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China’s Warmth Meets Winter
Yunnan, Land of Spring and Ever-blooming Flowers
Travellers who wish to escape the cold of the winter often travel to warmer pastures when on holiday. Thailand and the Philippines are well-known warm weather escapes, but there is a beautiful city in China that remains largely unknown, which also fulfils this role. In Yunnan, flowers bloom in all four seasons and visitors always feel as if it is spring.
Yunnan, located in south-eastern China, boasts a long proud history with ancient castles showing traces of China’s past. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many ancient cities, sites and relics have been conserved, making Yunnan an extra special tourist destination. Another of Yunnan’s points of pride is its natural beauty that can only be described as unparalleled in the world. And if pleasant weather and beautiful scenery isn’t enough, you can put your body to the test by hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
For travellers in search of the warmth and beauty of spring, Yunnan is like heaven on earth. Come visit, and see the diverse beauty of this ancient province.
Enjoying Yunnan’s Great Cities
From Yunnan’s many cities, we’ve selected Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Each city has a different feel and a different combination of urban hustle and bustle, as well as rustic serenity. Not only are Yunnan’s cities full of interesting sites, but they are also part of a well-developed transport network, making it easy for even the most inexperienced travellers to get from place to place. At the Tiger Leaping Gorge, hikers can enjoy a classic four-season hiking course, perfect for those who prefer a more active holiday. Take a look at the recommended itineraries for each of Yunnan’s most popular locations.
Yunnan Holiday Starting Point: Kunming. Kunming, the ancient capital of Yunnan province, has developed into a modern city. Towering buildings line the roads and international brands, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, are easy to find. At first, it might seem disappointing that it looks so much like other cities. But once you leave the city, you’ll find what feels like a whole different country.
Shilin is about 75 miles (120 km) away from Kunming. The name Shilin comes from the Chinese, and means “the forest of stones”. Shilin has been designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site and is an example of karst topography, where strangely shaped rocks are widely distributed. Although it’s quite a long way from Kunming, the unique rock formations shaped by the area’s strong winds have made Kunming a tourist destination that is loved by visitors.
A visit to Shilin involves travel time and expenses, and there is a fee for entry to the Stone Forest. I’ve been asked many times by visitors and potential visitors if Shilin is a place worth visiting, but from the moment people see the area for themselves, they have no doubts.
After arriving at Shilin Valley, you still have to travel a few more minutes to see the area in all of its wonder. No one who sees the incredible size and majesty of this area leaves unimpressed. Visitors are often left with their mouths gaping open and there is no better view than the amazing sight from the observation tower at the very top.
Around five hours from Kunming is the small city of Dali. Here you will find a quiet warmth that contrasts with the tall, splendid buildings you might see in Kunming.
Dali Ancient City (大理古城)
The ancient fortresses of Dali were built as a seat for the rulers of the Dali Kingdom during the Song Dynasty. The ancient walls were heavily damaged with only the North and South gates remaining. The current layout of the city, with the blurred borders between the old city and the area outside of it, can make it hard to tell where you are.
It’s easy to get lost on the many forked roads through the old city, so it’s a good idea to keep a map on hand while seeing the sights. If you struggle with maps, there are two key points in Dali’s old city to help you find your way.
Fuxing Road (复兴路)
Fuxing Road was the main road in ancient Dali. All of the major shops and restaurants are found along this road. As the look of the ancient city has changed a great deal for tourists, you’ll notice that there are now large clothing and souvenir shops in this area. For travellers looking forward to an ancient walled city, this might be a little surprising, but it’s the exciting atmosphere of Fuxing Road that gives it its charm. At night, the street is lit up and has an entirely different look than during the day.
If you enjoy trying new snacks and shopping, spend some time enjoying the pleasures of Fuxing Road.
Renmin Road (人民路)
For travellers looking to enjoy a quiet experience in the old city of Dali, Renmin Road is strongly recommended. Although smaller than Fuxing Road, Renmin Road has plenty of pleasant cafés and shops selling unique and interesting products. Take your time going from shop to shop to really enjoy this old street.
Markets are spread out across the streets like a flea market with a variety of beautiful handmade products, as well as plenty of jewellery and other accessories that can only be found here. Look carefully and you just might find the perfect gift for someone back home.
Erhai Lake (洱海)
Once you’ve seen plenty of the ancient city of Dali, head over to Erhai Lake. About 20-30 minutes from the old city, the lake is an incredible 25 miles (40 km) long. Looking at it, it’s hard to tell if it is a lake or the sea, as the other shore is hard to see. The lake is a great place to take a break from the excitement of Dali city and enjoy the rest of your day. If you’d like to see the view from all sides, you can rent a bicycle and enjoy the scenery. It’s easy to rent a bicycle from many locations throughout Dali, so keep this in mind.
Three or four hours from Dali is another ancient city: Lijiang. Lijiang’s ancient city has been designated a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site and is popular with visitors. It is also where the road to the Tiger Leaping Gorge begins, so there are plenty of tourists from around the world, creating an interesting atmosphere.
Lijiang Ancient City (丽江古城)
Lijiang’s ancient city has been designated a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site. After stepping into the city and taking your first look around, a common reaction is, “Where are we?”
But after walking around a bit, you will start to adjust to the unique layout and eventually end up at an interesting destination. If you’re worried about getting lost, make sure to get a Lijiang map as soon as you arrive and study the city’s layout.
Most of the buildings here are guest houses, souvenir shops and restaurants. As the number of visitors continues to grow, the number of shops increases as well, and (unfortunately) as time passes, it gets harder to see the old city.
