Farewell Tour – Most Beautiful Yunnan

We climb through the narrow passage in the cliff, the whitewater of Jinsha River 100m below. There, on a narrow ledge, the first ladder clings to the vertical cliff. 168 almost vertical steps with no safety and not a soul in sight; but its our best way out.

We are on day 5 of our Yunnan adventure.  Its our last trip before leaving China and moving back to Germany. And maybe it is the most spectacular trip, yet. Yunnan is an amazingly beautiful place with stunning nature and amazing people. We would not have wanted to miss it.

Things to cross of your bucket list

  • Hike the beautiful and steep Tiger Leaping Gorge
  • Turn the world’s largest prayer wheel
  • Scale a 400m vertical cliff
  • Stay in one of the world’s best hotels

Things we could have done better in hindsight. … No, we are pretty happy with this trip. Maybe plan two nights in Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Our itinirary:

  • Flight from Shanghai to Shangri-La with overnight stay in Kunming
  • 2 nights in Kunlun Hotel, Shangri-La
  • Private car to Tiger Leaping Gorge, 1,5 days hiking with overnight stay at Halfway House
  • Private car to Lijiang, 3 nights at Banyan Tree
  • Train to Dali, 2 nights at Linden Commons
  • Flight to Kunming

Here is the full story:

Day 1 (8.12.)
We take the evening flight to Kunming, arriving at 1 am. We booked a hotel directly at the airport in order to catch our 7.15 flight to Shangri-La, the next morning.

Day 2 (09.12.)
Kunming airport is incredibly crowded at 5.30 in the morning. After a KFC breakfast,  we board our Shangri-La flight.

XiangLiLa, formerly Zhongdian until it was renamed after James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, is a small village of 130.000. We have a beautiful hotel at the edge of the old town. After checkin, we take a car to visit Sumtsaling Monastery, “Little Portala Palace”. We feel the elevation of 3.400m, but not to bad. The monastery is a set of buildings including 6 schools and the main prayer hall. The place is almost deserted so we can freely explore everything up to the roof.

In the afternoon, we explore Shangri-La’s old town Dukezong. The old town is small but cozy with small alleys and wooden shops. We have an early dinner at the Three Brothers, sizzeling Yak meet and Yak Momos.

Above the town towers possibly the world’s largest prayer wheel at Guishan Park. Three turns will bring you happiness,  but as most good things in life, you cannot do it alone.

From the temple,  we can overlook the town. The manager of our hotel joins us (she is in Shangri La only for three weeks and enjoys getting out of the hotel). We walk the old town and watch the local square dance (circle in this case) at 7pm in the town square. At 20.30, we are in bed.

Day 3 (10.12.)
In the morning, we take a car to the Shika Snow mountains. A cable car brings us up to ca. 4.500m. The air is thin, but no match to our Everest experience. We enjoy the view for a few minutes and before taking the endless cable car down (feels like 30min per way).

From the Snow mountains, we drive to Potatso National Park, apparently Chinas oldes national park. The park is not spectacular but offers a nice walk along the lake on this sunny afternoon.

Back in town, we have dinner, again, at Three Brothers. The owner is not only very friendly but also a former guide in Tiger Leaping Gorge, our next destination. She gives us some valuable advise, esp. a shortcut for the first section. Again, we go to bed early.

Day 4, (11.12.)
The alarm rings at 5.30am. An hour later, we sit in the cold car (with a warm breakfast, which the hotel staff prepared for us) on our way to Qiaotao,  the entrance of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We store our bag at Janes Guest House, a few hundred meters behind the ticket booth. After some convincing, our driver takes us about 5km inside the Gorge to 虎跳峡山庄 Restaurant. A few meters further, a road turns left of the main road and leads up to the Naxi Guesthouse (walk towards tunnel construction site and after ca. 3 switchback turns, take the road to the right. Almost invisible sign points towards Naxi GH). This is a great shortcut that saves us about 1.5h not so spectacular hike.

There are two ways to explore the Tiger Leaping Gorge. 1st the tourist road, which winds for ca. 30km through the Gorge, ca. 400m above the river, and allows for stops at the main attractions. This is a regular road, not made for walking. 2nd, the upper hiking trail, which is a beautiful hike about 400m above the road. The trail runs through the entire Gorge, although the most commonly walked section is between Qiaotao and Tina’s Guesthouse. Two nights are a suitable time on the trail, which allows time to explore the lower Gorge. The panorama is breathtaking and well worth the time. We did 1.5 days with overnight at the Halfway House. All tourist infrastructure,  including main guesthouses and busses to Lijiang are operational in winter. We booked private cars to and from the Gorge, which was very convenient but not necessary.  The time of year for our visit was absolutely perfect. No raining season (important, as small cliffside trails become dangerous), sunshine, and offseason, i.e. very few people. Highly recommended.

After ca. 2h, we reach the Naxi Family Guesthouse. 

We have a small but delicious tomato and egg snack before tackeling the 28 bends up to the highest point of the trail. We count 34 bends. 

We skip the pricy viewpoint and walk towards thr Tea Horse Guesthouse, which we reach 2.5h later at ca. 14.00. At Tea Horse, we stumble into a wedding and are promptly invited for BBQ.

