A travel guide for Yunnan – 8 great adventures to experience

China. From the cultural highlights of capital Beijing, to the Southern shores of Xiamen and Guangzhou, over to the Eastern coast with bustling Shanghai and picturesque Suzhou, to the central plains with Shaolin monks and thick noodles. I’ve did my fair share of travels within the Middle Kingdom, together with Ms. Rice.
Yet, during our Big Trip , I decided to travel all the way South West to Yunnan province. An area with a mild winter climate, blue skies, vast mountain ranges and plenty of ethnic minorities. In short: worth the journey!

That’s us, fish eye view in Kunming 

Over a period of 3 weeks (Dec. 2016), with Ms. Rice tagging along, we hopped from one cultural hot spot to another, hiking through gorges, over mountains and through jungle forests. Yunnan is a province where you can take things slow. Literally, transport gets a little harder with smaller places spread out across the area. Yet, the people seem more relaxed and feel less stress from the influence up north. You’ll meet plenty of diversity: people, food, nature, heck, even the weather.
Chinese lucky number 8 leads you the way, as we assembled 8 top things to do/experience in beautiful Yunnan. As always, there’s lots of other stuff to do, but here’s a nice start.

1. Hiking in Tiger leaping gorge

Near the mouth of the gorge, there is a rock in the middle of Golden Sand River called Tiger Leaping Rock. Apparently a hunter was chasing a tiger through the gorge many years ago. People say that the tiger crossed there by hopping on the rock. This is the myth about Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Gorge runs for about 15km in length and at his highest point has a maximum depth of 3790m.

One view of the gorge 

It’s one of the few places I’ve been in China where the hiking track has not been fixed nor stairs have been added. It’s the real experience, thus, you also won’t find that many people along the trail. It’s possible to make it a 2 or 3 day adventure, I did the hike in 2 days.
What makes it special?

Hell yeah, fire on everyone !

It’s not a tremendously difficult hike, mainly the first section has some steep stretches, especially the 28 bends. Your at the higher level of the gorge, so you’re always looking to 2 beautiful (snowy) mountain ranges, while still having the overall view below.
It’s peaceful, and you’ll stop by a few nice small villages, with ethnic minorities living their casual lives. We stayed overnight at a Naxi family.

Sunset view from the Naxi family’s garden

You can be “lucky”, like us, witnessing the live killing of a giant mountain pig, since the town was throwing a party. I must say: that BBQ meat tasted extremely fresh 🙂

Fresh meat BBQ, with a view !

After hiking mostly flat and downwards on day 2 reaching Tina’s, you still have the option to go to further downhill to Walnut Grover, or catch the bus back to Lijiang (or onwards to Shangri-La).
100% recommended hike in Yunnan !

Tiger leaping gorge, a beauty ! 

Costs: entrance fee Tiger Leaping Gorge 65 RMB / 8 EUR / 10 USD , double room with shared bathroom at Naxi Guest House: 60 RMB / 7.5 EUR / 9 USD

The next hikers at Naxi won’t forget us 🙂 Mural time!

2. YuanYang rice terraces

You’ve got the ones in Sapa, Vietnam or Ubud, Indonesia, though the rice terraces in Yuanyuan, Yunnan are also truly breathtaking. I must say, you will need to put up some effort, since it is a 7-9h bus ride one way (from Kunming).

Beautiful reflection shots

Best time to visit is December-March, as the rice paddies across the valleys are being filled with water by the local Hani people. This gives you really perfect money shots during sunrise, sunset, heck, the entire day!

Smoking the Yunnan way !

Hiking from one small village to the other, meeting children playing in the fields, saying Moeh! to one of the many water buffaloes: it’s all part of the journey. For longer distances, it is possible to take a small van/taxi to take you further. The entire area is set up as a loop. And, don’t forget the local cuisine ! Plenty of cool things to explore from the Hani, Yao and Miao minorities.

Sunset view

There are a few scenic areas which are included in your entrance ticket: Duoyishi, Bada or Laohuzui (the Tiger Mouth). Though the entire area is worth hiking around.
 To make the coolest reflection pictures ever, head to Yuanyang ! You won’t regret.

With our Israeli friends at sunset 

Costs: entrance fee 100 RMB / 12 EUR / 16 USD, local hostel approx. 96 RMB / 12 EUR / 16 USD for double room with private bathroom.

