[China] Yunnan: Old Cities, Blue Lakes and Breathtaking Mountains

Yunnan (云南) is a part of China that lies close to the border with Vietnam and Cambodia, and is a region full of natural beauty. The Tibet Autonomous Region is also just next door, so do take the chance to visit.

With a number of highly developed tourist spots, the Yunnan region is impressively organised for ease of travel, having several domestic airports, train routes and bus routes within it. The flip side, however, is that you can expect horrific hordes of domestic tourists and soaring prices in peak tourist season (generally, anytime apart from Winter).

My itinerary spanned 10 days in January (Winter, low travel season) and was as follows:
Day 1: Land at Kun Ming airport, train immediately to Da Li
Day 2: Da Li to Shuang Lang by car
Day 3: Shuang Lang to Li Jiang by bus
Day 4 – 5: Li Jiang (4: Horse-riding, 5: Visit to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain)
Day 6 and 7: Shangri-La by tour bus, return to Li Jiang
Day 8: Li Jiang to Da Li by bus
Day 9: Da Li
Day 10: Return to Kun Ming by bus, depart

GENERAL TIPS FOR TRAVELING IN YUNNAN

  • Don’t bother tipping
    I’m unsure if there’s a cultural reason for this, but generally, tipping is not expected and may even insult. We made this mistake several times, and it was not well-received.
  • Bargain, bargain, bargain!
    As a foreigner, you can expect things to be more expensive. For example, a tour agent admitted that he usually charged 100Y more for foreigners but made an exception in my case as I was with a Chinese. Try and travel with a Chinese speaker, or learn some Chinese yourself to be a better negotiator.
  • Language issues
    Very few things are in English, and very few people speak English. This applies even to tours – you may have to make special requests for an English-speaking tour. Don’t get your hopes too high though, as I didn’t see any such option even in Li Jiang, the most touristy place on my itinerary.
  • Get a local SIM card
    Language issue or not, many tour agents require you to have a local number to confirm departures with you the night before (usually they call around 10pm, after all agents have confirmed the number of guests attending). It’s also handy to have accessible wifi on hand, just for that sense of extra security.
  • The Great Firewall
    You won’t be able to access gmail, google, facebook or instagram when you’re in China. However, Whatsapp, Hotmail and Yahoo work, albeit quite slowly. So prep beforehand if you need to be contactable, such as forwarding emails to a hotmail account or putting up am “uncontactable” status on Facebook!
  • Buying bus tickets
    Bus terminals often don’t know each other’s timetables e.g. the terminal in Da Li had no idea about the timetable in Li Jiang. Try looking it up online, but most likely you’ll just have to go down the day itself or the day before and find out when you purchase a ticket. Ticket prices usually range from 50 – 200Y.
  • Don’t plan at the last minute!
    Not much of the online content about travelling in China is available in English, so if you’re not fluent in the language, I highly recommend avoiding last minute planning as it will be tough especially with the slow internet connection.

LI JIANG (丽江)

A key tourist destination, Li Jiang’s old town (Li Jiang Gu Zheng, 丽江古城) has a history that goes back more than 1,000 years and was a key point along ancient trade routes. It is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, but jaaaaysus was the place commercialised as hell.

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Quite frankly, I hated staying in Li Jiang’s old town.

Though beautiful with its wooden houses, tiled Chinese roofs, and narrow, paved streets, it lacks any kind of soul. Overtaken by franchises, you won’t be able to tell one street from another. On top of that, prices were exorbitant – finding a meal for two below 100Y was near impossible.

I did, however, find local eating spots at Zhong Yi (忠義) market, where delicious bowls of noodles were going for less than 10Y. I’m happy to report that no food poisoning was experienced throughout this entire trip.

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A ‘sweet’ concocted from steamed bread and an orange sugary liquid. Bland taste, with a texture of cardboard. Do not try.
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Snuck a photo of some minority race ladies chilling on a bridge along the main street!
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The ‘Food Street’ in Li Jiang Old Town. The grilled squid and fresh yogurts are especially tasty.

