For decades, Yunnan has fascinated many a curious traveller with its rolling landscapes, ethnic melting pot and conviviality at every turn. From the jewel that is Shangri-La to Kunming and Dali, we embark on a voyage through one of China’s most mystical regions.
Shangri-La in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon might have been fictional, but that hasn’t stopped many places from claiming to be its inspiration. None have gone quite as far as Zhongdian, however. Perched on the northwestern edge of China’s Yunnan Province and hugged by some of the country’s most splendid scenery, it boldly renamed itself Shangri-La in 2001.
For a language that values literature, province names in China tend to be pretty staid. Yunnan, meaning “south of the clouds”, is an exception. With steep valleys rising up to white cloud-shrouded mountains, it features locales that are more Southeast Asian or Himalayan than Chinese. While the entire province is a mecca for tourists, the “road to Shangri-La” lies to the north on the trails of the old Tea Horse Road – though it’s more a region than a road.
It’s here that one begins their journey, but not before a restful evening at one of the many unique boutique hotels dotted around the area. Hospitality group The LUX Collective has a series of quaint, characterful hotels at various stops along the Tea Horse Road, ranging in size from a handful of rooms to a few dozen. Currently open in Lijiang and with locations soon to open in Dali and Shangri-La, they all blend historic aesthetics with modern amenities.
In the morning, step outside and you’ll discover find scenes that enthral in their raw, authentic beauty. An elderly man leisurely passes a bow over the two strings of his erhu, which emits a melancholic melody; nearby, a group of ladies with oil-painted parasols twirl as they practise a dance. Kunming, nicknamed the “Spring City” thanks to its mild climate, has a laid-back vibe and this provincial capital is your gateway into the region. In the evening, the old people take a bow and it’s the turn of the young, who congregate in the small bars and restaurants on Wenhua Alley near the universities.
Unsurprisingly, with all the ethnic groups, food in Yunnan is among the most diverse in China. Kunming’s 1910 La Gare du Sud, in the old French railway station, is a great introduction to the region’s cuisine. Additionally, Yunnan and Sichuan are the cradles of tea drinking. Pu-erh comes from Yunnan and the Tea Horse Road gets its name from the trade in tea bricks for Tibetan ponies from areas to the west. However, trade wasn’t just about tea and horses, with salt also being one of the prized commodities traversing the trails.
To the northwest of Kunming, Heijing was once one of the richest towns in Yunnan precisely thanks to its salt production. Abandoned salt wells line the Longchuan River and cobbled streets rise up, flanked by Qing Dynasty-era buildings in varying states of disrepair. At night you might hear the faint sounds of opera emanating from buildings, heralding the ghosts of the town’s artistic past. Once home to one of the town’s wealthiest families, the Wu Family Mansion, with its hundred-odd rooms arranged in the shape of the character for king (¤©), is the best place to stay. Further exploration of the hills from the Wu Mansion serve up forgotten temples and villages from another age.
Further west, artisans from Dali were known for carving decorative woodwork for Heijing’s ornate houses. Today, in a change of fortune, Dali is both more prosperous and better known than the old salt town. Yunnan is home to 25 of China’s officially recognised ethnic minorities and they make up around a third of the population. In Dali, the main group are the Bai – and the old town bears their influence. You can distinguish the Bai by their clothing, which favours white. Usually both men and women wear a white base layer, with women wearing colourful sleeveless jackets on top and men clad in darker colours.
Dali is a town to experience. Its closest major attraction is the Three Pagodas, north of the outskirts of the old town, and was built by the Bai’s ancestors. A picture of the Three Pagodas with the mountains reflecting in the lake in front is almost synonymous with Dali. Down the slope from town is Erhai Lake. Cyclists will find plenty of old villages to explore around the shore, while boats can ferry you to some of the islands on the lake. The mountains above the town offer plenty of hiking opportunities. For those wanting something more challenging, the Climb Dali club offers climbing and other adventurous activities. Cheese is common in the region, so while you’re in Dali, try rushan – a Bai speciality that features stretched cheese, eaten fried or wrapped around a stick, with rose jam.
