First-time visitors to China tend to think of it as one homogenous country but, in reality, this colossal nation is akin to a continent. Diverse provinces – 23 in total – offering a wealth of varied attractions, cultural and historical highlights, not to mention vastly different cuisines, combine to make China one of the most fascinating, rewarding and multi-faceted destinations on earth. The Yunnan province, on the southwestern corner of the country, is by far the most popular to visit due to it being the most diverse and the most modernized, whilst offering a mind-boggling cache of attractions. Home to 28 different ethnic groups (the most of any province), gorgeous historic towns, Tibetan monasteries, splendid rural landscapes and some of the most stunning natural treasures of the entire country, Yunnan is an absolute dream to explore. If diversity in everything is what you’re after, then you really couldn’t choose a more worthy destination.
From the breathtaking heights of the Tibetan Plateau to the tropical lusciousness of its lowlands, Yunnan is one heck of a stunner.
Best Highlights in Yunnan
Given the size of Yunnan, most visitors choose a combination of flights + drives to get around, so as to enjoy the best of both worlds: wonderful scenery on short but rewarding drive days and the convenience of quick hops by plane when time is of the essence. Each base point listed below offers innumerable chances for day-trips so if you have the time, plan on spending 2-3 days in each spot.
Kunming – The provincial capital of Yunnan is one of the most enjoyable cities in which to spend a few days. The largest of all the hubs listed below (by far) Kunming is a delightful surprise, especially if you arrive expecting to face mind-boggling crowds. Wonderfully green and luscious (Kunming boasts a very mild climate) laid-back and easily explored on foot (the centre, at least) Kunming offers a wonderful intro to China travels. The city itself boasts pagodas, museums and a wonderful urban park that is impossibly beautiful. Day-trip options to ethnic villages, the ancient Stone Forrest and Dian Lake are easy to arrange and very rewarding.
Dali – Bustling Dali hides an historic quarter that feels more like an open-air museum, which is the case with almost all of Yunnan’s perfectly preserved villages. Dating back to the 8th century, Dali and its stunning setting – along the shores of Erhai Lake – are a true visual feast. The ancient core, easily explored on foot, is brimming with cool cafes, eateries and shops so it’s sometimes a challenge to remember look up and appreciate the intricate architecture. A popular holiday spot for locals, Dali is both laid-back and very vibrant. Visit the famous Chongseng Temple and its Three Pagodas, ride a bicycle around Erhai Lake to explore the ethnic villages along the way. Consider adding an extra day to your itinerary to explore the nearby Cangshan Mountains.
Due to road congestions, the drive between Kunming and Dali can be tediously long, so choose to fly to Dali from Kunming and leave your drive days for more relaxing and rewarding stretches.
From Dali, however…is where the road-fun starts. Ditch the plane for this next section and enjoy the stellar rewards of exploring rural Yunnan and its amazing on-the-way delights. If you’re short on time, you can include stops along Erhai Lake on your drive out of town rather than visiting on your Dali days.
Shaxi – Aside from the marvellous scenery, Shaxi is the other main reason you ought to take to the open road. Only 120km north of Dali, Shaxi is a postcard-perfect village that’s ideal for a few days of leisurely meanderings. With its narrow streets, gorgeous mud and timber architecture and very relaxing vibe, Shaxi is both fascinating to discover and blissful to enjoy. Once a prominent refuelling stop along the ancient Tea Route, the village still boasts all of its ancient essences. With a maze of cobblestone streets, central ancient temple and plenty of rural landscapes just on the outskirts, this village will absolutely beg you for an overnight stay. Relent, dine at the Hungry Buddha and stay in one of the charming guesthouses for a truly unforgettable experience. If you can, plan to be here on a Friday, which is when local Bai and Yi farmers head to town to sell their wares and produce, the way they have done for hundreds of years. A consummate cultural experience if ever there was one.
Lijiang – This 14th-century trading hub is a hybrid of modern city and ancient village and one of the most arresting stops along the way. The historic core, once again a maze of cobblestones, streams and authentic shopfronts, is framed by a bustling modern city and both are framed by the dramatic Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. As such, Lijiang offers a variety of options, both for nature-based activities and sightseeing. The UNESCO-listed core is simply splendid and much bigger than Shaxi, so you’ll find it hard not to spend your entire time walking, shopping and indulging in local specialities. Yet the nearby snow-capped peaks will vie for your attention at every turn, so take some time to enjoy a hike out of town to one of the many stunning viewpoints and soak up the natural splendour.
Tiger Leaping Gorge – The magnificent gorge with the superlative name is an exceptional wonder of nature and the main reason to continue your journey by road. If we had to pick just ONE natural treasure of the Yunnan province to show you, this would have to be it. The road to and through the Tiger Leaping Gorge following the mighty Yangtze River is magnificent and the views simply out of this world. Take a short hike to the base of the gorge for a truly overwhelming experience.
Shangri-la – Sitting at a breathtaking altitude of over 3,000m and set amidst some of the most dramatic landscapes in all of Yunnan, Shangri-la County is as stupendous as the name suggests. The core historic centre of its main town, catastrophically damaged by a fire in 2014, offers a look-see into the two cultures which have shaped it over the centuries: Tibetan and Han Chinese. The centre has been rebuilt and reconstructed to the original design, although one can’t help but realize this is as new a village as can be. Nevertheless, Shangri-la is still very beautiful and, considering the very best highlights are actually just outside the city perimeter, it matters very little. Fantastic mountainous monasteries, Tibetan villages and startling lakes offer immense rewards on excursions by car, so factor in at least two full days as a minimum, to spend here.
Best Time to Visit the Yunnan Province
When we stated that the Yunnan Province of China is the most varied of all, we also meant in climate. Its diverse geography, and sheer size, mean that the best time to visit Yunnan will highly depend on what it is you prefer. Note that here, higher temps also bring higher rainfalls which actually tends to be much more disruptive to sightseeing. The driest months of the year are October to April (high tourist season) so although you’ll want to pack a warm jacket at least you won’t have to worry too much about torrential rains. The milder south can be visited at any time of year although, again, you’ll want to avoid the wet summer if you can. We’re particularly fond of the shoulder months (September and May), a time you’ll encounter fewer tourists and, particularly in September, sensational foliage colours. During the high tourist season, you can expect daytime temps of between 15 and 20C (ideal for sightseeing) and although nights will be cold, you’ll luxuriate in the warmth of the many quaint guesthouses which are, in themselves, fantastic highlights.
Geographic differences, however, mean that Kunming is ‘spring-like’ all year long and that higher altitude cities like Lijiang and Shangri-la will always be much cooler during the drier winter months (especially Dec-Feb) although you will get the added bonus of snow cover on those all-too-glorious mountains.
Best Way to Reach the Yunnan Province
Kunming is one of China’s most popular entry points and non-stop flights connect the Yunnan capital to Sydney as well as 1-stop flights from Melbourne, Brisbane, Paris and several North American cities. With an array of brilliant stopover points, Kunming is not only easily reached but also easily included in a multi-country tour of Asia.
Yunnan insider tip: Being such a mountain province means that a few of the above stops (and many more along the way) sit at a relatively high altitude. You’ll want to be informed and take the necessary precautions so as not to tire yourself unnecessarily. Drink plenty of water, walk slowly and factor in good rests and long sleep. The Yunnan Province and all her beauties have a pesky habit of eliciting FOMO in even the most laid-back explorer, so fight the urge to do too much in a short time and leave yourself a reason to return, time and again.
Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”