Li Jiang’s old town is also renowned as a “casual hook up” destination amongst young, hipster travellers (although ‘hooking up’ has varied definitions amongst the Chinese – it could simply mean enjoying one another’s company) and its bars seem to be set up to encourage this sort of relationship-building, where loners are paired together by staff.
Bars, mostly clustered along its Bar Street, are of two distinct kinds:

a) “quiet” bars featuring live acoustic music, which charge you an arm and a leg to sip on cappuccinos amidst disorganised art pieces or
b) “loud” bars reminiscent of the thai disco variety, featuring live performers singing or dancing whilst dressed in blinding outfits against a backdrop of equally blinding stage lights. This alternates with blaring intense house/dubstep tunes to which some people will flail.

The ‘fun’ gets going from 9pm onwards. Of course, drinks must be bought in order to park your ass down (starting from ~50Y for a drink).

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Taken along Bar Street – much quieter in the day.

Nonetheless, there are certain points worth venturing to the old town for, but I wouldn’t spend more than a day here if I could help it… A better base to visit the sights around the area would be Shu He (束河), another old town 30 minutes away by taxi (drivers will charge you a standard price of 30Y). See the section titled “SHU HE” below for more details.

There are two main points of interest that make Li Jiang’s old town worth a visit. The first is Mu’s Residence (Mu Fu, 木府), the so-called ‘Forbidden City’ of the South, a symbol of pride for the local Naxi people. I only saw the residence from afar but it certainly seemed grand, situated on high ground and flanked by imperial gardens.

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Photo credit: potolkimaker.com
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Photo credit: chinatouronline.com

The second is Lion Hill Park (狮子山), whose peak overlooks the entirety old town. A temple decked out in vibrant colours also awaits those willing to climb a long flight of stairs to the top. A number of overpriced cafes have set up shop around the park, allowing you to sip on a single cup of 50Y tea whilst taking in the view. (Be forewarned though – no matter which cafe you decide to relax at, you won’t be able to escape the sound of singers belting out acoustic sets at an alarmingly loud volume)

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The spectacular view
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The vibrant temple atop Lion Hill

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If you REALLY have to stay in Li Jiang’s old town, I recommend staying at Sunshine Inn (阳光部落 at 62 Xingwen Alley (Xingwen Xiang) Qiyi Street (Qiyi Jie), Gucheng, Lijiang, China).

The inn owners, a married couple, were extremely hospitable and made us meals whenever we happened to be around whilst they were cooking. This saved us a TON of money, plus allowed us to meet other guests.

The most memorable meal: feasting on barbecued meats in the outdoor seating area with six other travellers, exchanging stories and travel tips as we gulped down sweet beer. This inn was definitely the highlight of my stay here.

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Just chilling on my balcony, munching on some sugar cane

We were offered 80Y a night for a double bed and ensuite bathroom – note that online rates on ctrip (http://www.ctrip.com, a travel search and booking site used primarily in China) were higher. However, I expect that walk-ins might not be possible during peak travel periods.

More on avoiding tourist traps in Li Jiang:
http://www.virtualtourist.com/travel/Asia/China/Yunnan_Sheng/Lijiang-1011249/Tourist_Traps-Lijiang-TG-C-1.html

SHU HE (束河)

Shu He is an old town found in Greater Li Jiang, and is also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. A 30 minute cab ride (30Y, standard fee) from Li Jiang, Shu He is similar in old-world aesthetics but arguably far more charming in ambiance.

Though smaller in size, Shu He boasts larger streets, quieter parks and plenty of quaint cafes and shops that are much less commercialised. Shu He was a welcome break from the uncomfortable sensory overload that permeated Li Jiang.

Together with its lower prices, Shu He may prove to be a better base for you to explore the region if you plan on doing day trips out.

