Monday, July 1, 2013

Backpacking Itinerary: Yunnan, China in One Month

I dreamed about it. I planned it. Then, I made it happen. That is how I will always remember traveling and backpacking in Yunnan, Southwest China. It was, as cliché as it sounds, a travel dream come true. I spent almost a month traveling in Yunnan that you would think I covered a lot of ground. Well, I did and I did not. Yunnan is a huge province, the eighth largest in China, superseded only by provinces whose main features are vast, arid deserts. I like to think that as vast as those other provinces are horizontally, Yunnan is vertically. Yunnan is after all part of the easternmost bastions of the Himalayas.

Looking at the map of Yunnan, I see not only the regions I covered but also those I was not able to. I did not stray too far off the beaten path. To do so would have been too costly and would have taken a lot more time. Plus, I travel really slowly. With places as laid-back as Dali, you would really have to. So to round up all these travels, and hopefully in the process, serve as guide to those intending to travel to this corner of China, let me present my backpacking itinerary of Yunnan in one month.

Open Backpacking Itinerary Yunnan in Google Maps
Backpacking Itinerary: Yunnan, China in One Month

How to Travel to Yunnan from the Philippines and Southeast Asia

Though Yunnan is immediately north of Southeast Asia, it takes a bit of an effort to get here. That or you shell out a few bucks for return flights. Let me spell out a few options.

Green Lake Park, Kunming, Yunnan, China
If flying, you are most likely to land in Yunnan's spring city, Kunming.

Option 01 (Fly from Southeast Asia to Kunming): There are no direct flights to Yunnan from the Philippines. You will need to fly to Southeast Asia's major hubs first. From Bangkok, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur, you will then fly to the capital of Yunnan—Kunming (Kunming Changshui International Airport, KMG). Most airlines which fly to Yunnan from Southeast Asia are full-service airlines. The only low-cost carrier which flies form Southeast Asia to Yunnan is AirAsia. Kuala Lumpur to Kunming flights via AirAsia costs around 140 to 170 USD one-way. Those are regular fares. AirAsia frequently comes out with promo fares so play your cards right and fares could easily cost less than 100 USD.

Option 02 (Overland Hanoi to Kunming): When time is not an issue, get yourself to Hanoi, Vietnam. From Hanoi, you can take a sleeper train to Lao Cai, Vietnam's frontier town, literally a stone's throw away from China. The train ride is about eight to nine hours and costs 30 USD for a soft sleeper bed. Upon arrival in Lao Cai in the morning, get your Chinese tourist visa ready and cross the border to Hekou, China. Here, you take a bus to Kunming. The bus ride is around eight hours and costs 23 USD.

Xishuangbanna Region in Southern Yunnan, where temperate Himalayan plateaus slowly become the steamy tropical jungles of Southeast Asia.
By Taco Witte | CC BY

Option 03 (Overland Northern Laos to Southern Yunnan): There is another option for travelers coming from Northern Laos. The transport hub here is Luang Namtha, four hours from the Thai-Lao border crossing in Huay Xai and eight hours from Luang Prabang. From Luang Namtha, you can hop on a bus which crosses the Lao-Chinese border and travels directly to Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Region in Southern Yunnan. The bus ride takes around eight hours. According to Wikitravel, a ticket costs 12 USD. From Jinghong, it's then a 10-hour bus ride further north to Kunming costing 35 USD.


Green Lake Park, Kunming, Yunnan, China
Kunming, capital of Yunnan, is one of China's most laid-back and liveable capital cities.

I was still getting my backpacking mojo back when I arrived in Kunming. I had been traveling for three weeks in Vietnam then, and having just come back from backpacking for a couple of months through India and Nepal, I was beginning to feel the burn-out. I was so burned out, in fact, that I almost cancelled by trip to Yunnan altogether. Fortunately, I did not. Fortunately, too, Kunming made me see the light of day and made me fall in love with travel again.

What to See: Green Lake Park, a beautiful park in Kunming city center with its colorful, eternally blooming flowers; Yuantong Temple, the most significant Buddhist temple in the city; and, Golden Horse and Jade Rooster Arch, a Kunming landmark which marks the city's historic role in the Silk Road and WWII.

Get In: I flew from Hanoi in Vietnam via Vietnam Airlines. I paid 240 USD for that three-hour plane ride. Not the finest moment in my independent budget travel life.

Where to Stay: Kunming Cloudland Youth Hostel, with its great atmosphere and adequate facilities; and Kunming Upland Youth Hostel, clean and new facilities and a few meters away from Green Lake Park.

Green Lake Park, Kunming, Yunnan, China
I visited Kunming in the tail-end of winter and look, pretty flowers! It isn't the City of Eternal Spring for nothing.


Dali, Yunnan, China
Dali has a landscape comprised by traditional white houses, serene alpine lakes, and snow-clad mountains.