With full stomachs we continue onto the last section of todays hike, towards the Halfway House. The scenery below the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains is breathtaking. Often, we can see the whitewater of the Jinsha River below. Its a short walk of ca. 1h.

We book the best room for excessive 300RMB and enjoy a fantastic view in the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. After a sundowner beer on the roof, with the few fellow hikers on the trail, we enjoy the last light from our room before heading to bed.

Day 5 (12.12.)
We get up with first light (ca. 7.30) and set out on the trail towards Tinas Guesthouse,  down in the valley.

The trail is wide takes us through the native village. After half an hour, the trail narrows. Carved into the rock face it runs high above the middle gorge, below. We pass stunning vistas and cross a waterfall.

A bit later, the trail widens again and drops down to the road below. After a rapid descend, we arrive at Tina’s Guesthouse for a late breakfast. It was worth it to stay overnight on the high trail. Tina’s has good food but does not offer the same view.

After breakfast, we descend into the middle gorge. It is another 400m down. There are three ways to get to the gorge from Tina’s. Staff advises us ro take the lowest one (towards lower gorge) down and middle one up. They drive us to the entrance (for free), where we pay the 15RMB “path maintainance fee” and start a grueling descend via stairs (why, china, why always steps?). About 50m above the river, the trail runs horizontally along the sheer cliff. It is a spectacular trail but not for the faint at heart. High above the whitewater, it is caved into the cliff, parts connected via sketchy wooden bridges, at most parts without barriers or other security against a fall into the river, below.

We are happy that we are absolutely alone. Traffic on this trail may not be the greatest joy on this earth. For another 15rmb (for a path we do not take,  but anyway), we pass through a gate and reach the tiger leaping stone. Here, according to the legende, a tiger jumped across the river to escape a hunter. We do not walk on the stone itself but mentally recover from the trail and take a hanging bridge to the next stone. The gorge is fantastic. Cliffs are increadibly steep and stretch into the sky. The gorge is possibly one of the most spectacular places we have visited.

Turning around, our heart freezes. The middle way out of the gorge, “the ladder”, really is a vertical 128 step ladder about 100m high in the sheer rock face – without any safety net. 

After virtually no deliberation we decide to take the third way. Everything has to be better than this. The path is completely deserted but offers great views over the middle gorge. Its a bit eary to be here all by our selves, as we are neither sure uf this path is open, nor if this is a path at all. After some climbing along the cliff, we reach… a 168 step ladder… jackpot. We decide to test our fate and take the ladder. Compared to the middle path, here, trees graciously cover the view to the bottom of the gorge.  Michi climbs first. One ladder, then another long one and a third ladder. Then, some narrow mud steps above the 400m drop; of course without ropes. This must be extremely dangerous and scary during rainy season in summer. 

On top of the mud steps, a woman awaits us in a small shack to take 10RMB for “ladder maitainance”. Maybe off season price as a sign at the bottom said 50RMB. We happily pay when she tells us that not only there are no more ladders, but its only 15min to the top. “Ladder is quite dangerous”, she adds. Indeed, after 15min, we reach a guest house at the top of the cliff.

We are happy to have been lazy and having booked a car. Our driver picks us up and we enjoy the magnificent gorge one last time on the way to get our luggage. Also, having a driver enables us to stop at the First Bend of Yangtze River. Although we are a bit tired to explore the surrounding sights.

In Lijiang, we have booked a very special treat,  a private villa at Banyan Tree. Our villa is built in local Naxi style, with windows all around looking into our private yard. From our giant bed, we overlook the Jade Dragon Snow mountains. Our private hottub serves as perfect place to relax. However, we start our stay off with a nice massage, some burgers and a movie (we both are suffering from a bad cold we got in Gansu).

Day 6 (13.12.)
We sleep in and relax, trying to better our health. We have a sumptuous breakfast and relax in the hottub before going back to bed.

Around noon, we decide to visit Shuhe Ancient Town, around the corner from our hotel. The town is very pleasent, with many small streets and canals (Naxi People not only connect every house to a canal, they also built wells in cascades of three, the highest for drinking water, the middle one for cleaning food, the third one for everything else).

Few visitors roam the streets as we explore the different parts of the town. Our favorite is a small temple built into a hill overlooking the town. We have tea at a coffee museum (!) before beading back to the hotel.

In the evening, we have another very special treat waiting for us: Our private BBQ. The Banyan Tree sets a table and a grill for us in our yard and we grill away. Incredible. Also, on December 13th at 20.00, we can sit outside and enjoy the evening.

We end the evening with a glass of Champagne in our hottub. But not quite. The gemenides meteor shower drives us out of bed at midnight and we watch the shooting stars.

Day 7 (14.12.)
Today, the Lijiang Power Company has decided to turn off the power in the north of Lijiang. Hence, we decide to do some more sightseeing and visit the Black Dragon Pond and Lijiang Old Town.

