Yunnan North (Lijiang, Dali and Shangri-la) – 10 days self tour
Four of us took a very leisurely trip of Yunnan North covering just the stretch between Dali and Shangri-la in a 10 days trip using a car with a driver who took us whenever and to wherever we want to go, spending however long in each place. We have no complain with the weather although it’s a bit chilly with temperatures ranging from around sub-zero (only during the night where we’d be snuggling in our bed in a warm hotel room) to single digit to about 18 deg C during the days, air quality was pristine. Here’s our itinerary…
Late Dec 2016 to early January 2017
Direct flights from Shenzhen to Lijiang (about 3 hrs) using Shenzhen Airline (efficient and punctual, relatively comfortable seats)
Car travel – longest stretch around 4.5 hrs, roads mostly highway standard with good riding quality, with only a couple of small portions (40 min each?) of unsealed slightly bumpy roads due to construction detours.
Internet – coverage and speed in the open rather good, even in many parts of the country side. We used a combination of 2GB SIMs (@HK$100 – but typically only last for 2 days or so) bought in Hong Kong Unicom, and China Mobile SIM (again as customer in Hong Kong), which were the only ways to access Gmail and Facebook there.
Altitudes – ranging from around 2000 to 4200 m above sea level in general. We took Diamox as precautions, and did not venture to near Yulong Snow Mountain top via the cable car (which reaches to over 4500 m).
Apps on my mobile we used for this trip (generally applies to Mainland China travel)- Amap (in place of Google Map – see my other blog post) for navigation, Dianping (like Hong Kong’s Openrice) for finding popular eateries, Baidu (browser in place of Google), Wechat (much more functional in Mainland than WhatsApp), and Ctrip for booking flights and some hotels.
Local cuisines – mainly Xichuan style with spicy numb and pepper hot, famous in many varieties of mushrooms (very tasty and worth trying), local hairy beef, Yunnan rice noodles.
Entries to sights and national parks – typically RMB60 to 300 per person (many 50% discount for 60+, and free for 70+).
Days 1 – 3 Dali 大理: The drive from Lijiang Airport to Dali was about 2.5 hrs travelling mostly on expressways – some infrequent visitors to China may be amazed with the rapidly growing network of high ride quality expressways and highways in China.
We did the typical tour of the Chongsheng 3 pagodas area which is most picturesque especially with the reflections in the water areas (lakes) inside the garden (not to be missed), and also the Butterfly Spring, again very photogenic with the colorful trees fringing the lake with their idyllic reflections. Dali old city in itself is good for an hour or so visit, being rather commercialised with mainly souvenir shops. The nearby Xizhou Town (喜洲) was a present surprise though. This old town is sort of an island amongst agricultural fields, is very much populated with locals living their day to day normal life, hence providing visitors a peep into their local architecture, normal living style and cuisine. We enjoyed a lot a morning tour of their local market selling meat and vegetable produce, rubbing shoulders with locals. The tour was organised by the hotel we stayed- The Linden Centre at Xizhou near Dali City. A rather interesting boutique hotel converted from an old large wealthy businessman’s home: siheyuan (四合院 – sometimes referred to as Chinese quadrangle). This hotel is established by an American and his Taiwanese wife, and caters for travellers from worldwide with most staff speaking English, French or Japanese/Korean. The hotel maintains many genuine and interesting architectural style and elements of Chinese traditional wealthy home, and gave us an interesting and lovely stay with it’s unrivalled setting facing vast expenses of paddy/garlic fields with distant rows of white local traditional village house against mountainous backdrops capped with snow in the winter.
Day 4 and 5 Lijiang 丽江 : On the way to Lijiang, we visited Shaxi ancient town沙溪 – the best (my opinion– review here) we visited this time. It’s said to be the last well preserved post of the ancient Tea-Horse Trail for transporting and trading tea using horses (茶马古道最后一个驿站), it has just a couple of narrow cobble or unpaved streets through the local houses which mostly were original or renovated wooden architecture keeping the style and ambience of the old days. The stream with the arch bridge at the city fringe is idyllic too for photographs. There are small hostels (BnB places) inside the town but you may have to rough it a bit, larger and more modern ones exist just outside the old town. There are already western style cafes and larger relatively modern hotels starting to open, and the main street leading to the old town has many souvenir shops, so go there soon before it turns into another Dali or Lijiang old town (too commercialised and losing much of it’s attractive character). We spent an afternoon there and thoroughly enjoyed it. We ran into a Shandong mother and daughter from who invited us for lovely tea she brought from her tea shop in Xishuangbanna, the best place for Pu Er, she reckons. Talk about enterprising, this young lady of around late 20’s (?) moved all the way from Shandong (NE China) where his family has a tea business, to Yunnan (SW China) in search for good tea sources and expanding their family tea trade.