Dali came as a surprise. I first learned about this hippie haven in Northern Thailand's own hippie haven, Pai in Mae Hong Son province. I was not expecting much, but it turned out more than I could ever imagine. Dali is unbelievably beautiful. The white houses of the Bai people sandwiched between a serene alpine lake and snow-clad mountains. It helped that I met some of the most amazing travelers here, too, most of whom I am still in touch with today. So if you're given the option to bypass Dali for the more popular destination of Lijiang, don't.

What to See: Dali Old Town, a laid-back former hippie haven with old white houses of the Bai people, surrounded by paddy fields and the peaceful Erhai Hu (Ear-Shaped Lake); Cang Shan (Green Mountains) and the Jade Cloud Road, an easy hike close to Dali with spectacular views of Dali Old Town below.

Get In: I took a bus from Kunming West Bus Station, a bit crowded but organized. The staff at the ticket counter was helpful, too, and made sure I got the cheaper-priced ticket. (I know, right? And I did not even speak a word of Chinese to her!) The ticket cost me 100 CNY (16 USD). The ride was about four to five hours.

Where to Stay: Jade Emu and Jade Roo International Youth Hostels. I cannot rave enough about these sister hostels. It has a laid-back vibe, attracts equally laid-back and very cool people, free use of washing machine, adequate beds, etc. I will stop and rave about these hostels in another post probably.

Three Pagodas Complex, Dali, Yunnan, China
One of the gates at the Three Pagodas Temple complex, the main tourist attraction in Dali.


Black Dragon Pool Park, Lijiang, China
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain viewed from Black Dragon Pool Park, one of Southwest China's most iconic images.

What to See: Lijiang Old Town, beautiful and well-preserved houses of the Naxi with their distinct culture, writings, and traditions. Note, however, that being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lijiang Old Town gets hordes and hordes of tourists every day. You can venture out to Baisha or to Shuhe Old Town to get fewer crowds and maybe a more authentic experience.

Get In: I took a bus from Dali, which I arranged via Jade Emu International Youth Hostel. A car took me to the bus's pick-up point a few blocks away from the southern gates of Dali Old Town. It cost me 60 CNY (10 USD) and the ride took four hours.

Where to Stay: Panba Guesthouse, a few minutes' walk from the madness of Lijiang Old Town. It has nice hang-out areas and adequate dorm rooms.

Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan, China
Lijiang Old Town and its narrow lanes and old houses. Hordes of tourists descend upon this Chinese Disneyland every single day.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
The jagged cliff faces of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain viewed from the Tiger Leaping Gorge

More than anything else, it was seeing the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Michael Palin's travel documentary of the Himalayas that convinced me to see this world wonder. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is the narrow valley between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain. Below the valley, one of China's most significant rivers, the mighty Yangtze, begins its two thousand-kilometer journey to the sea. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is indeed the best hike you can do in Southwest China.

What to See: The Tiger Leaping Gorge, hiking along the high road to get the best views of this Himalayan corridor.

Get In and Where to Stay: Here is a guide to trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge to get you started. It outlines how to get there, how much money to bring with you, the things to bring with you, where to stay, and how to get out.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from up in the balcony of mountain lodge Halfway House

Shangri-la (Zhongdian)

Ganden Sumtselling Monastery, Zhongdian, Yunnan, China
Ganden Sumtselling Monastery, the most important Tibetan Buddhist lamasery in Yunnan, China.

What to See: I wanted to make it until Shangri-la (Zhongdian) further in the Yunnan-Tibet highway. I read that here, Himalayan foothills give way to the Tibetan plateau, where culture is distinctly Tibetan. I wanted to see, too, if indeed Shangri-la lives up to its literary namesake. The thing was, I was here during winter. This meant snow fall, which I liked, but it also meant sub-zero temperatures, which I was not agreeable with. I pushed further and got there. It was cold, sure, but the Ganden Sumtselling Monastery and square dancing in Shangri-la Old Town made it all worth it.

Get In: I took a bus from Lijiang Express Bus Station. The ride is about four hours and cost 69 CNY (11 USD).

Where to Stay: Shangri-la Lamtin Youth Hostel, with its great location and heating in the lounge area.

Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China
The blinding white landscape of Shangri-la after a fresh snow fall the day before

That wraps up my backpacking itinerary of Yunnan in Southwest China. It was an awesome journey, and as much as my brain tells me that there are other spectacular corners of China I could explore, I actually plan to return at some point and travel to Yunnan again. This time, I intend to definitely stray off the beaten path and head to Xishuangbanna, a former territory of the Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, and the remote and largely isolated Nu Jiang Valley. I made it happen before. I can make it happen again.

Which places did you dream of traveling to, planned on going, and then actually made it happen?

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