20 days with Intrepid Travel Rating:
Day 1 Hanoi
Welcome to Vietnam. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm where you'll meet your tour leader and fellow travellers. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask reception where it will take place. If you arrive early in Hanoi, there’s plenty to see and do. Consider booking the Hanoi Highlights Urban Adventure with an expert local guide to introduce you to the city. Start by visiting the Temple of Literature, drop into a traditional tea house, learn the stories of the Hoa Lo Prison museum and finish among the temples at Hoan Kiem Lake. Alternatively, take it at your own pace and wander the Old Quarter and admire the city’s French-colonial architecture, relax in a park, or enjoy some street food.
Day 2 Mengzi
Prepare for a long day of travelling today. After breakfast, set off for Lao Cai, near the border with China, on a private bus. Say goodbye to your Vietnamese leader and meet your Chinese leader at Hekou after border crossing. From there, take a taxi to the bus station and board your bus to Mengzi. Transfer to your hotel and settle in. Spend your free evening kicking back and relaxing – or perhaps head out for a taste of the famous Yunnan rice noodles which originated here.
Day 3 Mengzi
As well as noodles, this town is known for its remnants French architecture - a rarity in today's China. Spot the simple, stately aesthetic of the European style buildings, with their soft yellow facades and tiled roofs which set them apart from the modern structures around them. Visit Bisezhai Station, the finest surviving station on the French-built Vietnam-Kunming railway. The rest of the day is yours to spend as you please. This is a town rarely visited by foreigners. The Nanhu Park area is great for a wander and meeting locals.
Day 4 Yuanyang
Travel by private bus to Yuanyang (approximately 3 hours). If you're a keen photographer, you're in luck, as this is one picturesque destination. This place is famous for its beautiful rice terraces, idyllic rural scenery and unique ethnic minority culture. Some 88% of Yuanyang County belongs to ethnic minorities; the Hani and Yi people created the ornate rice terraces that impress so many visitors. We are staying right inside the Duoyishu Scenic Area. The terraces here are considered a superior spot to photograph the sunrise.
Day 5 Yuanyang
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes today for your hike around the rice terraces with a local guide (approximately 4 hours). You'll be able to take it at a leisurely pace and enjoy the scenery. Most of the paths go through villages, which makes it easy to stop for a break. Check out the local farmer's market where locals wear their traditional clothes, go about their daily business like time has never changed.
Day 6 Jianshui
Travel by private bus to Jianshui (approximately 3.5 hours). With a 1,200-year history and a distinct cultural heritage, the ancient town is a veritable outdoor museum of magnificent buildings. Many of these date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. You will set out on a walking tour of the city and visit the Zhu Family Garden, as well as the incredible Confucius Temple.
Day 7 Jianshui
Visit Tuanshan Village, a cultural echo of the Qing Dynasty that's still intact. You'll learn a little more about the Yi minority as you explore. It's a fascinating window to the China of the past. Visiting the village is like travelling to the China of the past. Small, cobbled lanes leave you with impressions of timelessness, art and architecture. In the afternoon and evening, enjoy some free time.
Day 8 Kunming
Today we travel to Kunming (approximately 3 to4 hours). Stop at the geological wonder of the Stone Forest on the way. The Forest covers an area of 400 square kilometres (96,000 acres) and includes both large and small clusters of towering limestone pillars, as well as many other scenic spots. An old local saying says that 'If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time'. Truly, the site is one of the most important attractions of Yunnan. Afterwards, enjoy free time to explore the large, yet laidback city. The 1000-year-old Yuantong temple is most definitely worth a visit, or find the traces of old Kunming at Lingguang street. Perhaps head to Green Lake Park where you can see locals spending their leisure time on all kinds of activities and games. Check out The Loft, a disused factory area west of the city centre, home to many small galleries and cafes. In the evening, perhaps get together with your mates for a final dinner in this 'Spring City'.
Day 9 Kunming
Today is a free day until a planned group meeting at 6 pm. Here, you'll meet some new travellers joining you for the next stage of your Yunnan adventure. Until then, check out the sights!
