China Travel Guide
Located along China's southwest frontier, Yunnan offers an unmatched diversity of landscapes, climate, and people. The Tibetan highland frames its northwestern fringes; tropical rainforests and volcanic plains lie to its south. In the center are plains and hills, crisscrossed by some of Asia’s great rivers – the Yangzi, Salween, and Mekong.
The seat of the pastoral Dian Kingdom founded in the 3rd century BC, Yunnan was for centuries an isolated frontier region that resisted Han influences and upheld local identities. Even today, the province is home to a third of China’s ethnic minorities and has much in common with neighboring Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. The province’s capital, Kunming, is one of the more relaxed cities in China; nearby are the astonishing rock formations of the Stone Forest (Shi Lin). Several minority villages dot the tropical forests of Xishuangbanna, while in the north, Dali is home to the indigenous Bai people. Farther north is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lijiang, capital of the Naxi Kingdom, with cobbled streets and ancient architecture. Tiger Leaping Gorge, an impressive, steep-sided ravine, offers superb, accessible two-day hikes.
Kunming is well connected to the rest of China, but the bulk of the province has only limited train services. Bus travel is necessary to access most of Yunnan.
Sights at a glance
oldest of the three elegant pagodas
(San Ta) on the outskirts of Dali
Towns & Cities
Areas of Natural Beauty, Islands & Mountains
- 420 miles (690 km) SW of Kunming
- Luandian Lu, 0691 212 4479
The tropical region of Xishuangbanna, in the far south of Yunnan, resembles its neighbors, Myanmar and Laos, more than dynamic modern China. Jinghong, its sleepy capital, was founded in the 12th century by the Dai warlord Dazhen. It is today an incongruous mix of concrete architecture and palm-lined streets. With an attractively torpid pace of life, it is an ideal introduction to the region and its indigenous Dai culture.
Manting Wat, situated southeast of the city center, is Xishuangbanna’s largest Buddhist temple. Built entirely of wood and raised off the ground on stilts, it has a simple interior, with vivid frescoes illustrating Buddhist themes. Next door is a school where Dai boys learn Buddhist lore. Behind the temple, Chunhuan Park, once the quarters for royal slaves, is a lush place with numerous resident peacocks. There are several paths leading across the tiny river to replicas of temples and pagodas. A shop here sells live fish for people to release into the river and thus gain merit. Located in the west of town, off Jinghong Xi Lu, is the lovely Tropical Flower & Plant Garden, a must-see for anyone interested in the incredibly diverse flora of the region. It is bursting with a wealth of tropical plants – over 1,000 species – quite a few with labels in English. In the early afternoon, tour groups are entertained by vibrant displays of traditional Dai dancing. A prominent statue of Zhou Enlai commemorates a summit he held here with the Burmese leader U Nu in 1961 to defuse border tensions.
- Manting Lu
- 8am–7pm daily
Flower & Plant Garden
Tropical Flower & Plant Garden
Located 20 miles (30 km) southeast of Jinghong, Ganlanba makes a good base for exploring the surrounding area. In the southeast of town, the Dai Minority Park is a collection of refurbished Dai villages, with traditional bamboo and wood houses raised on stilts. Near the park’s center stands the 700-year-old, gilded Wat Ben Pagoda. The town’s main attraction, however, is its picturesque setting in lush jungle beside the Mekong River. Several cafés here offer advice on walks and bike rental.
The popular Sanchahe Elephant Reserve, 30 miles (50 km) north of Jinghong, is home to a herd of 50-or-so wild elephants. Visitors are not allowed to wander off the paths without a guide. Raised treetop walkways allow for observing the wild elephants, while a chairlift provides a real bird’s-eye view. Near the southern entrance is a bird and butterfly zoo. The reserve’s frequent elephant displays are best avoided, since the animals are coaxed into performing with spears.
