Yunnan top destinations - Itinerary and photo guide (1500km)

Located in the south west, the province 394,000 km square is the area comprising the largest numbers of different ethnicities. With the proximity to the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam there are 25 different ethnic groups.
You will discover famous tourism sites and unexplored areas : the capital city Kunming, the rice fields of Yuangyuan, the city of Dali, the Luoping landscape, the old city of Lijiang but also a wonderful trek on the edge of the Himalayas and a small village on the silk road.

Kunming, the Yunnan district capital

The present Kunming airport will become the second of China and will serve all big cities of south west Asia. As of January 2015, it costs around 120 rmb (25 AUD, 17EUR, 19USD) for a taxi to the city center. To avoidunusual high fees, ask for the taxi meter : “Da Biao”.

Spend few days to make a tour of the city, visit the green lake, see the parks early in the morning, wander throught Bird and Flowers Market – typical Chinese market where you can find everything from kitsch to weird – stop to see the “Jing Xing Jewelry World” before going to eat at the delicious restaurant Laofangzi, in the middle of the flowers market.

I lived for 6 months in Kunming and with 8 millions people around me, it’s really an anthill. For China, it is the 16th most populated city. It is regarded by the citizens of Beijing and Shanghai as a resort place and it is nicknamed “the city of eternal spring”.

This is the city of eternal spring, with an incredible outdoor life and great opportunities for urban photography. There is so much more in the Kunming guide - how to access and photograph it

Duoyishu and the rice fields

The Yuanyang province is an agricultural region known for its crops of rice fields. Perched between 1400 and 2000 meters, many generations of the Hani minority have sculpted the fields relief to implement the own special irrigation technique.

The Duoyishu village is an extraordinary example of this kind of farming that has now become an amazing tourist place. Today, most the local farmers have a guest house and the rice plantation is no longer their principal income. There are many guest houses in front of the rice fields and these are the best places to stay during your photography trip. From here you can wander around and discover your unique photography spots.

Read more on the Duoyishu guide – how to access and photograph it...

Luoping and the yellow sea

Luoping is a small county of Buyi minority in Yunnan, located about 230 kilometers east of Kunming city. It has become a Mecca for photographers, who flock to capture the magnificent “yellow sea” during the spring-blooming (February to March) of the rapeseed flowers.

From Luoping organise a half day trip to the Jiulong Waterfalls, listed as one of China’s biggest and most beautiful waterfalls. Entrance is around 60 RMB. Make the trip in the early morning, or sunrise, to shoot the best photos

On a pleasant walk upstream, you can discover half a dozen waterfalls on Duoyi river. Walk your way up in the hills and, if you are lucky with the fog, you will be in the best place for a fantastic picture.

Read more on the yellow sea, the local markets, and the best sport for your photography...

The Old Town of Dali and the the Erhai lake

Located in western Yunnan, between the Erhai lake and the Cangshan Mountains, Dali Old Town is a must see destination. It is an ideal place for a few days break; you can tour the historic buildings, you can wander around the artisan markets (popular with tourists), you can venture in the many small lanes of the city and of course you can explore the surrounding area.

Dali Old Town is situated on the edge of the Erhai lake, an important economy source for the Bai minority, specialised in cormorant fishing, and for the irrigation of the local farming industry. You can easily rent a bike and plan a 2-day cycling around the lake (100-120km) or alternatively an comfortable ride to the Tianjingge scenic area (50km) where you can come back by boat.

This is such an interesting area to visit and expand your knowledge of the Yunnan culture where...

Shaxi, one of the most preserved towns in China

Why going to Shaxi? Because it is one of the most preserved towns in China, still commercialising the Yunnan tea and trading in Tibetan horses. You add the cobble stones still in use in most of the lanes and you get a picture of this awesome area not to be missed. Do you need to find more reasons? Shaxi was part of the formal Silk Road, a network of trade and cultural exchange that connected the east to the west for almost 2000 years till the 15th century.  When you walk in the little street and you close your eyes you can almost be transported back to Silk era.

Don’t go to Shaxi without visiting Shibaoshan, or Mountain of Stone Bell. You can reach the area either by foot or by car. The easiest way is to go by car/taxi, it is a comfortable 40 minutes drive. However if you are an active person try the 1h30 hike from the village of Shaxi, you may be joined by few monkeys along the route :)

Read more on the Shaxi and Shibaoshan guide – how to access and photograph it...

