What To Do In Yunnan China: Ultimate Guide
Why you should visit China’s most diverse province.
Visiting Yunnan (云南) ticks all the right boxes. It is by far the most diverse of all of China’s provinces. Planning a trip here means experiencing an extraordinary mix of landscapes and people. With too many ethic groups to count and just as many topographic prowess, traveling through Yunnan feels like it should entail a few extra passport stamps.
From snow capped mountains to towns that have stayed the same through the centuries, and gorgeous rice paddies amongst vibrant green landscapes, there’s something in this southwestern Chinese province for everyone.
If you’re itching for adventure, read on.
Why Plan a Trip To Yunnan?
Yunnan, quite like China itself, is big. Historically speaking, the province has always stood apart from the rest of the country. Yunnan shares borders with Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar (Burma) but has always been quite removed from China itself, mostly due to the mountains of Guizhou and Sichuan. Such a great location leads to many a beautiful thing.
Many people don’t think of China as incredibly diverse, but they’re wrong. About half of Chinese minorities can be found in Yunnan. In this province alone, there are 28 recognized ethic groups. Every single one of them have their own customs, language, festivals, style, cuisine and beliefs.
South of the cloudy peaks is what Yunnan literally means, and during your visit you’ll be able to see why: you can almost always catch a glimpse of snow-capped mountains breaching the clouds somewhere in the distance. Visiting the Chinese province sure feels like being on cloud nine!
The interest in Yunnan and the speed at which China develops has made visiting quite a bit easier than it used to be. Trains, planes, buses, and cars can get you anywhere your heart desires. There’s really no excuse for you to skip out on any of what’s to come.
Best Places To Visit:
Lijiang (麗江) is old world charm at it’s finest, with a healthy sprinkling of natural wonders. The old town is where the party’s at. At night, the city comes to life and both Chinese and Western music can be heard coming from bars full of patrons. In the daytime, the maze of cobblestoned streets begs to be explored. Wooden buildings and canals are just some of the architectural wonders found in old town.
On the natural wonders side of things, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is an absolute must. Before you start any type of ascension however, stop at Black Dragon Pool for an amazing view of its snowy peak. Cloud Fir Meadow is the closest to the top you’ll get. The meadow sits at an altitude of about 4505 meters while the mountain soars to 5595 meters. Take your time and enjoy the trek, as altitude sickness can really ruin the experience.
By the way, UNESCO agrees that this is a must-see, it added Lijiang to the list of World Heritage Cultural Sites in ‘97, as it marries tradition and urbanism perfectly.
This city was renamed Shangri-La (香格里拉) in 1998. The name was fashioned after the Buddhist paradise described by British author James Hilton in his 1930s novel Lost Horizon. While I can’t promise that Hilton used this city as inspiration, I can confirm that it is quite awe-inspiring.
There is so much to do in Shangri-La. The old town is adorable and it’s cafes and guesthouses more than inviting. Bitahai Lake has jade colored water and the bonus of snowy peaks in the distance doesn’t go unnoticed. Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, also called the Little Potala Palace, is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that makes the trip worth it. The view of the sunset from up there is breathtaking. Want even more Tibetan goodness? Head to Gyeltang where you’ll get the closest to experiencing an authentic Tibetan lifestyle without straying from your Yunnan itinerary.
If you have a bit more time, hop on horseback or a bicycle (or just walk) to visit lesser known monasteries and villages and find your very own hidden gems.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡; Hǔtiào Xiá) is the definition of unmissable. It is one of the world’s deepest canyons and the Yangtze River, which is the third longest in the world, flows and roars in between jagged cliffs almost 4000 meter high. There’s beauty any way you look: snow capped mountains on the side, waterfalls on the other and lush green all around. Even UNESCO agrees, as Tiger Leaping Gorge is also a World Heritage site.
Even at its whopping 2500 meters in altitude, Tiger Leaping Gorge is an attainable goal for one and all. If you’re an accomplished hiker and craving some adventures, you can easily undertake a two to three day trek. However, if you’re more of a casual type of person, there are a multitude of day-hikes too. The canyon is 16 kilometers long, so there’s plenty to explore.
North of Lijiang and east of Shangri-La, you have absolutely no excuse to skip this one.
