The Yangtze River raged beneath us, but the sheer depth of the canyon silenced the churning rapids at our vantage in the cliffs above. Trekking through Tiger Leaping Gorge kept us on the literal edge. With towering mountains plunging almost 4,000 meters directly into the waters below, a thin path snaking around the rock face provided the only path forward.
Yunnan Province is known to be one of the most scenic parts of Asia, and certainly one of the most stunning landscapes in China. This province landed squarely on our itinerary based on our love for mountains, trekking and nature. We spent a week in Yunnan following our time in Hong Kong and Guangxi Province as part of our month in the country.
Lijiang Itinerary – 2 Days
Lijiang is a large city with the main draw being the extremely popular old town. Located at 2,400m elevation, this area has roots going back over 800 years when it was a trade center for the ancient Tea Horse and Silk Roads. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although most of the buildings have been rebuilt following significant damage from a recent earthquake. Unfortunately, the streets are now lined with kitschy shops selling anything but unique snacks and wares, which does severe damage to the authenticity. Lijiang draws crowds of domestic tourists who are more eager to take pictures and buy tacky souvenirs than learn about the history.
We flew into Lijiang after Guangxi Province, which is the easiest entry point for nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge. Despite the town’s less than authentic atmosphere, there are still some interesting things to see and do. Mufu Palace, the home of the former ruling family, is a gorgeous example of historic design. While also a re-creation of the original, this is certainly worth a visit.
We took a trip to Puji to start a full day hike/walk between small neighboring towns. In Puji, there is a Buddhist temple located on a hilltop which provides a nice starting point. While not particularly notable, it is completely un-touristed and the climb to the top is a quick way to feel the effects of hiking at altitude. From there, we hiked to the villages of Longquan, Shuhe and then Baisha. Each town has an ancient town which is much less touristy than that in Lijiang. The walk takes you past farms and orchards with several temples to visit en route, and views of the ever present Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looming above. The total walk between towns is around 10k, including the hike up to Puji Temple.
Outside of town is the beautiful Black Dragon Pool, one of the best things to see in Lijiang. This is a park surrounding a spring fed lake which offers an ideal vantage of Jade Dragon on a clear day. Locals congregate around the water to practice tai chi and line dance, making a perfect place to people watch.
Food – 1.5 out of 5
Culture – 2 out of 5
Scenery – 3 out of 5
Off Track – 1 out of 5
What to Do in Lijiang: Explore ancient town; Visit Puji Monestary; Hike between ancient towns from Puji to Shuhe to Baisha; Visit Mufu Palace; Walk around the Black Dragon Pool.
Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek Itinerary – 2 Days
At 3,890 meters from river to mountain top, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest in the world. We spent two days trekking between guesthouses, following the Yangtze River below towering cliffs. The views and scenery here are breathtaking and rival some of the most beautiful we have seen in Patagonia, South Africa and even Nepal. This was a highlight from our trip to China and should not to be missed in Yunnan. Interestingly, hiking is not a popular activity for Chinese tourists which keeps these trails mostly deserted.
We started our trek at the south end of the gorge from a small parking area on the main road below Naxi Guesthouse. The day began at 1,900m altitude with a non-stop climb to the infamous 28 Bends. The China sun blazed during our hike, making this portion one of the most difficult we have encountered anywhere. At the top of the Bends, the trail finally crested at 2,800m and we were rewarded with beautiful views up the gorge. Of note, a lady at the top was charging 10 yuan per person to take pictures from the separate viewpoint. Don’t waste your money on this as the views continue to improve further into the hike.
After the 28 Bends, the trail declines and loses most of the elevation gained. We trekked until reaching Tea Horse Guesthouse where we lodged for the night. This hotel is basic, but has a million dollar view from every room and the roof top common area. The first day hike took around five hours, and covered close to 10 kilometers.
