The Classic Yunnan Backpacking Trip Posted by sasha 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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