Basking 2000m above sea level in the fertile heart of the Yunnan plateau, KUNMING does its best to live up to its traditional nickname, the City of Eternal Spring. Until recently it was considered a savage frontier settlement; the authorities only began to realize the city’s promise when people exiled here during the Cultural Revolution refused offers to return home to eastern China, preferring Kunming’s climate and more relaxed life. Today, its citizens remain mellow enough to mix typically Chinese garrulousness with introspective pleasures, such as quietly greeting the day with a stiff hit of Yunnanese tobacco from fat, brass-bound bamboo pipes.
The city’s potential as a hub for both domestic tourism and cross-border trade has seen Kunming develop rapidly in recent years. With its sprouting malls and streets bustling with shoppers from every corner of the country – not to mention some interesting markets and an excellent museum – Kunming is no longer the sleepy outpost of old, but the growing tourist infrastructure, together with a student and expat-fuelled nightlife, ensures the city is an enjoyable stop-off. Which is just as well, as virtually every traveller coming through Yunnan will end up here at some point.
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 “Tea-Horse Road” trade routes between China and Tibet, along which 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 Lake, lakeside home to the matrilineal Mosuo, while north again is the Tibetan monastery town of Shangri-La. By now you’re barely in Yunnan, and a day’s further travel will carry you up to Deqin, where a spectacular string of peaks marks the Tibetan borderlands.
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.
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.
If you can, visit Dali 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.
LIJIANG, capital of the Naxi Kingdom, nestles 150km north of Dali at foot of the inspiringly spiky and ice-bound massif of Yulong Xue Shan, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Surrounded by green fields and pine forests, the town’s winding cobbled lanes form a centuries-old maze, flanked by clean streams, weeping willows and rustic stone bridges. It is also, however, China’s biggest tourist black spot, in many ways little more than a cultural theme park, and the template against which all “old towns” in China are being remodelled. Hordes of visitors pack out the streets, while the Naxi family homes that line them have been converted into rank after rank of guesthouses and souvenir shops, mostly run by Han Chinese posing in ethnic costumes. Despite this, it’s easy to spend a couple of days in Lijiang, especially if you’ve been out in the wilds and need a good feed and a hot shower. Fairground atmosphere aside, there’s also some genuine culture lurking around the town’s fringes, and plenty of potential excursions into the countryside.
Rich pickings surround Lijiang, with a stock of pleasant countryside, temples and villages on the lower slopes of Yulong Xue Shan, which rises about 18km north. Much of it is within bicycle range; there’s also transport to all of them from Lijiang.
The Naxi are descended from Tibetan nomads who settled the Lijiang region before the tenth century, bringing with them a shamanistic religion known as Dongba. A blend of Tibetan Bon, animism and Taoist tendencies, Dongba’s scriptures are written in the only hieroglyphic writing system still in use, with 1400 pictograms. The Naxi deity Sanduo is a warrior god depicted dressed in white, riding a white horse and wielding a white spear. Murals depicting him and other deities still decorate temples around Lijiang, and are a good excuse to explore nearby villages.
Strong matriarchal influences permeate Naxi society, particularly in the language. For example, nouns become weightier when the word female is added, so a female stone is a boulder, a male stone a pebble. Inheritance passes through the female line to the eldest daughter. Women do most of the work, and own most of the businesses; accordingly, the Naxi women’s costume of caps, shawls and aprons is sturdy and practical, while retaining its symbolic meaning; the upper blue segment of the shawl represents night, a lower sheepskin band represents daylight, and two circles around the shoulder depict the eyes of a frog deity. Naxi men often appear under-employed, though they have a reputation as good gardeners and musicians. You’ll likely see a few falconers too. Forgotten Kingdom, by Peter Goullart, available at bookshops in town, is an entertaining account of Lijiang and the Naxi during the 1930s.
The Naxi Orchestra is an established part of Lijiang’s tourist scene. Using antique instruments, the orchestra performs Song-dynasty tunes derived from Taoist scriptures, a tradition said to have arrived in Lijiang with Kublai Khan, who donated half his court orchestra to the town after the Naxi chieftain helped his army cross the Yangzi. The orchestra regrouped after the Cultural Revolution, though the deaths of many older musicians have reduced its repertoire. To counter this, the orchestra’s scope has been broadened by including traditional folk singing in their performances.
The orchestra plays nightly in Lijiang in the well-marked hall on Dong Dajie (8pm; ¥120–160; some agents offer discounted tickets). The music is haunting, but introductory commentaries overlong; try to catch the orchestra practising in the afternoon in Black Dragon Pool Park, for free.
Also on Dong Dajie, another hall, called the “Inheritance and Research Base of China”, hosts a song and dance troupe who put on spirited nightly performances to a small audience (8–9.30pm; ¥80). Expect to be dragged on stage at the end. Similar audience participation is encouraged in the nightly dances that start around 7pm in Sifang Square.