Lúgū Lake (泸沽湖) is a mystical place. As you can probably deduce from it’s name, a lake is at the center of everything here and both domestic and international tourists flock to the shallow and clear waters of Lugu Lake. China has gotten a bad rap for it’s pollution, so it’s always nice to remember that there are plenty of oases left in the country. This is one of them. The lake is right on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan, you can even canoe your way from one province to the other.
As is a trend with many destinations in Yunnan, the residents of this city are also a big draw. Tibetans and Yi live in Lugu Lake, but it’s the Mosuo who inspire the most curiosity. They are matrilineal, which means women can have as many lovers as they wish and they give their surname to their children. Such traditions have not survived the test of times in many places.
A mystical lake surrounded by lush forests and a kingdom ruled by women, what’s not to love?
Shāxī (沙溪) is a maze of a city embedded with ancient traditions. Sinuous cobblestone streets are the perfect place to get lost while taking a trip back in time. This Yunnanese city used to be on the Tea Horse Road that went all the way to India and hasn’t changed much since the days of caravans and traders. If you find yourself in the city on a Friday, follow the sounds of Yi and Bai villagers bargaining and trading, and take in the madness that is the market.
Most tourists haven’t discovered this piece of the historical pie, so make your way over now if you want those narrow winding streets all to yourself.
Dàlǐ (大理) is where locals and backpackers rub shoulders to get away from it all. It’s a relaxation hub and the perfect place to recharge before the next stop.
The city, which used to be the capital of a whole separate kingdom, is packed full of history. The local Bai, Yi, and Muslim people, and a slew of foreigners have all shaped the Dali of today. You’ll find temples like the Zhonghe and the famous Three Pagodas to remind you of the old. For the new, the many cafes and beer gardens down on Foreigner Street speak for themselves. Both the new and the old mix on the shores of Erhai Lake and lend each other a hand climbing the Jade Green Mountain.
Kunming (昆明), along with Medellín in Colombia, Arica in Chile, and Quito in Ecuador is referred to as the City of Eternal Spring. Yunnan’s capital’s locals are very similar to its climate: mellow.
Most travelers visiting Yunnan will eventually end up in Kunming for fun or in transit. Tourism has changed parts of the city over the years: Shopping and nightlife are big parts of the city, and malls, markets, nightclubs and bars are here to entertain.
Another big draw of the city is its Stone Forest. A bus leaves Kunming on the hour to visit this wonder, but be warned, there will be plenty of Chinese tourists checking it out as well.
Yuanyang Rice Terraces
Yuanyang (元阳) is a little slice of heaven. Quite literally, as its hilltop villages will make you feel as if you were right at home inside the clouds. Yunnan is filled with beauty and Yuanyang is no exception.
Home of the Hani people, Yuanyan is a great place to learn about culture. Be sure to walk around old town (Xinjie) and familiarize yourself with traditions, cuisines, and fashion. Local country fairs are a common occurrence as well and they are a blast to observe.
Rice terraces are the star of the show here. These man-made wonders have been around for more than a few centuries. The sunsets and sunrises over the rice-covered hills are breathtaking. Head to Duoyishu for the sunrise and Bada or Laohuzui for the sunset. You won’t be disappointed. The best time to visit the terraces is between January and March, when they are still full of water and reflect the light just right. Even on a cloudy day, the fog rolling in does the trick just as well. You’ve got 125 sq km of rice terraces to explore, and so much more.
The Xīshuāngbǎnnà region (西双版纳) is an outlier in Yunnan. North of Laos and Myanmar, the region is a bit more like a miniature Thailand than a Chinese region. Driving along the palm tree-lined streets of Jinghong, the region’s capital, you’ll definitely understand what we mean.
Xishuangbanna is more tropical than the rest of Yunnan. June to October is the wet season and November to May is quite dry, but the region is really the star of the show in mid-April. The local Dai people hold their water-splashing festival at that time and it gets quite packed with both visitors and festivities!
Tea plantations, rice fields, buddhist temples, rainforests, jungles, and plenty of sunshine are just some of the best things about Xishuangbanna. Make sure to head over to the open border they share with Laos for an international hike before you leave this slice of paradise.
And If You Have a Little More Time...
Jiànshuǐ (建水), despite its traditional architecture and friendly locals, is often overlooked. Known for some amazing food, caves and temples, the old town is worth a stop.
