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.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

China features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

From ancient temples to hyper-modern skyscrapers, these are just a few of the world's most incredible architectural wonders. Whether you're looking to wander l…

01 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
China travel tips: 8 things you need to know before you go

China travel tips: 8 things you need to know before you go

Even 20 years ago China was not a conventional tourist destination. Despite the allure of its beautiful landscapes and history-filled cities, politics, poverty,…

13 Jan 2017 • Simon Frank insert_drive_file Article
The roof of the world: a first-timer's guide to Tibet

The roof of the world: a first-timer's guide to Tibet

The ‘roof of the world’ has exerted a magnetic pull over travellers and adventurers for centuries. This vast, high altitude desert has spawned myths and leg…

10 Nov 2016 • Stuart Butler insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month