Land of peaks, valleys, and monasteries, Yunnan is home to the largest number of ethnic groups in China. The gateway towns of Shangri-La (much of which, sadly, burned in January 2014) and Lijiang showcase area traditions and cultures, but many interesting sites lie in the countryside.
Here’a an insider’s guide to this wondrous region:
WHEN TO GO
Yunnan is known for its localized climates. Shangri-La is best visited from late spring through summer, when days warm into the 80s F. Kunming, to the south, has been dubbed “spring city” for its mild climate year-round. Regional temperatures can dip, however, so bring warm clothing.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Songtsam Lodges operates five cozy properties in Yunnan in a variety of settings that reflect the region’s diversity. Travelers may stay at one lodge or choose a circuit package that visits multiple lodges with guides for an easy introduction to this fairly remote and rugged part of China.
Laomadian Lodge, in the town of Shaxi, offers rooms in a gracefully converted inn and stable on the ancient Tea Horse Caravan Road. Its Karma Cafe dishes up regional fare—and brownies. Another interesting option in Shaxi is the evocative Old Theatre Inn, an eco lodge that occupies a restored courtyard building complex.
Zen Garden Hotel, in the historic town of Lijiang, mixes antique furniture with modern conveniences and will arrange tours to local Naxi sights.
WHAT TO SEE
Shangri-La, formerly Zhongdian, is both a county and a town; attractions include Yunnan’s largest Tibetan Buddhist lamasery, Songzanlin Monastery, known for its remarkable frescoes and its resemblance to Tibet’s multi-tiered Potala Palace.
The venerable trading city of Shaxi, with its peaked wood roofs, ranks as one of the most authentic caravan towns along the storied tea route; its Friday market deals in everything from livestock to tea.
Visitors flock to Lijiang to see its old town, a World Heritage site. Also a highlight: performances by the local Naxi Orchestra, which plays nightly.
Near the scenic mountain village of Shiyi lies Dongzhulin Monastery, home to monks of the yellow hat sect—and artfully restored prayer halls. This part of Yunnan is famed for its black pottery, which is baked directly in a pit fire. Master potter Sun Nou Qiling crafts his black pitchers, pots, and more in the village of Tong Dui.
WHAT TO READ
Forgotten Kingdom, by Peter Goullart (1955), is a memoir by a Russian-born explorer who advised Chinese industry in the 1930s and ’40s, and gathered his insights about both Chinese and Yunnanese culture and thought in this must-read volume.
“A ritual in the Meili mountains is to rise early to see Kawagebo, Yunnan’s most sacred peak,” says photographer Michael Yamashita. “Usually, Kawagebo hides in a sea of clouds, so a photographer needs luck,” he says.