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Finally, some peace and quiet.
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Barbecued maggots, anyone? Perhaps a crunchy cricket?

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HORSE-RIDING (骑马) 

Horse-riding is an activity you may wish to consider while in Li Jiang. There are various options, differing in price, route and duration, starting from less than 100Y for a short trot to ~600Y for lunch, 3 hours on a horse and a boat ride around a lake. Horse-riding, therefore, may take up half a day or less in your itinerary.

At that price, it is quite blatantly a tourist trap. I did, however, enjoy my half-day session on horse and boat, departing at 10am and returning to Li Jiang’s old town at 3pm. We trotted along an ancient trade route (Cha Ma Gu Dao, 茶马古道 ), and passed by some scenic spots on a dry mountainside. The highlight of the horse ride is this one grassy plain where your horses have the space to gallop – the first time I’ve ever been on a running horse. At the end of it, I had a very sore bum and was quite thankful to settle down to a hearty lunch, and thereafter chill in a small boat for about half an hour.

As we booked the tour through our hotel who had affiliations with the tour operators, we paid a discounted price of 370Y for the 560Y package. You may wish to book through your hotel in order to get a better price, as on-site the tour operators have clearly listed prices that will make bargaining tough (though probably not impossible).

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Ouch

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These toilet signs written in a minority race’s script were very admirably to-the-point.

JADE DRAGON SNOW MOUNTAIN (玉龙雪山) AND BLUE MOON VALLEY (丽江蓝月谷)

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, 4,600m above sea level, was fantastic. Every once in a while, wind whips the virgin snow into a flurry, causing a mini snow-fuelled tornado to dance across its surface.

A cable car brings you up to 4300, and a wooden path of stairs snakes along the mountain to take you up to 4,600m. I really felt the impact of the sudden increase in altitude, and had to take frequent rest breaks after every flight (some 12 steps??). Still, it was quite an easy climb.

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Me, cold and out of breath but loving the view.

Blue Moon Valley, a short bus ride from the return cable car, receives a mixed review though. The lake was astonishingly blue and contrasted beautifully against the white of the mountain, but the whole set up seemed a bit dodgy and artificial. Clearly, a dam created the lake, and many of the rocks causing the “cascades” were obviously fashioned from concrete. Nonetheless, it was still quite a sight.

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Very concrete ‘rocks’.
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No photoshop on that blue whatsoever

Getting there:
We went with a tour agent recommended by our hotel that asked for 500Y – to be honest, this was quite pricey. Most agents along the streets advertised tours for 300 to 350Y. The mountain isn’t very far from Li Jiang, maybe 1 to 1.5 hours drive away, and once there you switch to eco buses which take you around.

The tour (pick up at 8am, return at 3pm – without lunch) quite literally only included transport, a coat and an oxygen tank, all of which can be easily procured on your own. The guide isn’t even with you save for the bus journey there. The mountain can be easily travelled to if you are already renting a car, or hiring a taxi/shared mini-van.

DA LI (大理)

Da Li was BY FAR my favourite place on this itinerary. Famed for being one of China’s most hipster places, it’s full of quaint cafes, small designer stores – a refreshing change from the usual tourist crap that inundates Li Jiang. My favourite bit was interacting with all the young travellers who set up blankets selling all sorts of random wares along the streets of Da Li. I spent 3 very happy days here.

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These fresh flower garlands are sold everywhere for ~20Y! Loved feeling like a princess for a day
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Da Li, similar to Li Jiang, is an old town surrounded by gorgeous mountains

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One of the many quaint cafes around Da Li

Check out especially the Ren Min Street (人民路), where I found the best stores, food and cafes. I also recommend heading to Bad Monkey bar (http://badmonkeybar.com), Da Li’s most popular watering hole, for cheap drinks (from ~10 to ~45Y for a ‘fucking flaming’ – a showstopping fancy cocktail for the pyromaniacs amongst us), chill tunes (live band at 9pm!) and a great mix of foreigners and locals.