As an alternative to the cable cars for exploring Yulong Xueshan, WENHAI (文海, wénhăi ) is a beautiful lakeside village in the mountain’s foothills that’s a three-hour trek from Baisha or Yuhu. Xintuo Ecotourism (1398 8826672, ecotourism.com.cn) charge ¥1000 for a three-day, two-night return trek to Wenhai from Lijiang, including all transport, guides, accommodation and food; contact them in advance about accommodation if you plan to visit independently.
Some 200km north of Lijiang, Lugu Lake is shallow and attractive, surrounded by mountains and bisected by the Sichuan border. The people up here are Mosuo, who maintain matrilineal traditions such as axia marriage, where a woman takes several husbands. Women run the households and children are brought up by their mothers – men have no descendants or property rights. Glibly marketed as a “Girl Kingdom” free-for-all to single Chinese men – who inevitably head back home disappointed – tourism has become well established in recent years, but the lake remains a pleasant place to kick back and do nothing much for a couple of days, before making the tiring bus journey to Xichang in southern Sichuan.
Sacred to Tibetan Buddhists as home to the protective warrior god Kawagarpo, as well as attracting tourists drawn by its natural beauty, the Meili Xue Shan range is also visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims each year. While the arduous two-week kora circuit of the mountain conducted by the faithful is not for everyone, there are also some less demanding hikes – still with spectacular views – to be had.
Entry to the park area is from Xidang, while most visitors stay in Yubang as a base for hiking local trails. Any visit to the area should be taken seriously, despite the relatively well-worn paths: always carry food, water, a torch and first-aid kit. Full weatherproof gear and good hiking shoes are a necessity.
Meili Xue Shan’s highest peak, unclimbed Kawa Karpo (6740m), is holy to Tibetans, who trek around its base every year to complete the Kawa Karpo kora, or pilgrimage circuit, three circumnavigations of which are said to guarantee a beneficial reincarnation. The circuit takes fourteen days or so, beginning in Deqin and ending in the village of Meili. If you plan to attempt it, be aware that the route crosses the Tibetan border and you need permits, as the police keep an eye on this area; you also definitely need a guide – you’re above 4000m most of the time and people have died attempting the trek solo. Travel agencies in Shangri-La can make all arrangements for you.
SHANGRI-LA, also known as Zhongdian – or Gyalthang in Tibetan – sits on a high plateau at the borderland between Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. When this former logging town was hit by a 1998 ban on deforestation, the provincial government renamed it Shangri-La after the Buddhist paradise of James Hilton’s 1930s novel, Lost Horizon, to try to stimulate a tourist boom. They also spent a fortune turning the dismally poor Tibetan settlement here into a fairly convincing “old town”, complete with obligatory traditional houses, cobbled streets, religous monuments, cafés, guesthouses and bars; there are also less contrived attractions in the monastery just north of town and excellent possibilities for local hiking and horseriding. Shangri-La’s altitude is over 3000m, so take it easy if you’ve arrived from the lowlands, and be aware that’s it’s very chilly between October and March.
In January 2014, a massive fire swept through Shangrila-La’s old town, destroying over 200 of the wooden, Tibetan-style buildings. At the time of writing it was impossible to know how much, if any, of the town has survived, but damage has certainly been severe and extensive.
Around 100km north of Lijiang, just east of the highway to Shangri-La, the Yangzi River channels violently through Tiger Leaping Gorge, the 3000m-deep rift between Haba Xue Shan to the north and Yulong Xue Shan to the south. The hiking trail through the gorge is one of the most accessible and satisfying in China, with dramatic scenery and – despite the 2500m-plus altitude – relatively straightforward walking.
To hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, you’ll need to be fit, carrying full weatherproof gear, a torch and a first-aid pack, and to be stocked up with snacks and a water bottle. Solid boots are a plus but, as long as your shoes have a firm grip, not essential. Weather can be warm enough in summer to hike in a T-shirt, but don’t count on it; winters are cold. Accommodation along the way is in guesthouses, so you won’t need a tent. Two days is the minimum time needed for a hike; give yourself an extra day to make the most of the scenery.
Originally there were two trails through the gorge, but the former Lower Path has been surfaced to handle tour buses, and isn’t suitable for hiking anymore – though it’s useful if you’re looking for a quick ride out at the end of your trek. The remaining Upper Path is the route described below. End points are at westerly Qiaotou, on the Lijiang to Shangri-La road, and easterly Daju, a small township on a back route to Lijiang. Most people hike from Qiaotou to the midpoint around Walnut Garden – which covers the best of the scenery – and then catch transport back to Qiaotou and thence on to Lijiang or Shangri-La; the advantage here is that you can leave heavy bags at Qiaotou. Alternatively, you can continue on from Walnut Garden to Daju, or – with a guide – north to Baishui Tai. Before you arrive, try to pick up the home-made maps that float around cafés in Lijiang and Shangri-La.
There seem to be almost continual roadworks going on in the gorge, connected with ongoing construction of a hydro dam across the river and regular seasonal landslides, a potentially lethal hazard; do not hike in bad weather or during the June–September rainy season. There have been a couple of knifepoint muggings of solo travellers in past years, so try not to walk alone. For current information, check www.tigerleapinggorge.com, maintained by Sean’s Guesthouse in Walnut Garden.