Near Lijiang, we visited Yulong (玉龙雪山- Jade Dragon) Snow Mountain Blue Moon Valley with the lake set in the foreground of the high snow capped mountains, I’m afraid we found Lijiang itself was not that attractive. Yes, there’s the relatively large old town packed with relatively clean and wooden architecture (but mostly recently built) shops and eateries, opening into the night too. We could still find a few interesting shops to visit and vantage points for nice photos, but that’s about it. The nearby Shuhe Ancient Town (束河古镇) is slightly better in which we spent a bit more time. We however; enjoyed a lot our stay the Pullman Lijiang Resort and Spa (near to Shuhe Ancient Town), we have a 300 sq m villa with an outdoor hot bath where we skinny dipped every night in near zero temperatures! The heated floor was most comfortable in the cold weather. Service was impeccable 5-star standard , breakfast was top with freshly squeezed juices and fresh yogurt every morning, and the view from the hotel lake towards Yulong Mountain was mesmerising.
Day 6, 7 – Lugu Lake 泸沽湖, this scenic area straddles between Yunnan and Xichuan and was about 4 hrs drive from Lijiang (with the new road opened July 2016; it used to take more than 7 hours!), but well worth a visit. It’s relatively unspoilt with lovely idyllic scenery. We stayed at the Lugu Lake Gallery Bridge Hotel 瀘沽湖廊橋別院度假酒店 which has a lake frontage at one of the most scenic spots there. The lake view in the dawn mist with the long yellow grassed island patches, colorful boats and distant lion head-shaped mountain was mesmerising and so photogenic. We took a boat ride to the concubine temple island mainly to take in the lovely lake scenery with the birds, etc, it took 3 local village family to row and steer the long boat and about 2 hours for the round trip, all for RMB120 or @30, good value! We also attended a local dance and singing show, but mostly, we enjoyed an excellent BBQ dinner in a local joint- Mor Sor Flame BBQ (near the lake front at Dalawshui 大落水 town) , the BBQ pork and aubergine were super-nice!
Day 8 -11 Shangri-la 香格里拉, this the furtherest north and highest in general altitude (around 3,300 m above sea level) we went this time, and the air was so fresh and clean! We had a nice day hiking the Shudu Lake (属都湖)., and Bita Hai Lake (碧塔海) in the Potatso (not Potato 🙂 National Park 普達措國家公園which has expansive and nice mountain and water scenery. Personally, I like Shudu Lake better. We also visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡 and witness the narrow gorge with roaring rapids at this scenic canyon on the Jinsha River, a primary tributary of the upper Yangtze River. By the side of the roaring rapid, I can almost feel the immense difficulties the Red Army was facing in their Long March in Chairman Mao’s poem “红军不怕远征难，万水千山只等闲。五岭逶迤腾细浪，乌蒙磅礴走泥丸。金沙水拍云崖暖，大渡桥横铁索寒。更喜岷山千里雪，三军过后尽开颜。” There also lies a board remembering the many who died trying to conquer this and nearby rapid sections in the early days.
We stayed at Songtsam Retreat at Shangri la – MGallery Collection hotel which is built to the Tibet style with very spacious rooms each with wood fire hearth and equipped with oxygen machines. This hotel is full of charm and all staff there were so friendly and attentive, every detail were attended to during our stay from greeting us with warm ginger tea at the Reception and in our room, every night when we returned to our room, we were greeted with a nice warm room with heaters on, there were fragrant essential oil being heated, warm cup of tea by each bedside, cookies, turned up bed, etc. The boutique hotel is very near to the famous local sight Sumtsaling Monastery (噶丹松贊林)- often referred as the Little Potala Palace.
Information sources include from Tripadvisor, Wikipaedia, etc.