A visit to Banla Village, 24 miles (38 km) west of Jinghong, is the most accessible way to experience Hani culture (one of the four sub-groups of Xishuangbanna Dai). The village is attractive with typical Dai houses overlooking rice terraces and tea plantations. Besides dance recitals held at the village hall, visitors can also see the distinctive Hani dress, with embroidered tunics, silver breastplates, and ornate headdresses.
In China, the Dai people live in the lush lands of Xishuangbanna. Once spread as far north as the Yangzi Valley, the Dai were driven south during the 13th century by Mongol expansion, and are now found throughout Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. The Dai in all of these countries share a similar culture, following Theravada Buddhism rather than Mahayana, the Buddhist school practiced in much of the rest of China, and speaking their own language with its own script.
Known as skillful farmers, the Dai have always flourished in fertile river basins, growing rice, sugar cane, rubber trees, and bananas. Dai cuisine is well worth trying, with sweet flavors not found elsewhere in China. Rice is steamed inside bamboo or pineapple, and exotic specialties include ant eggs and fried moss.
|Traditional Dai homes are made of bamboo and raised on stilts, with the livestock penned underneath and generations of the same family living above. The well outside will likely have a shrine over it, water being sacred to Dai culture.||Markets in rural
Dai homelands offer the only opportunity for some to buy products they can not produce themselves. Huge social occasions usually held on a Monday, they attract villagers for miles around. A lot of hard bargaining – as well as gossip and flirting – goes on.
|Dai women traditionally wear a sarong or long skirt, a bodice, and a jacket. Hair is tied up, fixed with a comb, and often ornamented with flowers. Gold-capped teeth are considered attractive and married women wear silver wrist bands.|
celebration in mid-April, usually
the 13th to the 16th
Water Splashing Festival
Originally a solemn Buddhist rite celebrating the defeat of a demon, Poshui Jie, the Water Splashing Festival, is today a joyous and hedonistic carnival. Water is liberally hurled at friend and stranger alike, and becoming thoroughly drenched is seen as fortuitous. The festival also features a massive market on the first day; dragon boat racing, fireworks, elephant and peacock displays on the second; and the biggest drenching of all, along with much singing and dancing on the third.
In climate and culture, the subtropical far south of Yunnan, Xishuangbanna, feels a part of southeast Asia. Much of the area is primeval rainforest, the last left in the country, and home to a huge diversity of flora and fauna, including a third of China’s bird population. A third of the population is Dai; another third is made up of the numerous other minorities. Most of the population lives in small villages and the area’s appeal lies in the opportunity to hop between towns, explore the countryside by bike, and trek through the jungle.
East to Laos
This route travels through cultivated flat lands and then highland forest to the Laotian border, which you can cross, provided you have the required visa.
The small settlement of Manting, a few miles east of Ganlanba is full of traditional wooden Dai houses. The town’s Fo Si and Du Ta are excellent reconstructions of 12th-century temples destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
Three hours east by bus lies Menglun, a dusty couple of streets beside the Luosuo Jiang. The superb Botanic Gardens, across a suspension bridge on the opposite bank. were set up to research medicinal uses of local plants. With over 3,000 different species, there’s plenty to see, even for the not-so-botanically minded, including the celebrated Dragons’ Blood Trees whose sap is used to heal wounds, as well as bamboo and ancient cycad groves. Stay the night, in the small hotel within the gardens.
Leaving the farms behind, the road to Mengla travels through a great tract of thick tropical jungle, the largest of Xishuangbanna’s five wildlife preserves, which gives way to rubber plantations. Mengla itself is a rather drab and unattractive town.
A short taxi ride north of Mengla, the Bupan Aerial Walkway, a chain of slender bridges 130 feet (40 m) in the tree canopy, allows for unrivaled views of the jungle below. It’s another 9 miles (15 km) to the Yao minority village of Yaoqu. There’s a hostel, and from here it is possible to trek into some very remote regions – you’re advised to hire a guide.
Shangyong is the last village before the Laos border and though not really worthy of a trip in itself, it’s interesting as Xishuangbanna’s Miao center.
