacking trip to Yunnan (and maybe Chengdu as well) in summer or autumn at the latest and I bumped into your precious blog!
    I was wondering though if you think it’s do-able to go there and travel around on my own for 2/3 weeks without speaking any chinese at all.
    Many Thanks!
    Looking forward to hear from you.

    • sasha:

      @Andrea Hey Andrea,
      Without any Chinese whatsoever, you’d better be prepared for a lot of awkwardness, miscommunication, and hand signals. English abilities are generally quite poor in China – I should know, I taught there for 5 years! – and even more so in places like Yunnan. You might find people in hostels here and there who speak mediocre English, but do not expect people working in train/bus stations, cab drivers, waiters, etc. to speak English at all. Of course that shouldn’t deter you from going! Browse the blog – we’ve got tons of stuff for beginners, and maybe consider buying an audio course or something to at least give you the fundamentals. Speaking even a tiny bit of Chinese will make your life and your trip a lot better. I’ve also got a bunch of content about China on my own website, so check it out if you’d like – Grateful Gypsies.

  2. Andrea:

    Hey Sasha,
    Thanks so much for getting back to me!
    I’ll have a look and do my best to be prepared 😉

  3. Grace:

    Hi Sasha,

    Thanks for the awesome & informative post. My husband and I are planning a trip to Kunming – Dali- Lijiang in January ’17. Coming from a tropical country from Singapore, my body do not take in harsh cold weather well. And we read from other blogs that Shangri La will be very bare and cold in January, will you advise on the trip there?

    • sasha:

      @Grace Hi Grace,
      Thanks for the comment. I hate to say it but it’s going to be pretty cold in all of the places you plan to visit in January. It will definitely be a new experience for you guys coming from Singapore! As for going all the way to Shangri-La, it probably depends on how much time you guys have, whether or not you want to take any flights, and if you think you can really handle the cold. The farther north you get, the colder it will be! Just get some warm clothes, drink some tea, and you’ll be fine 🙂

  4. Haley:

    Hi Sasha! I enjoyed the information here!
    I’m planning to take around 7-9days to do Dali, Kunming and Lijian (perhaps shangri-la) you think it’ll doable in the time frame?

    Also, i was actually a little afraid how safe/easy it will be for a girl to go around on her own as i’ve read some stuff on pickpocketing and scams and while I have travelled alone many times on low budget and on couch surfing/airport sleeping and so on, I live in Korea which is VERY safe so i sometimes do lack the sense of insecurity. I do have experience of visiting big chinese cities where I did find some scams and else and was wondering how it will be in a place like yunan? Especially if I’ll do night train or so for transportation between cities?

    i considered hiring a tour guide there but would much prefer to do without so ask your opinion

    • sasha:

      @Haley Thanks for the comment, Haley! I’d say 7 days might be a bit quick, but 9 would be fine. You want at least two days in each place, plus you have to take into account travel days. You can take the train from KM-Dali and then from there to Lijiang. If you want to go to Shangri-La, you’ll have to bus it there. If you want more time to linger or you want to do the Tiger Leaping Gorge, I’d probably scrap Shangri-La given your time frame to be honest.

      As far as safety goes, Yunnan is a super safe place. There might be pickpockets on the trains but that’s the case everywhere in China. Just keep your valuable stuff close and you’ll be fine. Definitely don’t hire a tour guide – it’s way more fun to do yourself! There’s a CS community in Kunming for sure, and maybe even in the other places so you can easily hook up with people who can give you some pointers. I also run a travel blog called Grateful Gypsies. Send us a message on social media if you have any other questions and I can respond directly to you!


  5. Flo:

    Great Blog with great advices!
    I will be in Yunnan in Februray and have around 3 weeks to spend. What do you think, is it enough to bring a normal jacket to the northern parts or do you need to wear some extra clothing?I planned to stay in that area around 10 days, will that work? I also want to go to xishuangbanna, so there will be big differences in temperature..

    • sasha:

      @Flo Hi Flo… if you are going to the northern part of Yunnan in Feb. you definitely want to bring some warm clothes. It gets cold up there, especially up in Shangri-la. We went in October and it was already pretty cold. In Xishuangbanna, however, it is very tropical. It’s like Thailand almost. If you only have 10 days there is no way you can do everything in Yunnan.

  6. Tina:

    Hi! Great post!!
    I might be going to Chengdu for work in january until the beginning of the chinese new year. I was thinking of visiting Yunnan (i already lived in China and this region is in my bucket list!). Do you advise me to go during the holiday? I am scared about the crowds! And also there is 99% of chamces that i will be travelling with my little dog, so i wont be fly.from chengdu to kunming because she is not accepted to fly in the cabin. Do you know any group tour by bus or van that i can join? Or how about driving? Never drived in China… and are the facilities dog friendly? It is so hard to find info in internet!
    Thanks a lot!!!

    • sasha:

      @Tina Hi Tina, Sorry for the late reply. For some reason I didn’t get notified of this comment and it’s hard to keep track of them all when I don’t get the e-mails!

      As far as traveling during CNY goes, it is definitely difficult to get train tickets but not impossible. You just need to know what day the tickets you want are going to go on sale and be at an office or online on that day to buy them. I really have zero clue about traveling with a dog in China as I never did that. Sorry, wish I could be of more help but I’m not the one to ask about traveling with pets!

      Enjoy your trip, though. -Sasha

  7. Julia:

    Thanks a lot for all your information. I have a question.
    I’m going to travel around 9 days in Yunnan at the end of August. I start my journey in Kunming. We would love to visit Lijang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yuanyang and then after 9 days we are going to Beijing. To you think it’s possibile in 9 days? Do you recommend to go back all the way to Kunming and book a flight in advance to Beijing? Or from another place?
    Thank you in advance!

    • sasha:

      @Julia Hi Julia,
      Sounds like a great trip! I think you can do it in 9 days. However I would cut Yuanyang as it’s in the opposite direction of the other things. It’s cool but that’s a long way to go to see rice terraces.

      As for the rest of the trip, it might be fast but it’s possible. I would do 2 nights in Kunming > 2 nights in Dali > 2 nights in Tiger Leaping Gorge > 2 nights in Lijiang. You may be able to fly to Beijing direct from there, or hop a quick flight back to Kunming. If you want to read more about Yunnan we have a lot of guides on our website. Happy travels! -Sasha

      • Julia:

        @sasha Thank you so much! I think we will do that! Are there any other (mirror) rice terraces near those places? Have you also been to Guilin?

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