Ancient China?

Visit Lijiang Old Town and Baisha

Lijiang is situated 150km north of Dali and it is the former capital of the Naxi kingdom, one of the China’s minority ethnic groups. The history goes back to the Warring State Period, over 2000 years ago. The geographical position of Lijiang played an important role in the own development. It was right in the middle of the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, the most important trading route from Tibet to Yunnan and the Eastern China.

Similarly to many European cities, the Old Town of Lijiang is still the epicentre of the local life, with the new modern part of the city built around the old town. A remarkable example of how old and new can live together.

Here is the Yunnan secret tip you were waiting for: Take a short bus trip of just 8km and go to Baisha, the first capital of the former Naxi Kingdom. What you will find? An authentic village!

Read more about these two gems including a map of must seen place to visit...

Tiger Leaping Gorge, the trekking destination in Yunnan

What is the deepest river canyon in the world? Everybody would probably mention the Grand Canyon in US but only few would think about a place in Yunnan, China, called Tiger Leaping Gorge which has indeed this record, with a canyon as deep as 2000 metres and even more in few points.

Is there anything more astonishing than the sight of two long mountain chains, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains and the Haba Mountains, separated by the 16km long Tiger Leaping Gorge? Well, nature is able to organise some real amazing spectacles and the Tiger Leaping Gorge is for sure one you should put into your personal list of top sites to visit before you retire from travelling (will it ever happen?).

Start your hiking in the village of Qiaotou. You will here realize how remote is the area. The information center, a grand name for the ticket booth, will provide beside the gorge pass also an old hipster style map, hand drawn! The full hike will take two days with an half way stop over in one of the few hostels along the mountain trail located on the higher side of the gorge where you will experience a magnificent view for literally 48 hours. Hard to get used to it.

How to access to this gorge? Read more on the Tiger Leaping Gorge guide...

1500 km through the Yunnan top destinations

It has been a long trip in Yunnan, a trip that took us to so many interesting places!

Would I suggest to visit the Yunnan region?

Most definitely, and guess what? The sooner the better. Tourism has already changed the local life however walk away from the designated path and you will find some real gems.

Travel Photography Tips

  • go to Kunming in winter (from October to April) if you love bird life and bird photography; you will be rewarded with the fantastic show that is the migration of thousands of black-headed gulls from Siberia to here
  • wonder around the construction sites. Many possibilities to document the local life of many Chinese builders in these years of huge economy expansion
  • the photography market : if you are in Kunming and you need photographic and/or computer equipment, go to the Electronic Plaza in Yuantong road, which has all that exists. In China, there is a million photographic lovers (Don’t talk to me selfie!) It’s a really huge business and sometimes you will be jostling in a spot…
  • remember the most important question for any photographer : Wǒ kěyǐ ba pāizhào? Can I take a picture of you?
  • Remember: the marked price is an indication, everything in China can be negotiated, especially if you are a foreigner.
    I want …: “Wǒ yào… “- too expensive! : “Tài guì le!” –
  • when you travel in the region and you need to buy a ticket, remember this basic sentence – I want to go … : “Wǒ yào qù …” – and the finger on the map ;)
  • the Yunnan region is well served by plane or by bus/train, as a cheaper alternative. There are several bus stations, based on the geographical direction of your destination. Take a sleeper wagon for a comfortable overnight trip or choose just a seat for a real matchless experience.
  • stay with the farmers; you will help the locals and not the big touristy companies. You will be able to wander around the fields with your camera. Great experience
  • walk around the markets to shoot the locals and the market life. The people here are very friendly and welcoming
  • don’t forget warm clothing because the weather can change quickly, especially in the mountains, and you don’t want to freeze when out for sunrise photography!
  • venture through the small lanes of the old towns, you can make some photos of the Chinese life back in the old days
  • visit the village after sunset for some night photography. The light in the street will give a fairy-tail turn to your photos
  • there are many minority festivals in this area. Check with your host on what is happening around. This is the best way to experience a culture. But beware, the Chinese use the lunar calendar!
  • plan some portraits of the local minorities

In this Travel Itinerary we talked about...

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Remi Lesueur
I love the light, travel and the idea that our steps that creates the way. I don't like vacuum cleaners, be catching cold and cooked chicory. I try to make photos like telling a story. A plot of contrasts with the colourful words, moving characters and a smile for the end.