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.