Day 10 Dali
Travel by public bus to your next destination, Dali (approximately 3–4 hours). For many years this spot has been a favourite destination for foreign travellers and backpackers, thanks to its laidback atmosphere and spectacular surroundings. There are snow-capped mountains on one side and the vast Erhai Lake on the other, making for an impressive sight. This afternoon you will take a guided walk around Dali's ancient town with your leader. Present-day Dali is a city that combines history with modern convenience. It is divided into two areas: the Ancient City and the New District (widely known as Xiaguan). After your tour, enjoy a free evening in this picturesque town. Perhaps circle back to Foreigner Street in the Ancient City, where handicrafts and local culinary delights rightly attract many visitors.
Day 11 Dali
Take a private bus to Xizhou, around 23 kilometres north of Dali on a day trip today. Xizhou is famous for its Butterfly Spring and Bai architecture. Enjoy a guided tour of the town and the local markets – a great chance to learn more about Bai architecture. Interact with some local families living in the traditional courtyards to get a feel for local life. Be sure to try some tasty local snacks such as baba (fried rice cake) or the local cheese. Enjoy some more free time upon your return to Dali - perhaps take the cable car up Cangshan Mountain or stop in at the Three Pagodas.
Day 12 Shaxi
Travel by public bus to Jianchuan, then by private van to Shaxi (approximately 3–4 hours). Much of Shaxi's charm lies in the fact it has been restored rather than rebuilt, and being off the main highways it hasn't seen the rapid development of the tourist industry that other places like Lijiang and Dali have. Here you can still find the Yi and Bai ethnic minorities maintaining their traditions, farmhouses lining the country roads, and the original walled town gates and market square that prove Shaxi was once an important stop on the old Tea Horse Trail. You will stay in a local family-run guesthouse in twin, triple or multi-share rooms. The accommodation is very simple and bathroom facilities are basic and shared, but the warm hospitality makes for a memorable experience. Most travellers choose to eat their meals at the family guesthouse, which is a great chance to further interact with your hosts, and there are also other options nearby.
Day 13 Shaxi
Today you will hike the mountain trails with a local guide. Your destination is Shizong Temple (approximately 4–5 hours return) on Shibaoshan. It's a good idea to pack a lunch to enjoy along the way, as the beautiful 'danxia' landscape will make a nice backdrop for a picnic. Be sure to bring your camera too so you can snap a few pictures of these gorgeous surrounds. In the evening, take the opportunity to mix with the locals out on the town square. Here you'll likely encounter dancing, singing and various traditional games. Perhaps try your hand at some of them yourself.
Day 14 Shangrila
Today you’ll travel to a place so beautiful it was officially renamed Shangri-la, a reference to the mythic utopia from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Make the 5-hour drive to Shangrila and feel the modern world fade away as you head higher into the mountains. This charming Tibetan town lies on an altitude around 3200 metres, so take it easy upon arrival and give yourself some time to acclimatise. Later take a stroll on winding streets past prayer halls and pagodas in Dukezong Ancient Town. A fire tore through the area in 2014, destroying most of the town, but painstaking restoration work continues and the town remains charming. It’s also home to a towering, gilded prayer wheel – the largest in the world.
Day 15 Shangrila
Learn more about Tibetan Buddhism with a visit the Sumtseling Monastery. Located just outside the city and modelled after the Potala Palace, Sumtseling is the predominant monastery in the region and a popular destination for pilgrims. Constructed in 1681 and subsequently destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the complex was rebuilt in 1981 and the red and gold buildings now house hundreds of monks. Enjoy a free afternoon in Shangrila. You might want to hire a van and drive to Xiaozhongdian, where the beautiful landscape is dotted with Tibetan villages. If you're lucky you may even get invited to a local's home to enjoy some Yak butter tea!
Day 16 Tiger Leaping Gorge
Travel by public bus to Qiaotou (approximately 3 hours), the starting point for your trek through the magnificent Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is one of the deepest and most spectacular gorges in the world. The entire canyon is 16 km long and rises up to 3,900 metres above the waters of the famous Yangzi River. Though the gorge has become very popular in recent years, and the area has developed rapidly, it's still an incredibly rewarding travel experience which many cite as a highlight of their time in China. Prepare a day pack (your larger luggage will be stored for two nights) and embark on your hike. There will be regular stops to rest as needed. The first part of the trek is quite arduous – this is not flat terrain by any means. After a slow and steady climb you will reach the 24 bends (the most challenging part of the trek), a steep and twisting path where you'll really gain some altitude. After stopping for a break, continue along the flatter section of the gorge to your accommodation. This is a simple but comfortable guesthouse with shared facilities (upgrades to private facilities at your own cost may be possible, depending on availability).
