Yunnan tourist trail

This itinerary describes a popular north-bound route along national highway G214, known in Chinese as 滇藏线. This route covers some of lushest scenery and best preserved traditional cities in Yunnan. There are other popular destinations in Yunnan which are not covered here, notably the tropical paradise Xishuangbanna in the south at the Laotian border and the trip west toward Ruili at the border with Myanmar.

This article is an itinerary.

The northern end of this route is in a largely Tibetan-speaking area that was once part of the Tibetan province of Kham and today is right on the border of Tibet, so this route can be part of an Overland to Tibet journey.

The big attractions of this route are as follows:

The route is mostly uphill. The starting point, Kunming, is at 2000 meters (nearly 7,000 feet), already considerably higher than Britain’s highest peak Ben Nevis or America’s “mile high city” of Denver, Colorado. From there, each stop is higher, all the way to Deqin which is at 3500 m (roughly 11,5500 feet), about the same as Lhasa or Cuzco. It is certainly necessary to be cautious about altitude sickness on this route, but most travellers will be just fine if they spend a few days in each major destination, giving their bodies time to acclimatise before going higher.

Most travellers will find it easy to schedule in a way that avoids altitude sickness, since the various places on the route are all interesting and they feel quite different to the traveler:

  • Kunming is a major Chinese city and has been for hundreds of years; it has the strange mix of fascinating history and frantic modernity common to all such cities. As a large city and provincial capital, it also has a good range of museums, theaters, etc.
  • Dali feels like a backpacker hangout, similar to Yangshuo or various destinations on the Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia. There are Western restaurants and tourists everywhere.
  • Lijiang is among the most beautiful cities in China and the Chinese have certainly noticed; there are Chinese tour groups everywhere.
  • Zhongdian (now Shangrila) feels more like a Tibetan town than a city in central China.
  • Deqin is pretty much purely Tibetan.

What they all have in common are mountainous scenery, interesting architecture, ethnic minorities and lovely handicrafts wood, silver and especially fabric items.

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The Yunnan Railway Museum at Kunming North Railway Station one preserves historic rolling stock from the provinces narrow-gauge (600 mm and 1000 mm) and standard-gauge railways

Most travelers will reach Yunnan via the capital, Kunming. There are several ways to do this:

See Hong Kong to Kunming overland for other routes within China.

The nearest SE Asian neighbour, Lao Cai, Vietnam allows you to walk over the border, to Hekou. Then plenty of buses (fares ranging from ¥85 to 120) to Kunming. A very lively and hassle free overland crossing.

From Luang Prabang, Laos night sleeper buses take you to Kunming for about $50 to 60 US but the ride is very long and tiring and you will miss out on southern Yunnan, which is one of the most interesting areas of the province. Better to go slow, spend a night in Mengla or Menglun to check out the Menglun botanical gardens. Then consider:

  • Westward via Jinghong and Menghai to Menglian and onwards to Lincang and Dehong, Ruili, Tengchong, Baoshan, etc.
  • North-north-westward via Simao to Pu’er, then either:
    • Head west to Jinggu and either continue west to Lincang crossing a spectacular part of the upper Mekong, or north via Jingdong to Dali.
The elephant motif is prominent in the ornaments of Jianshui Confucian Temple
  • North-north-eastward via the road along the Laos border. This is spectacular mountainous country with some great silverware still being sold in markets along the way. You will pass the Black River. Do try to stop somewhere and visit some small villages. This road will bring you up to the back of the Yuanyang Rice Terraces, perched up above the Red River which flows from Dali to Haiphong in Vietnam via Hekou and Hanoi. From there you can turn toward Vietnam, Dali, Shiping, Jianshui, Gejiu, Mengzi, the rest of Honghe Prefecture, or east in to little visited Wenshan.

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