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.Read More
A thirty-minute local bus ride north of Xiaguan, DALI draws swarms of holidaying middle-class urban Chinese seeking an “old China” experience, while foreign backpackers drift through a Westerner-friendly theme park of beer gardens and hippified cafés. It’s not hard to see why people flock here: despite the tourist overkill along the main streets, Dali is pretty, interesting and relaxed, full of old houses and an indigenous Bai population rubbing shoulders with local Yi and Muslims. To the east lies the great lake, Er Hai, while the invitingly green valleys and clouded peaks of the Cang Shan range rear up behind town, the perfect setting for a few days’ walking or relaxation. Some visitors, seduced by China’s closest approximation to bohemia (and the local weed) forget to leave, and plenty of resident Westerners run businesses here.
There’s also much more to Dali than its modern profile. Between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, the town was at the centre of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, while in the mid-nineteenth century it briefly became capital of the state declared by Du Wenxiu, who led a Muslim rebellion against Chinese rule. Millions died in the revolt’s suppression and Dali was devastated, never to recover its former political position. An earthquake destroyed the town in 1925, but it was rebuilt in its former style.
If you can, visit during the Spring Fair, held from the fifteenth day of the third lunar month (April or May). The event spans five hectic days of horse trading, wrestling, racing, dancing and singing, attracting thousands of people from all over the region to camp at the fairground just west of town. You’ll probably have to follow suit, as beds in Dali will be in short supply. In addition, an impressive but frankly scary Yi torch festival is held on the 24th day of the sixth lunar month – flaming torches are paraded at night, and people even throw gunpowder at each other.
Lying either side of Dali, Er Hai Lake and the Cang Shan Range can keep you busy for a few days, though the lake itself is probably of less interest than the villages dotting its shore. Some of these also host markets, full of activity and local characters, where you can watch all manner of goods being traded and pick up local tie-dyed cloth.
- Lijiang and around
Meili Xue Shan
Meili Xue Shan
DEQIN (德钦, déqīn) lies six hours north of Shangri-La across some permanently snowy ranges, only 80km from the Tibetan border. The town is no great shakes, but there are exciting opportunities for hiking around nearby Meili Xue Shan, whose thirteen peaks are of great religious significance to Tibetans. Be aware that a visit to the area should be taken seriously, despite the relatively well-worn trails: always carry food, water, a torch, first-aid kit, full weatherproof gear and good hiking shoes.
It’s better to skip Deqin town altogether and instead head another 15km north to the Meili Xue Shan viewing point just below Feilai Si (飞来寺, fēilái sì). There used to be sublime vistas of the mountain here but, in a demonstration of extreme civic meanness, the local authorities have built a wall, forcing tourists to pay to use an observation platform. From here, it’s a further ninety-minute drive to the Meili Xue Shan reserve entrance at pretty Xidang village (西当, xīdāng). Two trails set off from the main entrance. There’s talk of introducing a single entry ticket for the reserve, but at the moment you pay separately for each trail. The easiest heads east for the three-hour ascent to the Mingyong glacier (明永冰川, míngyŏng bīngchuān) one of the world’s lowest at 2700m, and advancing relatively quickly at 500m per year. The road is reasonably good for the area, and you’ll find a fair few souvenir shops and guesthouses at the glacier viewing point.