3. Luguhu lake and Mosuo traditions

Up north of Lijiang, at the border with Sichuan province, lies Lugu Lake – Luguhu. It’s less known with both foreign and Chinese tourists, though still very worth the 4.5h shared car drive through the mountains.
Lugu lake is located at 2,685m altitude, mainly surrounded by mountain ranges. The water is crystal clear, with almost all the time beautiful blue skies. It’s a great place to stay low for some days, getting around the lake by bike or e-bike.
But what makes this adventure even more spectacular, is one of the ethnic minorities who live in this area: the Mosuo. It’s one of the few matriarchal societies on this world, and it’s really fun to visit one of the families. You can share some local cuisine, learn about their lives and habits, and even join a traditional Mosuo dance/singing party. We were extremely grateful to our driver, one of the few non-Mosuo married with a Mosuo woman, to show us some of the less touristic places.

Mosuo party ! 

Cost: Mosuo dinner and party: 100 RMB / 13 EUR / 15 USD per person

4. Lijiang and Dali ancient towns 

When you start heading north of Kunming, you always pass the cities of Dali and Lijiang. They are a starting point for hikes (see point 1.) or other journeys (see point 3., 6.).

Ancient Dali view from city wall. 

Both cities also have ancient towns. Lijiang would be the biggest, though also the most restored (and touristy). Nevertheless, it’s still great to wander around the narrow streets of Lijiang and Dali, with its small canals and many music, local clothing or food shops. Don’t miss out on some BBQed yak meat or flower cakes. Life truly goes a little slower around here.

ancient town alleys 

Top tip: smaller than the 2 aforementioned is Shuhe, not so far from Lijiang. With more waterways, green areas and less crowded narrow alleys, this ancient town is a must visit!

Playing the drums, and buying one!

Be like a local: play some music instruments, or, be as crazy as me: just buy a drum ha!
Costs: Lijing daytime entrance fee 80 RMB / 10 EUR / 12 USD (after 6PM free)

5. FOOOOD

In case you don’t know: Chinese food in mainland China compared to what you’ll find in your home country is 90% of the time totally not the same. Heck, the differences within China are even that big, so every province or area is proud about their local cuisine.
Same for Yunnan, where you can indulge in lots of really tasty dishes, like rice noodles, yak meat, Tang wu lu (fruit candy), flower cakes and so much more.
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By the time you reach Xishuangbanna in the South, things really get exotic. There’s loads of delicious fresh fruit, from durian to jack fruit, or dragon fruit. But even you really want to live on the wild side, try some BBQed grashoppers, worms or tarantulas.

Exotic BBQ !

6. Explore Erhai lake by scooter/bike

 Yunnan really has quite some interesting lakes to visit. The largest one, Erhai lake, is in the neighbourhood of Dali. The name means “Ear-shaped Sea“, due to its shape as seen by locals and travellers. Its circumference reaches 116 kilometres !
A great way to explore both the lake and the nearby small towns, is by rental bicycle or e-bike. We really enjoyed our drive around the lake, stopping by several places for some nice views and pictures. We finally drove up to Wa Se, where a local market was being held that day. It’s a great way to see locals, including several ethnic minorities, casually doing their day-to-day stuff. And don’t forget the great food 😉
Cost: Bike or e-bike rental, approx. 40 RMB / 5 EUR / 6 USD per day

7. Get into the tropical jungle: Xishuangbanna

Elephants, (golden) temples, tropical jungle forests? Yes, you’re still in China ! The most Southern area of Yunnan has it all. One of the minorities living there, the Dai, have similarities with Thai people.
So what’s out there? This area is known for lots of tea plantations in the mountains, many fruit and rubber plantations, elephant parks and yes, many different minorities. Even in December, the climate is quite humid and warm, around 30C. So get out, go for a hike in the mountains along many small villages or get a bike and ride along the banana or dragonfruit plants.
Fancy a grilled grashopper or tarantula? Go to the evening market for some local exotic delicacies.

Dai minority piggy transport

 If you’re on the way to Northern Laos (like us), this is the perfect stop for some days!

8. A touch of Tibet – Shangri-La? 

 You don’t have the time to go to Tibet, or don’t want to join a tour group? Then the “light version”, Shangri-La will get you close. Literally, because it’s all the way up North of Yunnan, following the typical Kunming-Dali-Lijiang trail.
Go there for snowy mountain ranges (Jade Dragon – YuLong mountain is a must), the little brother of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, Songzanlin Monastery or get off the beaten track and visit some of the Nixi Tibetan villages. Actually, a lot of the Tibetan folk are spread across Sichuan and Northern Yunnan provinces !

Did you ever make it to China ? Which place did you like the most? Thinking about going to Yunnan?

Share your story or comments with us !