Enchanting Yunnan – China’s Road Less Traveled

Nestled in southwest China, Yunnan province captivates the traveler with breathtaking views and landscapes punctuated with mountainous terrain, uncommon wildlife and remarkable architectural masterpieces. Join Explorient on a journey to ancient lands, “Lost Horizons” and nature’s enchanting beauty!

Yunnan is indeed the most mountainous province of China, and incredibly, the most biodiverse. Bordered by Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Tibet on the western side, and Guangxi, Guizhou, and Sichuan Provinces to the north east, Yunnan is blessed with a plethora of exotic cultures and hosts the biggest confluence of minority groups throughout the nation.

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Yunnan’s Dai Temple

Starting with the capital of the Yunnan province, Kunming proves itself “the City of Perpetual Spring” for its year-round mild climates. A private excursion will take us through the fascinating Stone Forest, the “First Wonder of the World,” so-called for its known presence since the Ming Dynasty, 1368 – 1644 AD. Gaze in wonder upon these spectacular stone formations, with their jagged peaks reaching for the sky. We’ll learn how these limestone outcroppings took their current shapes as they eroded away over the centuries.

Northwest of Kunming is Dali City, divided into two districts that offer a juxtaposition of ancient and modern. The Ancient City is another relic of the Ming Dynasty, with its old buildings, walled city, and even a moat. Foreigner Street delights with locally crafted wares for sale and regional cuisine. This backdrop of time-honored traditions provides a respite from the grips of the modern world. Just south of the Ancient City is its counterpart, Xiaguan, filled with the familiar hotels and shopping centers of a modern city.

Later, we’ll lose ourselves in the land deemed “The Lost Horizon,” known as Shangri-La. Formerly called Zhongdian, Shangri-La is perched among soaring mountains at an elevation just over 10,000 ft. (3000m). From the James Hilton novel, Lost Horizon, Shangri-La named a utopian, monastic enclave sheltered within the Kunlun mountains. Shangri-La’s proximity to Tibet confers a heavy Tibetan influence, melded with the predominantly Han culture. The region also features more than ten other minority ethnic groups who have resided together peacefully over the centuries.

Bita Lake, Zhongdian
Bita Lake, Zhongdian

Near this legendary land of utopian horizons, Pudacuo National Park exemplifies the incredible bio-diversity of the region. Established in 2007 as China’s first national park, it also goes by the name of Potatso National Park. The beauty and splendor of Pudacuo yield comparisons to the majestic Yellowstone National Park. Many of the flora and fauna species are found nowhere else in the world. Catch a glimpse of the wild ducks afloat on the water, musk deer and Tibetan-eared Pheasant tiptoeing from the woods, with squirrels darting across your field of view. Pudacuo is also home to the Yunnan Golden Monkey, black-necked crane, wild boar, bears, and even leopards.

The expansive park allows freedom from crowds, and solace among the rich population of coniferous trees contrasted with alpine meadows, marshes, and valleys. Within Pudacuo are two lakes, the larger Shudu Lake and Bitahai. Green mountains blanketed in forests hug close at some shores, while grassy marsh flank at others. Birch, spruce, and fir comprise some of the tree population, with azaleas and wildflowers prominent in spring and summer.  Besides the national park designation, the Pudacuo’s natural ecosystems are further preserved by only allowing foot traffic on the wooden walkways.

Yunnan’s Songzanlin Temple at Night

We are then welcomed on a spiritual path to the Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. Songzanlin contains two lamaseries (monastery for lamas), Zhacang and Jikang Lamaseries. Built in 1679 during the Qing Dynasty, the Fifth Dalai Lama selected this spot by divination. Though much of it was damaged during the cultural revolution, it was rebuilt in the 1980s following the traditional style. The gilded copper roofs visually sing in the sun, signaling Songzanlin’s presence from miles away. The monastery’s design gives its nickname, “The Little Potala Palace,” a nod to the grand Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Wander through the awe-inspiring halls featuring incredibly vibrant frescos that illustrate Buddhist tales and legends. Continue through the interior halls with more and more exquisite frescos, and displays of treasured sculptures. Songzanlin also houses a beautiful collection of relics from the dynasties throughout the years.

Yunnan’s Tiger Leaping Gorge

Forge ahead and behold what is thought to be the world’s deepest gorge – Tiger Leaping Gorge. This canyon on the Jinsha River is named for a legendary tiger who is said to have leapt across the narrowest point of the gorge to the other side. The majestic views overlooking the rushing river is enough to humble one into a sense of awe.

Next, we venture onto another site of natural grandeur – the southernmost glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Also known as Yulong Snow Mountain, the glacier’s descriptive name comes from its appearance, likened to a jade dragon resting among the clouds. Thirteen peaks crown this glacier, the tallest of which is Shanzidou, reaching a height of 18,360 ft. (5,600m).  Rising up the mountains via cable car, we’ll alight upon the northern edge of the Yulong Mountain at an elevation of nearly 11,500 ft., to Yak Meadow. Yak Meadow is known for its perfect bucolic scenery, with grazing yaks dotting the rolling green pastures. We have already begun to settle in among the lands of the Naxi or Nakhi people, another ethnic group with strong roots in the area. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is a sacred place for the Naxi, who believe the god of the mountain, Sanduo is the greatest protector of their people.

Lijiang’s Yulong Mountain

Descending down the mountain and heading south, we approach Lijiang, which is both a city and a county. Within the county, there are three ancient districts, classified as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO: Lijiang Old Town (Dayan), Shuhe Town, and the Baisha Quarter.

Lijiang is the social, political and cultural anchor for the Naxi or Nakhi people.  Descendants of the Qing people from Northern China, the Naxi migrated south and settled in as the Lijiang Prefecture was established during the Yuan Dynasty in 1278. This ethnic minority continues to occupy much of the area today. The Tibetan influence is apparent throughout, and the old town architecture reveals a mixture of Tibetan and Han elements throughout the centuries.

Lijiang Old Town is known as Dayan Town or just Dayan, and was part of the original Naxi settlement. It was established where the Jade River splits into three, and the streams supply the canals adjoining the cobblestone walkways and curving through the old town, known for these intricate waterways. Bridges criss-cross the canals, which have yielded other nicknames for Dayan, the “Venice of China,” and “The City of Bridges.” With the chilly water lapping happily next to the walkways, take a stroll through the centrally located Sifang Jie, or Square Street. Peruse the many little shops and food stalls, walking upon the flat stone paths that hint at echoes to the region’s ancient past.

Lijiang – Black Dragon Pool Park

Following out Sifang Jie going north of Old Town, we are greeted by Jade Spring Park, with the famous Black Dragon Pool. Also known as the Heilongtan Pool, the crystal clear waters mirror the surrounding pristine landscape. When skies are clear, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is perfectly postured from the view upon the white marble Suocui Bridge. We’ll explore more vestiges of the past among the other ancient monuments, Longshen Temple, the Hanyue Stage and Deyue Pavilion.

To experience the wonders of Yunnan, we invite you check out several of our private tours featuring deluxe accommodations, private guiding and memories that will last a lifetime: Spectacular Yunnan, Scenic China Explorient and Yunnan Highlights. As a reminder, a visa is required to enter China for most nationals and must be obtained prior to arrival.  Visa Express offers a China Visa Service for U.S. Residents & Citizens that can otherwise be a cumbersome undertaking.