From Sichuan we went to Yunnan Province, another culturally diverse region in China. The province is to the southwest of the country and neighbors Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Thus, it’s no surprise that South East Asia influences Yunnan’s rich and varied cuisine. The weather is subtropical and vegetation pretty diverse. Additionally, Yunnan is home to some of the nicest towns in China. They are ancient, authentic, lively, and they are everywhere. If this is your first time in Yunnan, we strongly recommend the following itinerary. It includes Yunnan’s main points of interest, from the capital of Kunming to the old towns of Dali and Lijiang.
How to Choose the Perfect Yunnan Itinerary
Yunnan Province covers an area of almost 400,000 km2 (bigger than Italy), a large part of which is occupied by high mountains. As you can imagine, it is difficult to reach most of the province. Not only that, but being at a high altitude can be a challenge for many travelers. We chose Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang for our Yunnan itinerary because of their accessibility and attractiveness. The three have fascinating heritage, superb hotels, and delicious restaurants. Likewise, they are a great base for some of the most extraordinary day trips in the region. Due to all of the above, we strongly recommend spending at least 2 to 3 days in each city.
Traveling from Kunming to Dali and Lijiang by Train
The most convenient way to travel between Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang is by train. Until recently there were no fast trains between the three cities. From Kunming to Dali there were semi-fast trains, but from Dali to Lijiang there was only the old Chinese train. We took that one, and it was such a fun experience! People were quite noisy at all times, and nobody seemed to care. Even the radio broadcasted loud screaming Chinese music. We had a ball! Nowadays, fast trains leave every half an hour from Kunming to Dali and there are four fast trains from Dali to Lijiang. Both journeys take between 2 and 2.5 hours. If you rather skip Dali, ten fast trains connect Kunming and Lijiang in about 3 hours. There are also three night trains that cover the same route, but in about 9 hours.
Kunming, Capital of Yunnan Province
What to See in Kunming
Kunming seems to have a new fancy center, full of new shiny malls. While these may give it a somehow distinct air, they occupy the space of former old traditional houses. What a loss! One of these malls has a great bookstore where you can buy books in English and have brewed coffee. We spent an entire day walking around the pedestrian Nanping Street in the city center. There is an interesting market next to the pedestrian area, the Flowers and Birds Market. Don’t forget to visit Green Lake Park. It’s a bizarre place packed with elderly locals dancing. Not far from the park, you’ll find the city’s most famous temple, Yuangtong. Finally, don’t miss the East and West Temple Pagodas, south of Nanping Street.
Shilin Stone Forest
It was our only full day in the city, so we set off on the metro to get to the Kunming South Train station. After an hour through 25 metro stations, we got there only to find we forgot our passports to buy the bloody train ticket. Damn! So learn from our mistake: in China, you need your passport to buy train tickets. Anyhow, the fast trains to Shilin Stone Forest leave from Kunming South and arrive in Shilin West in just 20 minutes. Metro Line 1 takes you from downtown Kunming to the South Train Station. From Shilin West, you have to take a local bus to the park. Alternatively, you can take a direct bus from Kunming’s East Bus Station to the Shilin Stone Forest.
Take a trip to the Dragon Gate on the Western Hills. It’s an impressive building carved in stone, and the views from there are stunning. Another option is the nearby Dianchi Lake.
Why is Kunming worth Visiting?
The main reason we went to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, was to visit the famous Shilin Stone Forest, a couple of hours away. We didn’t make it, but at least we got the chance to see the sprawling never-ending massive residential areas surrounding the city. Even the new train station was worth visiting: a Chinese space ship in the middle of nowhere. Well, at the pace Kunming is growing, I’m sure massive towers will surround it all. So all things considered, Kunming is worth visiting. You get to see a not so glitzy modern Chinese city, a mix of the old and the new.
Where to Stay in Kunming
In Kunming, we stayed at the Kunming JinJiang Hotel near the old Kunming Train Station. Though it is a very nice hotel, the neighborhood lacks character, and there is nothing nearby. The lively center is a bit away too. Nevertheless, if you are short of time, it’s a great base since both trains to Dali and Lijiang leave from that station. Otherwise, stay in the center at the fabulous Moon and Chalice Boutique Hotel. This classy hotel is a historical building. If you prefer international chains, stay at the Crowne Plaza Kunming City Centre. They offer comfortable rooms and great views.
Dali and the Three Pagodas
What to See in Dali
Dali is on the way to Lijiang, so we decided to stop there. The train station is in Dali’s modern town, far from Old Dali. However, don’t rush and check it out. There is even a futuristic structure on a hill with a ball on top (Plateau Mingzhu). To get to the Old Town, it’s better to take a taxi. Take note that city walls surround the Old Town. The houses inside the walls are not as pretty as those in Lijiang, but the atmosphere makes up for it. Without a doubt, in Yunnan, one of the coolest places of interest is the Three Pagodas. You will find them on the outskirts of town. We guarantee that you will remember them forever. The temple is over 10 centuries old and surrounded by majestic subtropical mountains. Don’t be lazy and go all the way up to the last temple. You will mostly be on your own, and fantastic views will reward your effort.
