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Back to China: Yunnan Part One

Yunnan Province, China
Yunnan Province, China

After spending a couple months in Japan and Taiwan, it was with some trepidation that we returned to the Middle Kingdom. So far China hadn’t been our favorite country but we hoped that visiting the Yunnan Province would change our minds. This two-part post will take you on our overland journey from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, up though the Chinese tourist towns of Dali and Lijiang, on a two day hike through one of the largest gorges in the world, and on to the famous town of Shangri-La.

We touched down in Kunming without high expectations since it’s another large Chinese city. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Kunming is a relatively clean city to walk around with nice parks and friendly people.

Playing Go in the park
Playing a game of 'Go' in the park

There aren’t any major tourist attractions there, but Kunming has some great temples if that’s your thing.

Yuantong Temple
The Buddhist Yuantong Temple does not disappoint.

Our favorite part was just walking around watching people go about their daily activities.

Playing music
A street performer in Kunming.

You’ll see interesting characters everywhere you look. This man caught our eye as we left the temple.

Bearded man in Kunming
He nodded when we asked permission for a photo, but said nothing more.

Huge groups of Chinese women dance in public parks for exercise and social time. Some of the choreography is quite good.

From Kunming we headed out to Dali on what would be the first of a great number of Chinese buses we’d be taking. There’s not a lot to say about Dali, nor the nearby town of Lijiang. Both are Chinese tourist ghettos and rather contrived. Every square foot is filled with tourist shops selling virtually the same products catering to the thousands of Chinese tourists filling their streets.

A busy shopping street in Lijiang.

While pleasant, Dali and Lijiang lacked the authenticity we were looking for so we moved on after a few days. The trek up north was worth it when we arrived to Tiger Leaping Gorge, though. The Yangtze River (Asia’s longest) flows through it, and it’s up there with the largest gorges in the world. Climbing through the gorge takes two days and there are spectacular vistas around every turn. Best of all, the TLG is almost completely untouched by domestic tourism so it’s almost free of crowds and litter.

View of the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The trek is relatively easy with exception of the “28 Bends” near the start of the trail. Horses are available for hire if you’d like to relax on the way up.

Keep a keen eye and nose, and you’ll find some alternative options for relaxation.

You can smell it as you approach.
Sam enjoying the view after the toughest part of the hike.

If you’re making the trek, we highly recommend stopping at the Tea Horse Guesthouse after the Bends. They have decent rooms (with heated blankets!) for about $20 a night.

Tea Horse Guest House
Not a bad view from our room.

At the end of the trek we stopped at Tina’s to heat up some Japanese ramen we had stashed for a special occasion.

Tina's guesthouse
Out the windows of Tina's Guesthouse.
Annoying, filthy, but adorable kitten at the Tibet Guesthouse (much better than Tina's).

Read on next time as we finish our trip through Yunnan and start gaining elevation in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau!

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