Bupan Aerial Walkway
West to Myanmar
Western Xishuangbanna is less developed than the east, with rougher roads and sketchier transport. The many fascinating villages inhabited entirely by minorities, however, make the rigors of travel worthwhile.
Sprawling Menghai is unremarkable, but useful as a base for exploring villages and the countryside by bike. It’s renowned for its pu’er tea and hosts a lively Sunday market.
The monastery at Jingzhen is known for its busu, an octagonal pavilion for delivering sermons. The main temple has beautiful decorative wall paintings. A bit farther on at Mengzhe, the hilltop Manlei Si is a bizarre-looking, frilly octagon built in the 18th century, which holds an important collection of sutras written on palm fiber. Xiding, an attractive Hani village, holds a large Thursday market.
Gelanghe is dominated by the Hani, whose women wear elaborate silver headdresses. A sub-group, the Ake, who wear their long hair in braids, live in a settlement just north of town on the way to the lake.
Heading south towards the border, Menghun is a sleepy town with a huge Sunday market, beginning at dawn and over by noon. Most participants are Dai, but you will also see Hani and Bulang. There’s also a rather run-down 19th-century monastery in town.
The border town of Daluo is the end of the line for westerners who are not allowed to travel to Myanmar, unless being met at the border as part of an official tour. The cross-border market, which attracts hill tribes and Burmese traders, makes the trip to this outpost worth it.
Damenglong to Bulang Shan
Damenglong, 44 miles (70 km) south of Jinghong, comes alive on market days and is a popular spot for trekking and temple hopping. On the way, it’s worth stopping at Gasa to explore Manguanglong Si, a monastery with a lovely dragon-shaped stairway.
Manfeilong Ta is a half-hour walk north of Damenglong and its nine graceful spires make it the most impressive of the local temples. Built in 1204 to enshrine what is purported to be Buddha’s footprint, It is popular with Buddhist pilgrims and is the center of festivities during the Tan Ta Festival in late October or early November. Another Buddhist monument, Hei Ta, is rather run-down, but set in a very pleasant location.
The walk to Bulang Shan is a simple, well-established three-day walk along the Nana Jiang and its tributaries, passing through dense jungle and villages of the Dai, Hani, Bulang, and Lahu minorities. Hire a guide and be careful not to stray off the path into Myanmar. From Damenglong it’s 6 miles (10 km) to the Dai village of Manguanghan, then a further 8 miles (13 km) to the Bulang village of Manpo, which makes a good place to spend the night. The next day is a 14-mile (22-km) tramp through heavy jungle on winding paths to Weidong. The next day is an easy hike of 6 miles (10 km) along the road to Bulang Shan, which offers rudimentary accommodations and a daily bus to Menghai.
Tips for explorers
Getting around: Cars with drivers are available in Jinghong. Local buses are frequent along main roads. Bikes can be hired from cafés in the touristed areas.
Trekking: Numerous trekking organizations are based in Jinghong. A guide is recommended for jungle treks. This is a sensitive border region – do not walk unguided near the Myanmar border. Take plenty of water, sunscreen, a raincoat, a hat, and a first aid kit.
Accommodation: Basic accommodation is available in most villages, sometimes in locals' homes.
- 75 miles (120 km) SW of Dali
- from Kunming
- from Kunming, Tengchong & Ruili
The garrison town of Baoshan was an important staging post on the southern Silk Road to India, as early as the 5th century BC. Even though it attracts fewer visitors today, the town still retains some of its old charm, visible in its interesting traditional architecture, and its taste for commerce with specialty items ranging from salted duck, coffee, and tea, to leather boots and silk.
Just west of the town center, the scenic Taibao Shan Park is an excellent place for a leisurely stroll. Near the park’s entrance is the three-tiered Ming-dynasty Yuhuang Pavilion, with slanted pillars supporting a small octagonal dome. It is flanked on either side by octagonal bell kiosks. Close by is the Ming-era shrine Yufo Si, housing several jade Buddhas. At the summit, Wuhou Si is a commemorative temple with a huge bearded statue of the Daoist sage and strategist Zhuge Liang (AD 181–234), seated between his ministers.