There are two things to know if you want to visit Lijiang. First, coffee beans grow in the Yunnan region and you don’t want to miss the shop that sells them. If you like coffee, make sure to try Unnam coffee. The other is the song that is sung when walking along the main road. This song is known as “Dee-Dah” and has been sung by a number of Chinese pop singers at Lijiang bars. After featuring in Chinese dramas the song became famous, and since then, has been a constant soundtrack to the streets of Lijiang. It might be a little irritating at first, but once you leave, you’ll find it playing in your head as well. It’s quite addictive, so listen carefully for the melody.
This park is only 10 minutes away on foot from Lijiang. There’s nothing particularly interesting to see here, but the park is a pleasant, peaceful natural area to walk through. If the weather is nice, you can see the snowy mountain peaks from the lake at the centre of the park. Walk around the lake once and get lost in the scenery to forget the complexities of your day.
Shuhe Old Town
There is one more small-scale castle town near Lijiang. Only a 10-15 minute drive away, Shuhe Old Town might be small in comparison to Lijiang, but it has an interesting atmosphere and plenty of souvenir shops and cafés to enjoy. In fact, because of this, many travellers prefer Shuhe to Lijiang.
Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡)
The grand finale for a Yunnan holiday is the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is named after the image of a tiger crossing the gorge, and is famous for hiking. It is also known as the “ancient tea route” after the merchants that used to cross into Tibet carrying tea along the route.
The entrance is 1-2 hours from Lijiang by bus. Once you arrive, the group will be divided into two. One half will immediately start hiking, while the other will take a walk around the lowlands of the gorge. If you don’t have a lot of time and just want to have a peek, you can do that, but we highly recommend taking the time to hike up the gorge.
Once you start hiking, you’ll frequently wonder if you’re taking the right path. There aren’t many signs to guide you along your way, but red spray-painted arrows will point you in the right direction. Although there are times when you come to a fork in the road with no red arrows, it’s good to not worry about losing your way. Even if you do lose your way, there are plenty of locals who will kindly point you back in the right direction.
The hiking course is split into four separate areas based on the Kezhan there. Kezhan are Chinese-style motels located along the Tiger Leaping Gorge hiking path where visitors can rest.
The first area is mostly flat, so it is not particularly difficult. You can walk lightly through this area while enjoying the quick flow of the Jinsha river below. Just as you start to feel a little short of breath, you reach the end of the first area and the Nashi Kezhan will appear. Here you can have a drink or a light lunch.
You’ll need to prepare for the tough walk up the second area.
The second area is the hardest one in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Shortly after you start, you’ll meet the 28 Bends, a twisting, climbing path that will put your desire to hike to the test. As you go up the 28 bends, you’ll hear the jingling of a bell behind you. If the path is too rough, you can ride a donkey up.
A few men will follow you up with donkeys. Some of your fellow travellers may resign their intention to get up by themselves and give in to the temptation of the donkey’s bells. After breathing heavily and feeling absolutely exhausted as you climb the steep path, you’ll suddenly find yourself at the peak. At the peak you’ll feel refreshing air in your face, and as you start the descent, you’ll realise the dizzying heights you’ve reached.
The 28 bends may be difficult to go up, but the walk down is quite easy. Next, after heading down for a while you’ll see the Chama Kezhan and the steep second part will be over.
Restore your energy with a snack and then head onto the third area. The third area is fairly level, but as the path is narrow, it can feel like walking along a precipice and make hikers quite nervous. However, after some careful walking, you’ll soon see the Jungdo Kezhan and the third area will have ended. Here most hikers stop, unpack and rest for the night so that they can start again in the morning. Have a warm bath and a good meal to rest up from the hard trek of the day.
Without even thinking, it will soon be the next morning. Your body will probably feel like it’s made of iron, but once you head out you’ll soon see the fourth route. As if the gorge itself knew how you feel, the last section of the trail is flat or on a downward slope and you’ll be able to see a few small waterfalls. If it was the first day you might have hesitated at the waterfall in the middle of the path. But after the hike of the first day, you will be well adjusted. Take off your shoes and cross with your bare feet.
After two or three hours, you’ll reach the end of the path with the final Kezhan: Tina Kezhan. Now you have another choice. You can continue on to another part of the path or end your hike at this stop.
If you’re feeling greedy for more hiking, you can keep going, but most travellers choose to stop here. You can take a bus directly from Tina Kezhan to Lijiang, so bear that in mind.
Sites where you can enjoy the exciting hustle and bustle and the quiet peace of an ancient city. Natural wonders where you can enjoy weather that will make you forget all about winter and allow you to enjoy an exciting hike. All of this can be found in the treasure chest that is a holiday in Yunnan. See, enjoy and feel the charm of Yunnan. If you’re looking for a new, special travel destination in China, come to Yunnan.
Copy/Images by Shin Yun Jeong
1 Kunming (昆明)
Kunming has developed into a modern city. It is made up of tall buildings and multinational franchises are easy to find.
2 Shilin (石林)
Shilin is about an hour away from Kunming. The name Shilin comes from the Chinese, and means “the forest of stones”. Shilin has been designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site and is an example of karst topography, where strangely shaped rocks are widely distributed.
3 Dali (大理)
This quiet, ancient city is five hours away from Kunming. The city is a mix of the old walled city and newer buildings, so a map is definitely recommended.
4 Lijiang (丽江)
Lijiang is the final stop on the way to the Tiger Leaping Gorge and is about four hours from Dali by car. Lijiang Ancient City is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is full of visitors to the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
5 Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡)
“The Tiger Leaping Gorge is named after the image of a tiger crossing the gorge and is famous for hiking.”