The area is subject to dramatic changes in weather. We schedule departures for the more stable seasons, but it's still possible that conditions may make travelling through the gorge dangerous. In this case an extra night each will be spent in Shaxi and Lijiang. Should the weather be deemed by your leader and guide as too rainy or foggy to safely complete the trek once in the gorge area, an alternative walking route will be taken or a minivan will be used for transport between destinations, using the recently built highway.
Day 17 Tiger Leaping Gorge
Your second day of trekking starts with a nice, easy section that has spectacular views. There are only a few uphill battles (and one slippery downhill stretch) before you reach your destination for the night – Walnut Grove. Those with the energy can enjoy further hikes to some excellent lookout points from here. Otherwise, this a tranquil place to simply sit back, relax, enjoy the scenery and rest your weary legs. It's important to note that Tiger Leaping Gorge is subject to dramatic and unpredictable weather conditions. We have scheduled departures in the more stable seasons, but the possibility still exists that conditions may make travelling through the gorge dangerous.
Day 18 Lijiang/Overnight Train
Travel by public transport to Lijiang (approximately 3 hours). This World Heritage-listed town is home to the Naxi people, a matrilineal society descended from Tibetan nomads. After arrival, enjoy some free time. Maybe visit the Wangu Pagoda, situated at Lion Hill in a small park and has amazing views over Lijiang. Or visit he picturesque Heilongtan Park and wander the cobbled streets in the old town and take the chance to do some shopping. In recent years, Lijiang has become very popular with domestic tourists, so don't be surprised if you see the streets full of tourists from home and abroad. In the evening, hop on the overnight train back to Kunming.
Train travel in China may not be entirely luxurious, but it's certainly one of the best ways to come face-to-face with the country and its people. It's the main form of transport for locals. We use hard sleeper class trains for most of our overnight train journeys. These are not as rough as they sound – compartments are open-plan and clean, with padded three-tiered berths (6 to a compartment). Sheets, pillows and a blanket are provided. We recommend bringing your own sleeping sheet. Safe, hot drinking water is always available for making coffee, tea or instant meals. It is a good idea to bring a mug, spoon, knife and fork if you will be preparing your own hot drinks or food on the train (these are not provided in cabins). Bathrooms are basic, and as toilet paper isn't always available it's best to carry some of your own. Most trains have a dining carriage where meals are available before the journey to supplement food available on the train.
Day 19 Kunming
Your train arrives in Kunming bright and early. Transfer from the station to your hotel, then enjoy a free day to explore as your wish. Filled with bridges and waterways, Kunming is a lovely place to explore on foot. If the thought of walking anymore doesn't appeal, perhaps reward yourself for all those hikes with a foot massage! Meet up in the evening for an optional final dinner out on the town with the group, your last chance to enjoy Yunnanese cuisine.
Day 20 Kunming
Your adventure comes to an end today after check-out.
All This Included
Discover the spectacular southern reaches of China on this adventure through its most stunning and diversified natural scenery and ethnic cultures in the unique Yunnan province. Start in Vietnam's jewel of the north, and delve further into the region's French heritage over the border, with a stop in Mengzi. Explore Yuanyang, the picture-perfect home of the Hani people, where eye-popping terraced landscapes of hundreds of years old stretch as far as the eye can see. Step back in time among the Qing and Ming dynasty masterpieces in Jianshui, wander the busy streets of Kunming, stop at the tea horse trail towns of Dai and Shaxi, admire its amazing architecture while being welcomed to our local friend's home. Join the Tibetan pilgrims at Sumtseling Monastery and learn about the idyllic life on the pasture in Shangrila. Trek the epic Tiger Leaping Gorge with Jinsha River roaring underneath and snow capped Jade Dragon Mountain towering above. This is the ultimate Yunnan adventure.
Hotel (8 nights)
Guesthouse (10 nights)
Overnight Hard Sleeper Train (1 night)
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