Taibao Shan Park
Taibao Shan Park
- Baoxiu Lu
- 0875 212 2289
- 105 miles (168 km) W of Baoshan
A thriving settlement during the Han era, Tengchong prospered from the Silk Road trade. Today, a remote backwater, it has preserved more of its traditional wooden architecture than neighboring Baoshan. Set amidst jungle, volcanoes, and hot springs, Tengchong is also a major seismic zone, having experienced 70 earthquakes since records began in the 16th century.
In the north of town, on Guanghua Lu, stands the imposing British consulate established in 1899. A mix of Victorian and Chinese architecture, the derelict structure is to be converted into a museum. Along western Guanghua Lu is the main market, held every morning. Tengchong’s most charismatic alleys run west off Yinjiang Xi Lu, where Burmese traders, distinctive in their sarongs and sandals, frequent the Burmese Teahouse. Most are involved in the gem and jade trade, but be wary of their goods unless you are an expert. Just west of town, Laifeng Shan Park is a pine forest criss-crossed with paths. Near the top of the hill, Laifeng Monastery is now a museum and holds exhibits on local history.
Laifeng Shan Park
The sights out of town are best visited on a tour, which can be arranged by any large hotel in Tengchong. Heshun, 2 miles (4 km) west of town, was founded in the Ming dynasty and is as pretty as a postcard. Funds from thousands of former residents now living abroad have kept the traditional courtyard houses, ornate pavilions, and gardens in an excellent state of repair. One of the finest buildings is the wooden library, which was built in 1928.
As a result of its fragile faultlines, the entire region is dotted with volcanoes, dry lava beds, geysers, and hot springs. The most impressive of the 100-odd small volcanoes lie 12 miles (20 km) north of town. Dakong Shan is 820-ft (250-m) high, and beside it is the smaller Heikong Shan, only 262-ft (80-m) high, but over 328-ft (100-m) deep. Steps cut into the rock lead into the crater. Just 7 miles (12 km) southwest of Tongcheng, Rehai or "Hot Sea" is an area of geothermal springs, popular among the Chinese who throng here for a bath in the mineral-rich water.
Dakong & Heikong Shan
- 80 miles (125 km) SW of Tengchong
- from Kunming
Ruili, on the Myanmar border, is in every way a frontier town – slightly exotic, with a touch of the illicit. Although much Burmese heroin passes through here, and gambling and prostitution are rife, the town should not necessarily be avoided as the presence of Burmese traders, and Dai and Jingpo minorities make it one of the most intriguing places in southwest China. An interesting jade and gem market lies in the north of town, parallel to Nanmao Jie. The town really comes to life at night, when gambling and food stalls are set up in the back streets. Numerous hotels advertise tours into Myanmar, often to watch transvestite shows, but the frontier is closed to all foreign visitors, except those being met by Burmese officials for a pre-arranged tour.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
This popular trek follows the roaring Jinsha Jiang’s route through one of China’s deepest gorges, supposedly named after a tiger escaped hunters by leaping it at its narrowest point. With peaks on either side reaching an average of 13,000 ft (4,000 m), the gorge makes for a thrilling trek. The 18-mile (30-km) trail along the ridge is well marked, though at times arduous, and passes through rustic hamlets which allow visitors to rest up amid beautiful countryside. The walk can easily be completed in two days, but many hikers decide to stay an extra night. If time is tight, daylong bus tours from Lijiang head into the gorge along the lower road, which currently runs as far as Walnut Grove.
- 62 miles (100 km) NW of Lijiang
- from Lijiang to either Daju or Qiaotou; last bus from Daju to Lijiang at 1:30pm
- for access via Daju, and ferry crossing
Flocks of goats have stripped much of the slopes clean of flora.
This quiet village of terraced fields, walnut trees, and stone and timber houses is 14 miles (23 km) from Qiaotou and a great place to rest up. The views of the gorge’s narrowest section are not to be missed.
