Geographic Expeditions - vacations and travel

A Short Trip South of the Clouds: Yunnan Province

China, Asia

from $4,600* per person 8 Days March-November
Boutique accommodations Exertion level: 4
Operator: Geographic Expeditions 18 people max
  • Kunming airport, china
  • Active & Adventure trips
We’re Yunnan fans (we once said it was one of those places we wanted to grab you by the lapels and rave about), so we constructed this shorter trip as an easy Private Departure addition to any of our China trips (or as a short, sweet, stand-alone getaway). We begin in Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring, and make the short flight northwest to the 19 peaks and 18 streams of Dali, a major entrepôt on the southern Silk Road. Now north to glorious Lijiang and up, passing and gazing into the dizzyingly deep Tiger Leaping Gorge along the way, to the edge of the Tibetan Plateau at Gyelthang (recently and somewhat cornily renamed Shangri-La). Gyelthang, a bright cultural and biological mosaic, offers the unique spectacle of viewing the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween, which flow down from the plateau, within fifty kilometers of each other. And after a couple of days visiting the Tibetan monasteries and markets of Gyelthang, we fly back to Kunming.

Locations visited/nearby

China, Asia

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Day 1

ARRIVE KUNMING (6200 ft.) You will be met upon arrival in Kunming, of Burma Road and World
War II fame in China’s “southwest,” and escorted to your hotel in town. Kunming is the capital of
Yunnan province, one of the most diverse and beautiful regions of
China. Yunnan is still as it was in Marco Polo’s day “a land fertile in
rice and wheat...[with a capital] very great and noble, in [which] are
found merchants and artisans, with a mixed population.” At least 22
minority races reside in Yunnan today, including Tibetans, Yi, Naxi,
Mongols, Lahu, and Lisu - the greatest concentration of minority
nationalities of any province in China.
Kunming lies adjacent to the temple- and willow-adorned Green Lake,
surrounded by mountains at an altitude of more than 6200 feet, and is
often called “the city of eternal spring” for its salubrious climate. It’s a
great walking town, especially the northern part of the city, whose
cobbled alleyways evoke the old China. If time permits, you may visit
the flower gardens at Green Lake, watch the T'ai Chi devotees at their
art, tour Yuantong Park’s pleasant zoo, or visit the 700-year old
Bamboo Temple, festooned with statues of Buddhist notables. Tonight
you enjoy a dinner of local specialties.

Day 2

KUNMING TO DALI (7200 ft.) After breakfast we transfer to the airport for a short flight northwest.
Dali sprawls along the edge of Erhai Lake at the foot of the Cangshan mountain range. This fertile plain
was first cultivated over 3000 years ago by ancestors of the Bai people, who remain the primary ethnic
group in the area. The Kingdom of Nanzhao was founded in the 8th century and wielded significant
influence over all of southwest China and southeast Asia in its day. The Kingdom of Dali replaced that of
the Nanzhao and existed as an autonomous entity until Kublai Khan's Mongolian army imposed its rule in
Upon arrival we drive to Erhai Lake for a boat ride to the eastern side of the lake, where we will
disembark to explore a local Bai village. After lunch we continue our exploration with visits to families in
Xizhou and Zhoucheng Villages. Xizhou has some of the finest and best-preserved Bai architecture in the
area; a thriving commercial center before 1949, many large residences were built by the local merchants,
and a significant number of these traditional Bai homes remain.
You’ll have the opportunity to wander around the village to get
an unvarnished glimpse of the daily lives of the Bai people. In
Zhoucheng Village you can visit a local cottage industry
producing the batik textiles for which the Bai are known.
In the evening you will stroll amongst the shops and traditional
houses of Dali Old Town, stopping for tea in one of the old
teahouses. The narrow streets of Dali's tiny neighborhoods
feature low dark shops with merchants offering an amazing
variety of exotic wares.

Day 3

DALI TO LIJIANG (7872 ft.) Depart for Lijiang today on an
ancient tea trading road through beautiful scenery and
numerous small villages. Enroute you will stop in Shaxi
township, a market town that was once a bustling trade station
on the Southern Silk Road which linked China and Tibet with
Southeast Asia and on to Europe. Because of its historical
importance as the only surviving example of a Southern Silk
Road trade center, the World Monuments Fund has listed Shaxi
as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world. At Shaxi you will visit an intact ancient theater,
guesthouses where merchants enroute to the Tibetan high plateau once stayed, a temple precinct, and the
town’s ancient protective gates.
You arrive this afternoon in the frontier town of Lijiang, or "Beautiful River," as it was so named by
Kublai Khan in 1254. This rugged and isolated town nestles at just under 8000 feet in a broad valley that
ascends from 7500 feet in the south to 10,000 feet in the northwest. The Old Town of Lijiang has been
designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO
for its historic architecture and dramatic
Yi, Lisu, Pumi and other ethnic groups live in
this region, all of whom have their own unique
cultures, customs and dress. But the majority of
Lijiang’s inhabitants are Naxi (Nakhi), a group
said to have derived from an ancient
northeastern Tibetan tribe called the “Qiang”
eons ago. The Naxi culture evolved in relative
isolation for the last 2000 years, and developed
an unusual picture-script that is still in evidence
today. The Naxi are a matriarchal people whose
religion is a combination of Tibetan Lamaism,
Chinese Daoism and an ancient shamanistic
belief in the spirits of cloud and wind and pine.
In recent centuries, the Naxi served as middlemen in the flourishing trade between the Tibetans and the
Chinese. There remains a strong presence of Tibetans in the town proper, as well as countless Tibetan
settlements in the surrounding countryside.

