Destination name: Yunnan, China
Common nickname: "South of the Clouds"
Bordered by Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, the Yunnan province is located in the southwestern corner of China. The easiest way to access Yunnan is to fly into Kunming Changshui International Airport. To avoid fines or deportation, keep in mind that a travel visa is required for both entry and exit of China prior to arrival; as well, make sure your passport has at least six months' validity.
Primary Active Pursuits
From trekking below 20,000-foot forbidden peaks in northwestern Yunnan to hiking amongst rolling rice terraces and biking through charming lakeside villages, Yunnan boasts China's most biologically, recreationally, and culturally diverse province. Weather is typically clearer and milder than other mountainous regions of Western China, inviting active folks of all outdoor pursuits and abilities to partake year-round. We recommend no less than 10-days for adventure travel in this compelling terrain.
In order to make the most of your time in Yunnan, choose between trekking excursions in the dramatic river gorges and snow-capped mountains of the northwest, or spend your time in balmy tropical weather, rock climbing and biking amongst rice terraces in the south. Either direction provides travelers an abundance of stunning scenery, friendly locals and eclectic cuisine.
Tiger Leaping Gorge: One of the world's deepest gorges (nearly 13,000-feet separate the deepest part of the gorge to the peaks above!) is also one of the China's most classic treks. Kickoff this intermediate 22km hike from the town of Qiaotao. Buses depart both from Lijiang and Shangri-La daily and cost around $4USD. Before beginning, pay $9USD at the designated ticket booth. While it can be done in a day, opt for a 2-day overnight trek, and take advantage of one of the guesthouses along the way. The trail is well-maintained, well-marked, and open year-round, but hiking is unadvisable during the rainy season (June till August). A side trip to the Tiger Leaping Stone is a must, considering this is the narrowest part of the gorge at 82-feet wide, and the surge of water here is both profound and humbling.
Meili Snow Mountain National Park: If you've never seen a 22,110-foot peak, Kawagebo Peak in Deqin County is a site to behold. Sacred to the Tibetan Buddhists, the peaks in this breathtaking region have never been summited. Stay a night at a guesthouse in the village of Yubeng and spend the afternoons sipping yak butter tea with a welcoming local family. The deeper you travel in Deqin, the more Tibetan the landscape and people (more than 80-percent of locals are Tibetan). Definitely spend a day hiking to the magnificent Mingyong Glacier.
Dali: For the best road biking in Yunnan, take a couple of days to explore the hippie town of laid-back, old-world Dali. Nestled between the Cangshan Mountains and picturesque Erhai Lake, both trekking and kayaking options abound as well. Check with ClimbDali.com for more information and recommendations.
Kunming: Called the City of Permanent Spring because of its gorgeous weather, Kunming is also a gateway to some of the best climbing in China. Explore the limestone plateau of Yunnan, replete with mystical karst scenery, during prime time climb time between September and December. Checkout climbchina.com for DIY beta, guided tour options and maps of premier routes in Liming, Fumin, Dali and beyond.
A general rule for traveling in China is to avoid tourist destinations during Chinese holidays, as prices are higher and towns less charming when crowded (travelchinaguide.com offers an updated schedule of upcoming popular festivals and events). Generally speaking, spring and fall are the best times to visit Yunnan, but off-season travel in the winter offers an experience like no other - and better chance to see the lofty peaks of the northwest.
Other Recreational and Cultural Gems
If photography is your jam, make the voyage to the southern region of Yunnan for sunrise and sunset hikes amongst the dappled pools of the Yuanyang Rice Terraces. The best time to visit is after harvest, between January and March, when flowers and clouds adorn these already-enchanting scenes.
Lodging and Dining
If your trip launches from Kunming, spend a night or two at the Lost Garden Guesthouse ($4USD to $46SUSD). In Dali and other tourist towns, lodging ranges from luxury spa resorts to dirtbag hostels. If staying in Lijiang, the newer old town of Shuhe offers great options, or, if you're a climber, checkout the Stone Drum House an hour outside of Lijiang ($8USD). Guesthouses in Tiger Leaping Gorge range from $8USD to $40USD, and owners should be contacted via email in advance. Regarding Shangri-La, the Old Town burned to the ground in January 2014 and the city is working hard to rebuild. Lodging is still available here, so don't feel the need to scurry past. For a taste of home, try the Compass, but don't forego slurping up Under the Bridge Rice Noodles, spicy Dai cuisine, Pu'er tea or a traditional hot pot while traveling in Yunnan.
Best Single Reason to Visit
The potential. Yunnan makes up less than four-percent of China's massive territory but boasts a photographer's dreamscape of fog-laced rice terraces, cobblestone streets, and craggy mountains. As well, over half of China's birds and mammals call Yunnan home, and 60-percent of plants used in traditional Chinese medicine can be found in this diverse region. The opportunities for exploration here are endless and largely undeveloped. An easy place to get off-the-beaten path (if you're okay without access to the usual Western amenities, including English, and are comfortable using hand gestures), make the journey here before it's the next hotspot for adventure travel.
The Rough Guide to Southwest China offers broad information, while specific logistics and recommendations can be found aplenty online through local adventure shops, hostels, and cafes. Travel bloggers eat this region up, so you shouldn't be short on helpful tips and top secret destinations. Checkout travelcathay.com, jonistravelling.com, or wildchina.com for some of our favorites.