One of the great things about Dali is that you can go on fantastic day trips close to the city. The most popular one is to nearby Erhai Lake. This lake in the shape of an ear (its name means that) is the second-largest highland lake in China. One of the biggest attractions is the Erhai Park on the south side of the lake, just behind the structure with a giant ball. If you take a boat tour you can visit some of the islands, including Jinsuo Island (Golden Shuttle Island). The lake is the life source of many locals who fish here. You’ll see them together with their trained cormorants catching fish.
Visit some of the nearby ancient towns. Among the many interesting ones, Shaxi is the nicest. Since it is quite far, you might consider some of the closer ones, such as Xizhou and Zhoucheng.
Why is Dali worth Visiting?
Dali is all about exploring an alternative Chinese city. You’ll find plenty of cool bars and restaurants, subdued music, and a relaxed atmosphere. At night we passed a bar full of young hip Chinese sitting on small stools, drinking and singing together with a live band. They started laughing when we couldn’t communicate and invited us for a hot beer. Who could possibly say no to such a cool and unique place? We also met dozens of old war veterans in their uniforms near the Three Pagodas. We felt privileged to shake hands with people that made history! For the Chinese, this is an important place of worship, so the atmosphere felt special.
Where to Stay in Dali
Our hotel China Old Story is just a few meters from the old South Gate, but it was difficult to find. This lovely bizarre place boasts a nice garden and a huge photo of the owner shaking Hillary Clinton’s hand! How could we not stay? Though the typical hard beds reminded us that we were in China! If you want to stay in the heart of Dali Ancient Town, we recommend the Dali Old Courtyard Boutique Inn. They feature elegant rooms and a beautiful courtyard. One of the main streets, Renmin Road, is just a step away. If you are into contemporary architecture influenced by the traditional one, stay at the superb Sunyata Hotel, inside the ancient town.
Old Town of Lijiang
What to See in Lijiang
Lijiang is over 1000 years old and has managed to preserve most of its heritage buildings. You can only access the Old Town of Lijiang on foot, so no pollution inside! We walked about its cobbled streets, took pictures, joked with the locals, and tried all sorts of delicious food. You have to try their tea and a soft pastry made of roses. Eitan was very happy. He is not really into tea but loves coffee. Hence, every morning he would enjoy his book and great brewed coffee at Café Prague, overlooking a stream lined with blossoming trees. Nightly walks are brilliant too. There are dozens of bars, and everybody dances and shouts to incredibly loud music. Pretty much all you have to do in Lijiang is to get lost in its Old Town!
Black Dragon Lagoon
Don’t forget to visit the Black Dragon Lagoon. We spent a day there, enjoying the outstanding nature that surrounds the city. Again, Eitan had trouble with the altitude (Lijiang lies at 2500m), so we had to skip the mountains. We saw the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain covered with snow from the lagoon, breathtaking. The park is full of flowers, birds, smiley people, and authentic temples. Unfortunately, due to cloudy weather, our pictures do not reflect how cool the views truly are. Hence, you will have to go and see for yourself! Another day should be spent climbing the hill overlooking the city. We had it all to ourselves. Mufu Palace is there.
Visit the nearby Shuhe Old Town. It is equally impressive yet less crowded. Nature lovers should not miss the Blue Moon Valley, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Why is Lijiang worth Visiting?
Lijiang is one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited. Though it is overly touristic, most tourists are Chinese, so pretty authentic from our point of view. Every house has a long history and each street is different, so it wasn’t difficult to ignore the masses. The Old Town of Lijiang in Yunnan is one of China’s best places of interest. Streams crisscross Lijiang, and trees and flowers line its beautiful streets. Elderly people dressed up in traditional clothes sell fruit from baskets they carry on their backs. Young ones play drums in their shops. People smile everywhere! We were so happy in Lijiang, laughing and singing all day long. We are coming back for sure!
Where to Stay in Lijiang
It took us half an hour of walking back and forth until we found our Xihe Boutique Inn. It is easy to get lost in Lijiang’s Old Town. Additionally, very few people speak English, so make sure to have your hotel’s name and the full address written in Chinese. The hotel is a traditional house built around a couple of patios. There is a roof terrace with fabulous views and a traditional tea-drinking table. If you are looking for something even fancier, you’ll love the Jun Bo Xuan Boutique Hotel. If you would like to stay a bit off the beaten track, then Banyan Tree Lijiang is your best bet. The slick modern hotel is at the entrance of Shihu Old Town, a few kilometers away from Lijiang’s old town. You’ll love the views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Yunnan Province: Other Points of Interest
This Yunnan itinerary is for those of you who have one week to spend in the province. We believe that 2 days in Kunming, 2 days in Dali, and 3 in Lijiang should give you a hint of what these three cities are all about. If you have more time or prefer some alternative destinations, we have two suggestions.
The city of Shangri La is the center of the sacred region of three rivers: Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween. The area is home to the Tibetan culture, and there is a plethora of interesting Tibetan monasteries and ancient towns.
On the other side of Yunnan, close to the border with Laos, you’ll find China’s most spectacular rice terraces: Honghe Hani, also called Yuanyang Rice Terraces. These thousand-year-old terraces occupy the slopes of the Ailao Mountains and are an impressive sight.
What to see in Yunnan: People
Dali, Jiliang and Kunming are quite different from each other. Each place is unique and worth visiting. The one thing that is the same all around Yunnan is people. Everyone smiled at us, from old ladies to cute kids. We felt very safe and pampered. Thanks so much!