Apart from the variety of experiences and generally more relaxed atmosphere, prices are also significantly lower vis-à-vis Li Jiang. For example, I bought a batik cloth which was priced at 260Y in Li Jiang for 80Y in Da Li.

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Nomming on some freshly made pancakes filled with custard cream!
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Our lovely loft home – you’ll find many loft options in Da Li (450Y/night)

Be sure to catch the sunrise at Er Hai lake (洱海), a thirty minute drive from the East Gate (洱海门) by taxi. There aren’t many taxis around at that time, so leave early and walk out a bit, or try to arrange transport the day before.

The lake, surrounded by a mountain range, is breathtakingly beautiful. Across the lake, lights from distant towns twinkle against the pastel blues of the water and sky. Turn around, and you catch soft shades of morning pinks on the mountains behind. To see the full range of colours, I recommend arriving an hour before the sun has fully risen.

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Shuang Lang (双廊) is right at the banks of Er Hai, but it’s on the opposite side of Da Li and so offers a very different view. Both perspectives are uniquely lovely.

Getting there:
Da Li can be reached by bus (5 hours from Li Jiang, 8 hours from Kun Ming, 120Y~200Y) and train (6~9 hours from Kun Ming, 64Y~147Y a ticket. Note: I HIGHLY recommend opting for the soft sleepers on the train. The other options are horrifically cramped. For more on the train schedule: http://www.chinatrainguide.com/kunming-railway-station/dali.html)

SHUANG LANG (双廊)

Quite frankly, there isn’t much to recommend in Shuang Lang. It’s a tiny resort town built up around Er Hai lake that is bursting with some 700 hotels. The resorts are admittedly fantastic and well worth the expense (off-season prices start from 500Y/night, and double during peak season), but if you’re not able to fork out the cash then really – don’t bother too much with Shuang Lang. A halfday trip to catch some overpriced drinks at sunset will suffice. You’d get a better experience and cheaper everything in Da Li.

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Boat rides can be had for 100Y around the lake
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Quite a spectacular view to have over dinner
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The view from bed…
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My hotel was quite literally next to the water
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How swanky is this pad?!  

We tried renting a double bike in Shuang Lang because it seemed like a cute idea and a total bargain at 30Y for 5 hours – but please, don’t. You’ll encounter painful upslopes and thick crowds far too frequently. We cycled out of Shuang Lang to the next town (half an hour away by bike) in hopes of getting a better environment, but it wasn’t worth the effort.

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Wasn’t actually as fun as that smile suggests

Getting there:
It took a one hour drive (150Y) to get to Shuang Lang from Da Li. It is possible to share the car with other travellers, although you’ll have to do some waiting around. Apparently, the best time to try your luck is +/- 10am at the East gate.

SHANGRI-LA (香格里拉)

Shangri-La is a part of the Tibet Autonomous Region that is open to tourists, and only 3 hours from Li Jiang by bus. We went by bus tour, paying 260Y (very cheap, as it was low season. Usually it is around 600Y) to our tour agent in Li Jiang and an additional 220Y to our Tibetan tour guide.

This strange split-payment arose because there is a discrepancy between what your tour agent tells you and what actually happens – Shangri-la tour guides and bus drivers can only be Tibetan (part of the local government’s effort to promote tourism), and some money is obviously being siphoned off by middleman agents.

The tour included meals and a stay at a 3-star hotel, as well as entrance fees to all the sights – this was extremely value-for-money. There is no way we could have done it any cheaper if we had gone by ourselves; just the entrance fees to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Potatso National Park would have amounted to 400Y! Note also that most public toilets in this region aren’t free, so keep plenty of one yuan notes on you.