Day 4

LIJIANG Once past the waterwheel at the entrance to Lijiang’s Old Town, you will find yourself
transported into a world of narrow cobblestone streets and canals of clear snowmelt, unchanged since the
Ming Dynasty when the town was founded. The canals are lined with weeping willows and breeched by
decorative arched bridges which meander through the old city. Lijiang is an idyllic place for strolling, and
you spend some time doing just that, beginning with the lively Old Market square, paying a visit to the
Museum of Naxi Dongba Culture, and
perhaps stopping for tea and conversation at
one of the many teahouses in town. You
may also stop by The Nature Conservancy’s
exhibition center to learn how the
government and local non-profit
organizations are planning to protect
Lijiang’s cultural heritage. Later walk to
Black Dragon Pool Park where you can see
majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
(“Yulongxueshan”), reflected in the
peaceful waters of the lake.
Share a local farmer’s meal in Baihua
Village, and then drive out to the famous
mountain, the most southerly with temperate glaciers in the northern hemisphere. The White and Black
Water rivers are among the many rivers that originate from the mountain and run through the forest.
Famed botanist and explorer Joseph Rock lived in Lijiang for many of his twenty-odd years in Yunnan,
and the older residents of Lijiang remember him well. The British novelist Bruce Chatwin followed in
Rock’s footsteps more recently, intrigued by the man and delighted by his writing. Chatwin illustrates
Rock’s eccentric expertise:
Here is a stretch of his [Rock’s] embattled prose: A short distance beyond, at a tiny temple, the
trail ascends the red hills covered with oaks, pines, Pinus Armandi, P. yuannanensis, Alnus,
Castanopsis Delauagi, rhododendrons, roses, Berberis, etc. up over limestone mountain through
oak forests to a pass with a few houses called Ch’ou-shui-ching (Stinking water well). At this
place many hold ups and murders were committed by the bandit hordes of Chang Chichpa. He
strung up his victims by the thumbs to the branches of high trees and tied rocks to their feet,
lighting a fire beneath, he left them to their fate. It was always a dreaded pass for caravans. At the
summit there are large groves of oaks (Quercus Delavagi).
Along with the marvelously varied vegetation that Rock writes of, northwest Yunnan supports an
abundance of wildlife, including pandas, leopards, brown, black and musk deer, foxes, goral, serow and
blue sheep, and innumerable birds.

Day 5

LIJIANG Today you will drive to Xuehua Village, a delightful Yi village of about 30 families. You will
be greeted by the Bimo, a shaman in the Dongba animist religion of the region. He is a well-known
intellectual among the Yi people. Each year he is invited to preside over various ceremonies by the Yi
people from Lijiang. We will gain a firsthand knowledge of the importance of the Dongba religion to the
daily life of this village. We will also be introduced to his remarkable mother, an always smiling 93-yearold,
and his wife, who will treat us to a lunch of local specialties.
After departing Xuehua, you have an opportunity to hike into the Wenhai Valley, where there are
excellent views of Lijiang. The trail passes by a small reservoir, the Botanical Garden of Edinburgh and
the Kunming Institute of Botany.

Day 6

LIJIANG TO GYELTHANG (10,824 ft.) Inching ever closer to the Tibetan plateau, this morning you
embark on a magnificent ride north to the town of Gyelthang, or Shangri-la as the Chinese call it. You’ll
be traveling through the land of the Lisu and the Yi. Horses roam freely, boys herd goats, and wildflowers
grace the roadside as it switchbacks up and down. The scenery in these parts is outstanding: the road
traverses the vast Lijiang valley into a topographical maze of verdant ridges, lavishly textured wheat
fields lined with drying haystacks in artful array, and massive gorges punctured by waterfalls and siena
rivers colored by the rich red earth of the surrounding hillsides. En route you’ll stop at the stupendous
Tiger Leaping Gorge where 34 rapids of the Jinsha (Yangtze) River rage beneath the 18,355 foot head of
the Jade Dragon.

Day 7

EXPLORING GYELTHANG Evidence of this oft-considered Shangri-la is most apparent in the town’s
holiest site, the Ganden Songzanlin Monastery, which you will visit morning in time for the morning
prayers. Built by the 5th Dalai Lama 300 years ago, this monastery is now being reconstructed by the 600
resident monks. Continue with a walking tour of the charming old town where you’ll have the unique
opportunity to visit with a local Tibetan
family in their home. Schedule
permitting, you will also visit the
Tibetan Medical Center.
After lunch you have the opportunity
for a side trip into the countryside. You
may visit beautiful Shudu lake, the
headwater of the Shudu Rivr, a tributary
of the Yangtze. This high mountain lake
is surrounded in part by alpine
meadows and wildflowers and, on the
other side, with a rain forest of immense
pine and spruce. Or you may drive out
to the Napha Lake basin where,
depending on the time of year, you may witness gorgeous pasturelands ablaze with summer flowers, a
stunning display of color juxtaposed against the dark, forest-clad hillsides. Return to town in the late
afternoon, and if energy permits, you can explore a local Tibetan market.

Day 8

DEPART GYELTHANG VIA KUNMING You will be transferred to the airport for your flight to
Kunming, where you can connect to your next destination..


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