This world heritage site preserves the 800 year old town of Lijiang. The streets are much more crowded and commercial than in Shuhe. But there are some great sights. One is the palace of the ruler family Mu, which ruled the city for 500 years (never built a city wall, apparently because a box around the character for mu would create the character kun, which means predicament… Chinese logic).

Another one is the house of Wangu up on a hill overlooking the old town and all of Lijiang.

As we (esp. I) are still quite sick, we go back to the hotel early for some afternoon tea and relaxing. In the evening, we have a beautiful and tasty Yunnan style dinner under the shifting lights of the power shutdown. While our hottub is still cold, the one of the neighbouring villa is warm. We spend a long evening with a bottle of wine in the hottub,  before going to bed.

Day 8 (15.12.)
Last day in paradise. After breakfast, we do two more hottub rounds before it is time to checkout.

From Lijiang, we take the K-train to Dali (about 2.5h). The train is old but we are comfortable nonetheless. From the train station, it is about 1h drive to the Xizhou, were we stay for the next two days. We stay at the Linden Center (the Linden Commons). Brian Linden and his wife have restaurated national protected old houses and have the permission to rent the rooms. Its a very personal place where we are greeted like family. We have a lot of good talks with the hotel team. Very special place, highly recommended.

Day 9 (16.12.)
After a long and interesting breakfast with Brian Linden, we explore Dali Old Town. It is quite commercial, similar to Lijiang and Shangri-La, but much more crowded. We walk the main street to the South Gate, and further along the city wall. 

We spend some time watching the tens of couples taking wedding pictures.

From the South Gate, we walk back mainstreet, up the hill following the dragon spring. 

Finally, we browse the local flea market before walking to the Three Pagodas.

Its only a 15 min walk to the pagodas. It is an impressive and beautiful sight to see. The main pagoda, almost 70m high, dates back to the mid 9th century.

The ChongShen Monastery behind the pagodas was built in the 9th century, as well. But it burnt down and was rebuilt in 2005. Unfortunately, there are many new buildings and not much athmosphere. We spend only a short time on exploring the monastery.

Back in Xizhou, we walk around the old town and admire the small streets and beautiful portals of the houses. Xizhou was a trading center on the tea horse road. We buy some beautiful jewlery and overpriced fake antiques.

Dinner is underwhelming, so we end the evening with a beer in the bar of the Linden Commons.

Day 10 (17.12.)
This morning,  we join the Linden Center tour of the Xizhou Morning Market. We see may women with traditional clothes, which is surprisingly genuine, given this is not mainly a tourist attraction, as well as lots of the typical good market stuff (bright green vegetables,  meat, strange local things, such as frog mushrooms and sugar cones).

After the market,  we visit a rice noodle “factory”. Making rice noodles is surprisingly simple. 1. soak rice for one day, 2. steam rice twice, 3. put rice through a meat grinder, 4. press and dry, 5. cut.

I will not describe the production of another local speciality, cheese fans, as they taste like milk gone sour. Still, we are happy to watch the process.

After the tour, we visit the house of the Mu,  family,  famous and rich Xizhou tradesmen, and tour the town some more.

At 14.00, after some tea in the garden, we head to Dali Airport. Way to early, but in China, you never know. Dali airport is veru small, as advertized. As we arrive, the airport just wakes from its noon slumber. We check in and after an uneventful wait,  make the short hop to Kunming.

The Grand Park Hotel in Kunming is not so great. In particular, the food is quite mediocre. Without plans for the night,  we watch a movie and go to bed.

Day 11 (18.12.)
Our last day. Today, we visit the  Shilin Stone forest (“If you have not visited the stone forest, your visit to Kunming is wasted”) and Jiuxiang Caves (“If you visit Shilin Stone Forrest, you must visit Jiuxiang Caves”), but decide to not visit the Dragon Cave (“You have not visited Kunming if you have not visited the Dragon Cave”).

Again, we are lazy and rent a driver, which turns out to be a good idea. It takes ca. 2h to reach the caves. First, we take a small boat tour through a narrow canyon.  Then, we enter the sandstone caves, formed by a river. The caves are gigantic. Despite the colorful lighting, the scenery is impressive. Caves as big as concert halls, thunderous waterfalls, and stalactites and stalacmites shaped by the wind.

From the caves, we drive about 40min to the Shilin Stone Forest. The Stone Forest consists of several areas, such as the Major Stone Forest and the Minor Stone Forest. A ring road connects all areas. Inside each area, small pathways run between the ca. 20m high stone pillars. It is worth to buy a ticket for the electro shuttles, which drive to the park entrance and along the ring road.

The hikes throgh the areas are surprisingly adventurous,  through narrow cracks and over high plateaus.

Cold and tired but happy about the driver, without whom we would not have made it in one day,  we drive back to Kunming. We relax a bit in the club lounge and go to bed.

Day 12 (19.12.)
Today is departure day. In the morning,  we relax in the hotel. After checkout, we go on a short walk around town. We watch doves at Green Lake.

We explore the Yuantong Temple.

We walk through downtown (nothing to see, really). Early aftrrnoon, we are finished with our tour and head to the airport and fly back to Shanghai.

At 22.18, we touch down at Pudong. This was our last trip in China. For now.

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