Get off the beaten track in Yunnan, in south-western China, and experience the temples and parks of Kunming as well as the beauty of rural China. Yunnan’s landscapes are a showcase of snow-capped mountains, limestone karsts, dense jungle and glassy lakes. Stay in hilltop lodges with panoramic countryside views, visit villages and remote farming communities where life has barely changed for centuries, go cycling or trekking along mountain trails and around terraced rice fields, and experience some of the region’s diverse indigenous cultures.
Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, is known as the Spring City, thanks to its temperate climate. The Stone Forest, or Shilin, is its main attraction – these spectacular karst landscapes, which stretch over 400 square kilometres in intricate and labyrinthine formations which incorporate caves, springs, waterfalls, underground rivers and lakes with underwater stalagmites and stalactites, have been known since the Ming dynasty as the ‘First Wonder of the World’. The forest is steeped in myths and legends, originating from the native Sani people, and there are colourful festivals here each year. Kunming is also home to numerous grand temples, the 17th-century Cui Hu (Green Lake), whose islands are spanned by bridges and pavilions, is simply gorgeous.
Yunnan’s highlights include historic Lijiang, which was on the Ancient Tea Horse Road, trading between ethnic groups such as Naxi, whose influences can be seen in the local villages and their colourful murals. Lijiang is a showcase of traditional architecture, narrow cobblestone streets and ordered waterways, surrounded by mountains, gorges, canyons and glacial lakes.
Dali, which sits on the shores of Erhai Lake in south-west Yunnan, dates back to the 8th century, with a historic Ming-era walled city where you’ll find traditional Bai homes. Between Lijiang and Dali is historic Shaxi, while also in the south-west is Xishuangbanna, known for its unique temples and the local Dai people, as well as lush tropical rainforests and valleys where elephants roam.
In the north-west, Shangri-La is often described as paradise on earth, thanks to its lofty mountains, dramatic gorges, grassy plains, serene lakes and pretty villages and monasteries, while the sacred and photogenic Meili Snow Mountain range, which sits on the border of Yunnan and Tibet where three rivers including the Mekong meet, soars to 19,000 feet.