Farms at Nuoyu
The lovely village of Nuoyu is just two hours from Qiaotou. A few guesthouses here offer dorm beds and meals, as well as horses.
The 24 Bends
When coming from Qiaotou, the 24 Bends are the toughest part of the trail and consist of rather more than 24 gruelling switchbacks. Some hire horses at Nuoyu for this part of the trip
Views of the Gorge
Starting at the Qiaotou end of the gorge provides magnificent views right from the start. The peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain rise far above Jinsha Jiang, the River of Golden Sands.
A tiny village with superb views, Bendiwan has numerous guesthouses and is a convenient place to overnight 10 miles (16 km) from Qiaotou.
Walking the Gorge
The upper trail follows the peaks between Qiaotou and Daju, either of which can be used as a starting point. Both Bendiwan and Walnut Grove are about a day’s walk from either end, so make good spots to overnight. Don’t attempt the trek on your own, or in heavy rain or thick mist. Landslides do occur in the area so be wary, especially after the rains in July or August.
- Views of the Gorge
- Walnut Grove
- 119 miles (198 km) NW of Lijiang
- 3 to 5 hrs from Lijiang
- Changzheng Lu, 0887 822 5657
Touted as the true Shangri-la (the city’s name was officially changed to Xianggelila in 2002), Zhongdian is the capital of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Region and worth visiting if you’re not able to visit Tibet. The ramshackle town filled with blocky architecture does not quite live up to the paradise billing, but there is an interesting section of traditional Tibetan buildings to the south of town. Just north is the largest Tibetan monastery in the Southwest, Ganden Sumtseling Gompa (Songzanlin Si), home to over 600 monks. It was built by the fifth Dalai Lama almost 400 years ago, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and re-opened in 1981. Head to the roof for stunning views over Zhongdian.
There are plenty of possible trips out into the countryside – geographically, part of the Tibetan plateau – to Baishui Tai, for example, a set of limestone terraces, or to Bita Hai, an emerald lake and home to many endangered species. These trips are best arranged with local agencies, who can also set up a trip into Tibet – it takes about a week to reach Lhasa by four-by-four.
The Naxi Minority, numbering about 278,000, live in Sichuan and Yunnan, with Lijiang as their spiritual capital. Descended from Tibetan nomads, the Naxi lived until recently in matriarchal families, though local rulers were always male. There are strong matriarchal influences throughout Naxi society and in particular in the Naxi language. For example, nouns become superlative when the word “female” is added and diminutive with the addition of “male.” A “female stone,” therefore, is a boulder; a “male stone” a pebble. The script, called Dongba, consists of about 1,400 pictograms and is the only hieroglyphic writing system still in use. The Naxi religion, also called Dongba, is polytheistic, and mixes elements of Daoism and Tibetan Lamaism with older animist beliefs. The main Naxi deity is Sanduo, a protector war god depicted in white, carrying a white spear and riding a white horse. He is celebrated twice a year with the sacrifice of a goat and, of course, much singing and dancing.
|This page of pictographic Dongba script is from the Naxi manuscript “Sacrifices to the High Deity.” It is one of numerous Dongba documents translated by Joseph Rock.||Dongba sorcerers, are invited to chant scriptures at weddings, funerals, on New Year Day, and at festivals. A few of these shaman survived the purges of the Cultural Revolution and are training a new generation in ancient Naxi ritual.|
|Naxi society’s matriarchal nature results in the women controlling businesses, but also doing most of the work. Inheritance passes through the female line to the eldest daughter. Naxi men are expected to while away their time as gardeners or musicians.||Traditional shawls have an upper blue segment which represents night, a lower sheepskin band to represent daylight, and small circles recalling the stars. Two circles on the shoulder areas depict the eyes of a frog, an ancient Naxi deity.||Naxi music is unique – a combination of Daoist rite, Confucian ceremony, and literary lyrics, played on venerable instruments such as the flute, reed pipes, lute, and zither.|