Yunnan Province is tucked away in the south west corner of China. At first it seems nondescript. Cities like any other, mountain ranges and rice paddies, all things that every Chinese province is known for, but Yunnan is different. Bordering on Myanmar, Vietnam and the tip of Laos, it is surrounded by mountains. The foot hills of the Tibetan plateau, the eastern edge of the mighty Himalaya range runs gradually downhill through Yunnan Province before meeting the mighty rivers that flow to the ocean. The Yunnan Province is one of the best places to visit in China.
Shilin Stone Forest
We arrive into Kunming at dawn as the city is waking up. Bustling and frenetic. A taxi is waiting for us and we head away from the city to Shilin Stone Forest. It is a vast area of limestone karst peaks, formed over 270 million years ago from what was a shallow sea. Sandstone over limestone combined with millennia of wind and rain has resulted in fantastical shapes and pillars. The stone forest is huge and cannot be seen in one visit, but following the marked paths will take you past the main pillars and formations.
The walk back to the entrance has the usual hawkers but also something different. Something we have not noticed elsewhere. Wasp grubs are being taken from their protective ‘honeycomb’ and being prepared for pickling. The developing was grubs are seen as a local delicacy once pickled. Something a little abstract for my western head to understand. Grubs really aren’t my idea of a delicacy. This theme of local delicacies continues into the evening. A small back street restaurant in Kunming enjoys our arrival. They bring us their favorite dishes, and all seems to be going well until we attempt to translate what the rubber band dish consists of. I am not sure but is this really pigs intestines? And if it is, well it isn’t that bad.
To Dali by Bus
Kunming as the largest and capital city of Yunnan province was somewhere to visit and use as a starting point for exploring further into the area, but it was like any other Chinese city. Be aware as you come to leave on a bus towards Dali and Lijiang the taxi drivers don’t always believe you want the bus station. They think they know best and will attempt to take you to the airport. Very kind, but not what is needed, especially if you are cutting it fine like we were.
The bus from Kunming starts on good roads, but slowly these deteriorate. There is a choice of an hour flight to Lijiang or 6 hours on a bus via Dali. The bus takes you through stunning scenery and shows the other side of China. The ‘comfort breaks’ are interesting to say the least and not for those of a more modest nature. The cheapest way to reach Dali and onward to Lijiang is by overnight train.
Read More: what to expect in China
Dali: Lake Erhai and the Three Pagodas
However, arriving in Dali is worth the journey. This ancient city is surrounded by high walls. Most of the newer accommodation is located outside the old city walls, but this gives you the experience of passing through the gates each day. The city sits on the shores of Lake Erhai and has been in existence since the 8th Century. The lake is calm (once you escape the bustle of the shoreline) and has a number of small islands that can be visited. This lake flows out into what will eventually become the Mekong River.
Sitting on the hillside outside of Dali are the Three Pagodas. Once a small Buddhist temple complex this is now a busy tourist attraction. Come out of season or early in the morning when visitor numbers are low. It will be just you, the landscape and the weather. They are laid out in an equilateral triangle with the mountains behind and the shores of Lake Erhai to the front. They are beautiful, made of brick with a white mud covering. According to legend the area was once a swamp inhabited by dragons preventing humans from intruding, however these dragons revered pagodas. So, the three pagodas were built to deter the dragons an allow humans to move into the area.
Lijiang: Modern and Ancient
From Dali it is a few hours by bus to the UNESCO world heritage city of Lijiang. The road is winding and if you have been on the local spirit available in Dali then this may not be the best bus experience of your life.
This is a city of two halves which are incredibly distinct. The modern city could be anywhere on the planet. It has a modern business district as well as shops that are found everywhere.
However, taking a step across the road you enter the ancient city. With canals running along the sides of the small lanes, wooden buildings hanging over the waterways and beautiful carved buildings it is what every person who has never visited the country would recognize as being Chinese. The old town is home to the Naxi people. A minority community who have made this town their home. This town has been in use for trading since the 1300’s and continues to trade today. A short distance from the town itself is the Black Dragon Pool. This pool has amazing reflections and views of the Jade Dragon Snow mountains which towers above the city. Within the park surrounding the pool are small pagodas where the Naxi community meet and have impromptu recitals of the most haunting music I have ever heard.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
From Lijiang, another bus ride but this time much shorter, takes you into the mountains to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Another UNESCO world heritage site, this deep fast flowing gorge was once jumped by a tiger being hunted. Today the river still runs and the rock the tiger leapt from can be seen, but beyond this there is a beautiful walk through mountains and meadows all the while following the path of the raging river below. This is an escape from the modern China and takes you into the countryside and wilder areas of China.
Yunnan Province is a forgotten corner of china for many travelers, but it is worth finding and exploring even if it is just for a few days. Kunming is the central hub for travel and can be reached by air into Changshui International Airport, rail and bus. It is also perfectly placed as a route from China into other countries given its borders and location.
Have you been to Yunnan Province? What was your favorite destination?
Suzanne shares her wildlife and remote travels around the world at Meandering Wild. While some trips are to more remote places many are local to her UK home, proving that adventures can always be found.