Vigorously uplifted during the last fifty million years as the Indian subcontinent buckled up against China, northwestern Yunnan is a geologically unsettled region of subtropical forests, thin pasture, alpine lakes and shattered peaks painted crisply in blue, white and grey. Xiaguan is the regional hub, springboard for the route north via a string of old towns, once staging posts on the chama dao, the trade routes between China and Tibet, along which tea, salt and other goods were transported on horseback. The lakeshore town of Dali is the first, home to the Bai nationality and backed by a long mountain range; but picturesque Lijiang, a few hours up the road at the base of Yulong Xue Shan, pulls in the biggest crowds as the former capital of the Naxi kingdom. Hikers can organize themselves here for a two-day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, where a youthful Yangzi River cuts through the deepest chasm on Earth. Nearby is Lugu Hu, lakeside home to the matrilineal Mosuo, while north again is the Tibetan monastery town of Shangri-La (also more prosaically known as Zhongdian). By now you’re barely in Yunnan, and a day’s further travel will carry up to Deqin, where a spectacular string of peaks marks the Tibetan borderlands. Finally, northwest of Xiaguan, the Nu Jiang Valley is one of China’s intriguing backwaters, with pristine jungle and isolated communities.
Xiaguan is just five hours from Kunming by bus, and from here there are at least regular, if not always speedy, services through the rest of the region. Trains link Kunming to Xiaguan (near Dali) and Lijiang, with talk of an extension to Shangri-La; and you can fly to Lijiang and Shangri-La. There are overland routes into Sichuan from Lijiang and Shangri-La too; but at the time of writing the Tibet road from Deqin, which follows the dramatic upper reaches of the Lancang River to Markam, then turns west towards Lhasa, was closed to foreigners. Ask agencies in Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La about the latest situation.
If possible, it’s probably best to head up this way in autumn: winters are extremely cold, and while early spring is often sunny, summers – though fairly mild – can also be very wet, leading to landslides. Also be aware that the border regions around Shangri-La and Deqin might be closed off during March, historically a time of political unrest in Tibet.