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The “3 star hotel” we stayed at: not too shabby!
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Our meal spreads boasted some impressive variety

The First bend of the Yangtze River  (长江第一弯) was our first stop enroute to Shangri-La from Li Jiang. Having departed at 7am, we arrived just in time to catch some early morning rays creeping along the distant mountains. It was as if I was looking straight at a painting. Annoyingly, though, the viewpoint was situated at the top of a building filled to the brim with goods and loudhailers aimed at tourists.

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Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡), our second stop, was well worth the visit. Although it may not look much in the photos, the sheer size of this gorge, the third largest in the world, is astounding. All around, the rush of the water generates a roar that fills your eardrums with the sound of relentless power.

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We of course had some mandatory stopovers at various tourist traps. These were quite seamlessly tied together with cultural experiences, however, so I’m not complaining too much. For example, we visited the home of a local and were given an introduction to daily family life amongst Tibetans – which ended with our hostess laying out a table of supposed handmade local silver for purchase.

We also visited a museum on traditional Tibetan medicine in the old city, where a medicine man would look at your palms and tongue, deliver a speech detailing your poor blood circulation and a plethora of issues with your internal organs (actually fairly accurate), followed by a prescription you can then opt to purchase.

We were given some time to wander around the old city which, unfortunately, suffered from widespread fires in January 2014. There was, nonetheless, an enormous prayer wheel and temple well worth visiting near the museum.

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The old city of Shangri-La – burnt in January 2014, it is still undergoing extensive reconstruction a year later
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This ENORMOUS prayer wheel takes at least 10 people coordinating their efforts to spin. Go around at least 3 times!
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Making my prayers after three exhausting rounds

A Tibetan house visit and performance in the evening wrapped up our first day. This was SO MUCH fun. We sat in rows around a square room, where we were treated to dinner and demonstrations of Tibetan song and dance. A Tibetan partaye is all about drinking, singing, dancing in a circle and shouting ARRRRAAATONG (drink up) at the top of your lungs. Many bowls (BOWLS.) of white wine (40% alc) were downed that night.

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Happy three friends
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We were stuffed with free flow food and drink – be wary of that Tibetan white wine…

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The next day, somewhat hungover, we ventured out to Potatso National park (普达措 国家公园). Others opted for Mei Li Snow Mountain, considered sacred by Tibetans, but we decided one snow mountain on our itinerary was enough.
(More on Mei Li Snow Mountain: http://www.chinahighlights.com/shangri-la/attraction/meili-snow-mountain.htm)

Potatso, mainland China’s first national park and registered as a UNESCO World Heritage, is beautiful in all seasons, boasting a topography covered in forests, lakes and mountains. Even in Winter, though cold as hell in the morning (we hit -12, but warmed up around 11am), it was a veritable crystalline wonderland. Iced trees and frozen lakes against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains? Absolutely stunning. I hear Spring has the park overflowing with an abundance of blossoms. *_*

We spent 3 hours here, which was just enough for a decadent stroll and completion of the bus route. Sight-seeing eco buses take you from start to end, with pauses at various scenic points and some stops where you can choose to hop on and hop off. In total, you can expect to spend at least an hour to an hour half just on the bus. Buses run about every 15 minutes to half an hour, depending on crowds.

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If you would like to extend your stay in Shangri-La after the tour schedule, just let your tour guide know (NOT your tour agent in Li Jiang or where ever – they’ll likely charge you some kind of extra payment).

Do be wary of altitude sickness! At Potatso (3,500m) I felt very ill, suffering from dizziness and breathlessness. This took my by surprise as I didn’t have much difficulties ascending the taller Jade Dragon snow mountain (4,600m).

Drink plenty of water, have chocolate on hand for energy boosts and keep your portable oxygen tanks (about the size of a bottle) on hand.  Our guide recommended not falling asleep on the bus when ascending so that you’re conscious when altitude sickness hits. People HAVE died from altitude sickness so take it slow, rest plenty and listen to your body. Notify someone if you have any signs of discomfort.

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