Nuòdèng (诺邓) is the place to be if you’re looking for peace and quiet. Just picture yourself walking through flagstone streets alongside donkeys and going through gates dating back to the Qing and Ming dynasties - a relaxing trip back in time.
Bǐngzhōngluò (丙中洛) is the friendly neighbor of Tibet and Myanmar. With all its greenery, it’s the perfect spot for trekking. It does get quite cold in the winter though, so do plan accordingly!
Must-Eat Yunnanese Dishes
Crossing The Bridge Rice Noodles
Rice noodles are big in Yunnan. One of the most famous ways to have them is in Crossing The Bridge Rice Noodles. The story goes that a dutiful wife needed a dish she could walk over to her husband, across a bridge of course, without it becoming a mushy mess. This dish was the solution. It all starts with a stock of chicken or beef boiled down for hours on end. The noodles, vegetables, herbs and spices are all served on the side and are only combined once you’re ready to stuff your face - no time for it to get soggy.
You read that right. You might not naturally associate China with cheese, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work oh so well together. Rubing is a firm goat cheese that you’ll only find and enjoy in Yunnan. It’s prepared a few different ways, but fried and salted is too good for words.
Stir Fried Insects
This might feel a bit gimmicky and icky, but when in Yunnan… Cicadas, dragonflies and silkworms can all end up on skewers here. It’s all up to you whether you bite or not. Some people claim the crunch is quite nice… some not so much.
Yak is pretty much the equivalent of beef in the northwestern part of Yunnan. There is always the off-chance that a dish that was said to include beef actually has yak in it, but if you go to Yunnan and don’t try yak, you’re missing out! It has a slightly stronger flavor, but it’s delicious, even better if its barbecued!
Yunnan is the home of a wild variety of mushrooms. Recognized worldwide, it’s only logical that they end up in so many dishes. Have some braised Termitomyces in Kunming. They taste like chicken! Or why not braised Jizong in soy sauce? Or some wild mushroom hot pot? Matsutakes, porcinis, morels, you name it! When it comes to hot pot, since you’ll be doing most of the cooking, do keep in mind that some mushrooms can have undesirable effects if undercooked, so do keep ‘em in the pot for an extra couple of minutes.
Shidian Carved Plum
Centuries old, this delicacy is not only delicious, but gorgeous. The plums are intricately carved before being pickled in a honey mixture for a couple of months. The Shidian people have mastered the art of snacking.
Where to Stay on Your Visit to Yunnan
Guest houses, lodges, hotels and even Airbnbs can be found all over the province, so you’re sure to find something that matches your style and your budget in the location you’re looking for. There are so many amazing places in Yunnan though, that it can be hard to narrow it down. Agoda.com is widely used in Asia and a great place to start to hotel hunt!
To help narrow it down, here are a few standouts:
Songtsam Lodges are a collection of boutique lodges. Songtsam strives to be a part of its local communities and you’ll feel right at home. With locations in Lijiang, Shangri-La, Deqin, and many other more remote locations with plenty more in the works. You can pick your favorite or try their entire circuit!
For a taste of luxury, head to Amandayan in Lijiang. The property boasts a private cinema and an outdoor pool. The hotel is simply gorgeous, with beautiful courtyards and incredible architecture.
Aoding Courtyard in Shaxi is an adorable 17 room boutique hotel in a traditional Bai building that will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Jade Emu International Guesthouse is a great budget option to keep in mind when visiting Dali. Minutes from the old town and complete with their very own cafe and bar.
Is Traveling to Yunnan Easy?
After you’ve taken care of your visa, the top struggle when traveling to Yunnan is the language barrier. While the locals are friendly and having a translator in your pocket at all times is quite useful, it still feels good to have someone in your corner when traveling somewhere as completely foreign as China. The logistics of it all can be quite daunting. It’s one of the many reasons why people still use travel agencies.
Far too many have never heard of Yunnan, and even more people will never step foot in the Chinese province. Hopefully, you’ll help rectify those odds, as Yunnan is severely underrated. It might not be on many adventurer’s radar, but it deserves a spot on bucket lists. It can seem far away and complicated, but with a little fire and plenty of distractions for the long flight, you’ll be good to go.
Visiting Yunnan in China will leave you with a once in a lifetime journey that will make people raise their eyebrows when hearing about it and let you teach them more about the amazing world we live in.
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