China’s Wild West

By Annie Fitzsimmons

“Welcome to the Wild West of China,” my guide said as we touched down in Lijiang after a 4-hour flight from Shanghai. Though I didn’t yet spot any cowboy boots, I was indeed far west in the Yunnan province, at the foothills of the Himalaya; bordered by Laos, Vietnam, and Burma.

Impressions of Lijiang performance (Photo: Annie Fitzsimmons)

For an instant introduction to the region, I attended a performance of “Impressions of Lijiang,” with the sacred Jade Dragon Mountain looming behind the outdoor theater.  It is truly a spectacle of local culture, with hundreds of the minority Naxi people performing songs and dances. And no wonder the show is such a creative triumph; the force behind it is Zhang Yimou, famous for directing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. I couldn’t leave without purchasing a recording of the music that could transport me back to Lijiang over and over again.

The area is difficult to navigate on your own. I traveled on an Abercrombie & Kent itinerary with the warmest expert guide, Gerald Hatherly. He makes centuries of Chinese history come alive daily. A&K is known for making far-flung getaways like the Yunnan accessible — and also happens to be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Banyan Tree was our base in Lijiang, and its architecture reflected the design of the Naxi homes while providing all of the comforts of a great hotel. We rode bikes through a valley of green farmland to the village of Bai Sha, and to the infamous Dr. Ho, who has been credited with healing thousands of people in his 90 years. I received a quick eye scan from Dr. Ho, who instantly pronounced (with Gerald interpreting): “healthy” (whew!). His office contains more than 50 pots filled with therapeutic plants and herbs that he gathers in the mountains. Dr. Ho will proudly show you a letter from the Mayo Clinic thanking him for healing a terminally ill cancer patient. I am convinced that if I return in 30 years, a 120-year-old Dr. Ho will still be there, smiling and healing.

From Lijiang we took a stomach-turning drive through the mountains to Shangri-La, or Zhongdian. An easy hour-long hike through the stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge provided me with a much-needed break in the drive. These mountains are home to Khampa Tibetans, and the area provides a look at Tibetan culture, 13,000 feet above sea level. Each morning, from my room at the Songstam Retreat, I awakened to views of the jagged, snow-capped Himalaya. Gerald introduced me and my group to farmer friends of his in the town of Ringha who welcomed us in for cups of yak butter tea and to meet their new baby. A warning: the tea is a hyper-local delicacy, and makes you feel like you’re drinking a cup full of hot butter!

Songzangling Monastery (Photo: Annie Fitzsimmons)

The hotel overlooks the 17th-century Songzangling Monastery, home to hundreds of monks practicing Tibetan Buddhism. At the bustling monastery, I toured colorful temples and meditation halls covered in murals. I was even blessed by a living Buddha (a very high-ranking lama) in his prayer hall, which kept me on cloud nine all week.

As you make your 2012 travel wish lists, I hope you consider adding this faraway corner of the globe. The Yunnan is woefully under-traveled, with Westerners accounting for only 1% of visitors. This unusual and exotic journey felt like a well-kept secret: until now!

Fitzsimmons is a New York-based travel and hotel writer. She is a frequent contributor to publications that share her love of exploration and discovery. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @anniefitz and on her personal blog, Hotel Belle.


  1. […] never forget my first drink at the Long Bar. After spending ten days traveling through the Yunnan Province and the Three Gorges Dam, a glass of champagne, and the velvety crooning of a live lounge […]

  2. Huang
    February 15, 2012, 3:24 am

    I recommend u spend a few days in Suhe nearby old-town Lijiang,where u can have the opportunity to experience the real Lijiang,natural and calm.

  3. Annie Fitzsimmons
    February 13, 2012, 10:16 am

    Hi laobiao, Yes it’s the same Tiger Leaping Gorge. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do the whole hike, so we did a small portion of it to see one of the most beautiful parts of the Gorge. To me, while old-town Lijiang felt a bit tourist-y, the countryside of Lijiang and Shangri-La felt very remote. I’ve written down the Lincang and Lisu areas to explore if I make it over there again-thanks for the great tips.