The route from Dali to Lijiang veers to the north and takes you up around 400 metres in elevation. Old Lijiang, sitting in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is home to the largely matriarchal Naxi ethnic minority group, whose culture remains intact. Naxi pictographs are like hieroglyphics and you’ll find them adorning trinkets, ranging from art to clothing. You can also get a taste of culture through the nightly orchestra performances. Outside of town, Baisha and Shuhe offer a less touristy introduction to the culture. Shuhe also houses a museum about the Tea Horse Road.
In Lijiang, try your hand at cooking Naxi cuisine through food tour operator Lost Plate. “Our food is what is locally in season or what we can preserve,” explains Wu Fan, the host. “The taste is savoury but fragrant – a good example is Naxi salted ribs.”
Situated about halfway between Lijiang and Shangri-La is the wonderfully named Tiger Leaping Gorge. At its narrowest point, the Jinsha River is just 25 metres across and it’s here that the eponymous tiger supposedly leapt across the middle rapids via a conveniently situated middle stone. To fully appreciate the scale and scenery, you need to take the high path on a two-to-three-day trek. High above you, the mountains push their snow-capped peaks into the crisp air, while the wild river crashes its way through the landscape far below. This is one of the deepest canyons in the world, with 3,900 metres separating the peaks from the valley floor.
Across the region, it seems that for every 200 metres you gain in elevation, there’s a change in ethnic minority group – and that’s perhaps the soul of its ever-captivating allure. As you go from Tiger Leaping Gorge to Shangri-La, the Naxi give way to the Tibetans, who favour the higher altitudes. While the town is mainly split between the Tibetans and the Han (China’s dominant ethnic group), along with a few other minorities, the surrounding countryside is almost entirely Tibetan. In the far north of Yunnan, it’s close to the boundary with Tibet and the Tibetan part of Sichuan Province.
A great spot to bask in the rich cultural tapestry is Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. Set in a small village an hour’s walk from town, it’s built into a hillside and behind a lake, and resembles a miniature Potala Palace. Home to 700 chanting monks, it’s the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan, replete with painted symbology as it reverberates to the hum of spinning prayer wheels and the wafts of burning incense. To the west of Shangri-La, set amongst fields of barley and corn, the villages around Napahai Lake are also a chance to see genuine traditional Tibetan architecture.
At long last, you conclude your pilgrimage at Shangri-La to find a sensory feast at every turn. Nestled amid misty alpine landscapes and gorgeously upturned roofs are well preserved must-sees like the Old Town, lined with endless shophouses and charming streets that are perfect for a day of leisurely wanders and taking in the nightly dance performances.
Shangri-La is also home to one of China’s very first craft beer breweries, which is run as a social enterprise to provide local employment. You can take a tour to learn about brewing and its challenges at high altitudes. “We have the chance to brew our beer with spring water from the mountains of Shangri-La,” says Songtsen “Sonny” Gyalzur, the founder of Shangri-La Highland Craft Brewery, which brews Shangri-La Beer. “Furthermore, we are using highland barley, which grows only on the Tibetan plateau. It’s an ancient organic grain that’s still sustainably grown.”
Fittingly, hospitality chain Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts also has a branch in Shangri-La. Each of the 228 rooms is adorned with ethnically inspired design features that capture the local charm and intimate allure. The hotel offers experiences such as drawing and jewellery-making in conjunction with local NGOs to give guests hands-on contact with the Tibetan culture.
At an altitude of nearly 3,200 metres, Shangri-La may leave you struggling for breath, but the entire journey through Yunnan’s magnificent scenery is likely to leave you breathless for its splendour. This, together with a variety of food unlike anywhere else in China, the breadth of hospitable ethnic groups, and so many tantalising cultures, may just lull you into your very own Shangri-La.