On the second day, we rested after 5 kilometers at Half Way guesthouse, where we were treated with another unbelievable view. This would make a good overnight spot for trekkers looking to extend the first day hike. Afterwards, we took a detour and climbed down the gorge to the river far below. This trail, located behind Tina’s Guesthouse, was built and maintained by local villagers so has a small cost of entry. Once at the bottom, there are two options to get back to the top. First, the “Sky Ladder”, which is exactly how it sounds. One hundred and seventy vertical steps up a ladder leaning against the cliff, no safety equipment available. The second is a more gradual climb following the river, often in a half tunnel cut out of the cliff. We opted for the latter, not the ladder. We spent the night in Walnut Grove at Sean’s Guesthouse, again surrounded by towering cliffs. The total hike from Tea Horse is around 14 kilometers, including the diversion down to the river.
After the trek through Lower and Middle, it is also possible to visit Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge. This area has bus access and stairways to the river, so attracts the bulk of domestic tourism. While this part is also nice, we found the less crowded sections along the trek to be far superior and didn’t find the upper section to be an essential destination.
Food – 2 out of 5
Culture – 3 out of 5
Scenery – 5 out of 5
Off Track – 4.5 out of 5
What to Do in Tiger Leaping Gorge: Two to three day trek; Stargaze; Enjoy the scenery from your guesthouse.
Shaxi Itinerary – 1 Day
After leaving the gorge, we made a brief stop in Shaxi (pronounced “sashi”) on our way to Dali. This is another small town centered around an ancient village and surrounded by lush mountains. The town itself does not have much but there are several temples and trails in the hillsides which can be explored on a hike leading into town.
To start our hike, we were dropped off at the Haiyun park gate outside of town. We first visited Haiyun Temple, an ancient Buddhist structure built into the cliffside atop hundreds of steps. Macaque monkeys guard the path and are quick to snatch any unguarded bags or food.
Following the roadway, the hike continues through the hills with nice views of the town and valley below. There are a couple more cave temples further along, including Baoxing and Jinding which are worth a visit. From there, a stone pathway leads from the road to follow the mountain contour back to town. The total hike is close to 13 kilometers.
Food – 4 out of 5
Culture – 3.5 out of 5
Scenery – 3.5 out of 5
Off Track – 4 out of 5
What to Do in Shaxi: Hike into the mountains to visit Haiyun and Baoxiang Temples; Wander through Ancient Town.
Dali Itinerary – 2 Days
We finished our Yunnan trip in Dali, which is flanked by the impressive Cangshang Mountains and Erhai Lake. This is a very large city split between another touristy ancient town to the west of the lake and the new city on the south shore. Similar to Lijiang, the old town is mostly rebuilt and packed with tacky shops selling all types of inauthentic goods.
The surrounding mountains have several well developed trails offering impressive views of the city and lake. We hiked Yu Dai Lu (Jade Belt Road), a wide and flat stone paved path high in the Cangshangs, which is reachable by a steep dirt path or by cable car from two locations. We opted to take the Gantong Cablecar up to begin a 10 kilometer point to point hike. This trail is mostly level and follows the mountain contours. Other than near the cableways, we encountered very few people. We finished at the Zonghe Cablecar station which returns near the Three Pagodas temple.
A major highlight in Dali is the Three Pagodas temple complex. Located on the hill below Cangshan, the setting is both impressive and serene. The temple buildings are brightly painted and contrast beautifully against the lush green of the mountains. Despite being recently rebuilt in 2005, this is certainly not to be missed.
Another fun thing to do in Dali is visit the local market in Xizhou twenty minutes outside of ancient town. This bustling market is not know by many tourists and remains an authentic slice of local culture, where many villagers gather daily to sell produce, meats and other goods. We sampled various treats including steamed buns and pan baked bread stuffed with rose jam.
Make sure to also stop by Yi Ran Tang vegetarian restaurant in old town. It is run on donations from the Buddhist community so a buffet style meal is only 5 yuan ($0.80 USD). Hours are limited but all are welcome.
Food – 3.5 out of 5
Culture – 2 out of 5
Scenery – 4 out of 5
Off Track – 2 out of 5
What to Do in Dali: Visit the Three Pagodas; Walk around the local markets in Xizhou; Hike the Yu Dai Lu scenic path in Cangshan Mountains.
Are you dying to explore China? We spent a wonderful month seeing some of the most amazing places. If you are looking into flights, make sure to check out our favorite places in the country for some destination inspiration. And as always, feel free to contact us with any thoughts on our visit or logistics.
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