  4. Andrew
    February 12, 2012, 9:10 am

    — Sorry for my bad english i’m a frenchie ! —
    There’s so calm, without any noise, just wind and sun ..
    i’d like to be where the first picture was taken …
    But no electricity, no internet connection, no… i cannot live without that …

    Sincerely thank’s for sharing this.

  5. Fail
    February 11, 2012, 8:18 pm

    How you can post this sort of facetious tidbit under ‘intelligent travel’ banner with ‘sustainability’ and other buzzword nonsense is beyond me. Fly right in and out! How sustainable! Talk about trampling National Geographic’s already tarnished name.

  6. laobiao
    Kunming, Yunnan
    February 11, 2012, 1:28 am

    Are you talking about the same Tiger Leaping Gorge that’s trail is about 25 KM long and raises 1200M in altitude along the way that most travelers to the area hike? A long day starting at9AM and ending around 6PM is doable….but one hour…… I’d say a true trip to the wild west of China will take you to the Wa minority territories of Lincang and the Lisu Areas of Nujiang….Lijiang and Shangrila are part of the typical Lonely Planet tourist trek that all passey-byers take, compared to the true ‘wild west’ that Yunnan has too offer. Not bad places, but just built around tourism and fake ‘old towns.’

  7. Mei ZHANG
    February 10, 2012, 7:53 pm

    As someone native of yunnan, I am delighted to see that you’ve had a chance to explore the extraordinary beauty of the yunnan, the nature and the people there. Sadly, I personally feel Lijiang old town is a bit overrun by tourists. But with help from the warm guides of WildChina or A&K, one is able to truly connect with the people living there.
    Mei ZHANG, conde nast china specialist.

  8. Malcolm
    February 9, 2012, 10:21 pm

    Lijiang is Disneyfied for tourists – mainly Chinese ones – and packed like an amusement park. Good for a day, but the mountain is quite something.
    Dali, between Lijiang and capital, Kunming, is also touristy, but less so, and a nice spot for a few days. The nearby hike on the mountain is lovely. Take a chairlift up and walk 13km along an amazing, tiled sidewalk to the gondola down. Stunning views the entire way and the path is incredible. Cafe de Jack has great Yunnan coffee (Starbucks is now growing in the province) and good food. Be careful of the old women who approach you on the street and try to sell you ‘Ganja’. Ride around the lake on a rental bike which you can get in the town. It’s about 100km or so and if the construction which plagued me when I did it a few years is done, it will be very pleasant. I love the town. I stayed at the Sleepyfish, which you can book online.
    If you cycle, and I do and did, or even drive, head south on highway 214, a national road which heads from Qinghai lake a long ways away, all the way to the Laos border. It was newly paved and fantastic, though a heck of a hard ride. The riding up to the peaks and seeing rice terraces descend almost a kilometer down the mountain side is worth it. Hotels were cheap, clean and nice, and food even cheaper.
    In Kunming, the 1910(?) restaurant in the old railway station is a good bet. For dessert head to Salvador’s, in a cool little area, for some of their homemade ice-cream. Walk around the central lake during the mornings and enjoy the music and the dancing.
    I am dying to go back and head to the wilder and notorious towns near the border with Myanmar (though apparently milder now).

  9. Chen
    Anhui, China
    February 9, 2012, 9:36 pm

    Yunnan is one of the most beautiful and mysterious places in our country. Welcome to visit other beautiful places in China!

  10. Annie Fitzsimmons
    February 9, 2012, 4:16 pm

    Thank you so much Ryan-I agree, I hope the area maintains the off-the-beaten-path magic that it has now.

  11. ryan
    February 9, 2012, 8:50 am

    I hope this unusual but beautiful part of the world stays this way and doesn’t become commercialised after you’ve let the secret out. Really enjoyed discovering the Yunnan Province with you.