Family Travel: Yunnan, China

Teresa Kuo discovers why Yunnan is the province that lives up to its name

by SHFamily | Thu, March 09, 2017

By Teresa Kuo


Our family typically travels outside of China for vacations, but this past season we chose to stay and explore what the Middle Kingdom has to offer. 


My family of four packed in a lot during our one-week trip visiting Yunnan (“cloud south”) Province. Located in Southwest China, the area is known for mountains, blue skies, clean air, and of course its namesake – clouds. It takes almost four hours to fly directly from Shanghai to Kunming (the most convenient airport to access the area). Our tour package through Classic Travel included a private car and driver, a comfortable and stress-free way to travel allowing us lots of flexibility with times and order of our itinerary.

Local life in Dali

To kick off the trip, we visited Dali. A town rich in history and culture, the site was originally chosen for its strategic location between Erhai Lake and the 19 peaks of Cangshang Mountains. When there’s water, there’s always a boat so we hopped onboard to Jin Suo Dao, a little outcropping on the lake framed by the 50 km long snow-capped mountain range described by the locals as the back of a giant dragon. Once on the island we explored an old temple, visited a typical Bai stone house, and walked the quiet alleyways. The Bai minority group dominates the population of Dali, though only 200 families live on Jin Suo Dao island. The main inhabitants are the elderly and children, since almost everyone in between has left to find employment in Dali’s New and Old Towns. 


Back on the mainland, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal with an elderly Bai couple. Welcoming us into their home, we tried many delicacies such as the unusual regional specialty: fresh, fried, and dried cheese. Lunch finished with a traditional Bai tea ceremony – usually reserved for a man seeking approval from the family of the woman he wished to marry. If he was served simple green tea, then the family’s answer was no. But if the suitor was served three special courses of tea, then the engagement was approved. We pondered the story in silence while sipping the sweet, biting second course tea made with ginger, brown sugar, bits of fried cheese, and sesame seeds. Early the next day we visited Xizhou’s vibrant morning market, the largest in the area. We absorbed the rich colors from the Bai women’s ornate headwear and the cacophony of noise, as locals hawked their wares, butchered meat, and haggled with those looking to buy the freshest fruits and vegetables for their next meals.

Pagodas and Lijiang Old Town

The Three Pagodas was next on our list of things to see; an impressive triad of temples that is part of the large Chongsheng Temple complex. As it’s one of the largest Buddhist centers in Southeast Asia, we decided to take a cart up the mountain to explore the temple, before walking back down to the reflecting pool of the pagodas. This must-see Dali destination with 1,100 years of history reminded me of the Big and Little Wild Goose Pagodas we had seen in Xi’an.


The second major destination on our trip was Lijiang. A two and a half hour drive from Dali, this famous Yunnan city is known for its old town and gorgeous mountain scenes. The Dongba Culture Museum provides an excellent history of the Lijiang Naxi minority group. The walk through Black Dragon Pond Park affords visitors a spectacular view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which dominates the surrounding skyline. We spent the rest of the day and evening exploring Lijiang Ancient Town, also known as the “Venice of the Orient.” Our guide led us through winding back alleys and up stone stairs to see the panoramic vista of the town’s famous black-tiled rooftops. Lijiang’s history dates back over 1,000 years as this merchant village was an important stop on the long Old Tea and Horse Road trade route – where caravans used to transport tea into Tibet. The Old Town was heavily damaged in 1996 by a 7.0 earthquake, but reconstruction and preservation of the area’s unique architecture earned the three-square-kilometer area UNESCO World Heritage Site status one year later. Like an exploded version of watertowns that dot the surrounding areas of Shanghai, Lijiang has retained its authentic character while providing tourists with plenty to eat, see, and discover. 

Yangtze River and Shangri-La

The following day we started our four-hour drive to Shangri-La, the last stop in our trip. We made the obligatory stop at the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, a loud, roaring canyon section of the Yangtze River wedged between Jade Dragon Snow and Haba Snow Mountains. A large tiger statue at the viewing deck marks the legend of a tiger jumping across the narrowest point of the gorge to escape a chasing hunter. Here, I made a mental note that hiking the 15 km gorge would be a great excuse to come back. 


Shangri-La – formerly known as Zhongdian up until 2001 – is the gateway to Tibet. This small city of 130,000 still has lots to offer besides its natural beauty and quiet pace of life. We spent half a day visiting Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, a 300-year-old complex home to 700 monks and one living Buddha. Situated at the foot of Foping Mountain, the impressive monastery is also known as Little Potala Palace, its namesake being the famous Potala Palace of Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region. The monks’ sonorous chants filled the air as we wandered through large prayer rooms, while admiring gilded statues, and learning a bit about Buddhism. The second half of the day was spent enjoying Napahai Lake by horseback on stout but strong Tibetan horses. Since we were visiting during the dry season, we could see wildlife, farm animals, and an abundance of yaks grazing the area’s grasslands. An added bonus was listening to our three horse guides chatting, laughing, and singing in their local dialect.

On the last morning of our trip, we hiked up the hilltop stairs of Golden Temple located in the middle of Shangri-La’s Old Town. A devastating fire in 2014 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the Old Town, and although newly rebuilt, the majority of shops and restaurant spaces still remained empty. At the temple, we approached the world’s largest prayer drum and watched as locals in traditional Tibetan dress walked around the wheel in prayer. With the pull ropes, my family tried to rotate the wheel. A woman noticed our futile efforts and shouted to everyone, “La! La! Yi, er, san!” (Pull! Pull! One, two, three!). With great effort, the massive drum revolved clockwise as religious tradition dictates. After a few turns, and with smiles of accomplishment all around, we said our goodbyes and headed off to the airport for home.


Our trip gave us lifelong memories of a China that walks to the beat of a slower drum. One week was not enough to wholly savor Yunnan, so we look forward to visiting this beautiful province again. 


Good to Know

• Tour booked through

• Visit in the low season to avoid crowds (November to February)

• The altitude is around 2000 to 3000+ meters, so keep this in mind when trekking.

• Be sure to stock up on traditional handicrafts.