The Yunnan Overland Backpacker Trail

Prayer flags in Shangri La

I was just sorting through some old travel photos after finally gaining access to the hard drive from my broken old laptop, and realised I’d never posted about the Yunnan backpacker trail in Southwest China. The basic route goes from the sprawling provincial capital Kunming up to the ancient lakeside town of Dali, the ancient mountain town of Lijiang, breathtaking Tiger Leaping Gorge, and the Tibetan town of Deqen (aka Shangri La as explained here) on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

From Shangri La you can go no further along the road to Tibet Autonomous Prefecture, so most then backtrack though it is also possible to travel between Shangri La and Chengdu via a multi-day bus trip through the Tibetan prefectures of western Sichuan Province without entering TAR (see here for great pictures & description of that route).

When I did it I came from Chengdu and used this useful backdoor route of a night train out of Chengdu then morning bus from Panzihua (in southern Sichuan) directly up to Lijiang. This saves the long backtrack from Shangri La to Kunming later on, as by starting at Lijiang you can then go up to the gorge and Shangri La before heading back down to Dali and Kunming. It’s also one of the more scenic bus rides I’ve done, climbing from Panzhihua at 1000m up to Lijiang at 2400m up some terrific mountain roads – not a good route option if you suffer motion sickness though. Lots of puking in bags going on. The bullet train network has since connected Chengdu to Kunming, and in fact now reaches all the way to Dali, so it’d be fastest these days (though of course way more expensive) just to take the bullet train from Chengdu to Dali and start from there.


Lijiang old town Lijiang old town Lijiang old town Lijiang old town Lijiang old town

Lijiang didn’t really blow me away to be honest – the architecture’s lovely and it’s surrounded by nice scenery, but it really does feel like a mega tourist trap with hordes of (largely domestic) visitors crowding its narrow lanes. However, I had a great time there – I stayed at Mama Naxi Guesthouse which had a good sociable atmosphere, and there I got talking with a few others getting a group together for Tiger Leaping Gorge. We were a German family of 3, a Dutch mother & daughter, a German guy, and myself, and we ended up hiring vans & drivers to take us right through the gorge and on to Shangri La along the back route via Baishuitai, a series of calcified limestone pools cascading down the mountainside.

Tiger Leaping Gorge:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Tiger Leaping Gorge Tiger Leaping Gorge Tiger Leaping Gorge

The road isn’t for the faint of heart:

Dramatic road in Tiger Leaping Gorge Tiger Leaping Gorge Tiger Leaping Gorge

There’d recently been a series of landslides in the gorge, including a massive one which knocked out the road, so the usual itineraries were off. Our de facto leader was Peer, the German father, a seasoned explorer with multiple impressive kayaking, biking, and climbing feats under his belt (I mean genuinely impressive Himalayan expedition stuff), who’d travelled the region before, and he’d arranged through the guesthouse for one van to take us as far as the landslide, and another to pick us up on the other side after we’d crossed it on foot.

It wasn’t the first time I’d crossed a landslide on foot while carrying all my stuff – see this crazy journey in Laos for that – but this one was way bigger, the walk across way more exposed, the drop far more precipitous. A decent path had already been cut across it though (which was being used to ferry loads back and forth between vehicles on either side), so at least it was quite firm underfoot (though you knew it could all just slide again at any moment):

Massive landslide in Tiger Leaping Gorge Massive landslide in Tiger Leaping Gorge Massive landslide in Tiger Leaping Gorge Workers preparing to carry supplies across the landslide in Tiger Leaping Gorge Tiger Leaping Gorge

So we carefully crossed one by one, which was certainly a tad nerve-wracking, and rendezvoused with our second driver on the other side.

The main (multiday) hiking trail through the gorge was closed at the time due to the landslides, but we stopped at Tina’s Guesthouse for lunch and did the short, steep hike from there down to the raging river below (Tina’s is commonly used as start/finish points for treks in the gorge, baggage forwarding services etc, and I think they’d actually sorted the second vehicle for us). The hike down was sweaty work, but it was well worth the effort – the river really was raging following the torrential rains that’d caused the landslides, and while it was probably not the smartest thing to do it was a real rush taking a few pics from some rocks right above the roiling waters.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Down by the raging river in Tiger Leaping Gorge

I’m not much of a selfie-taker but this one makes me laugh – was trying (and totally failing) to look nonchalant while crapping myself at the millions of gallons of raging river roaring down behind!

Trying to relaxed in front of the raging river in Tiger Leaping Gorge Tiger Leaping Gorge

From there we drove on to Baishuitai before finally completing the final stretch to Shangri La in darkness, passing the time with riddles and word games. It was a long, long day, some 15 hours all in, but it really was a good one. We were all booked in at different accommodations, but met up again to explore Shangri La over the next couple of days, visiting Ganden Sumtsenling monastery, wandering the old town’s cobbled alleys, dancing in the square, sharing a Tibetan feast, and a couple of us wound up draped in flowers and line dancing in a Tibetan karaoke joint.


Rock pools at Baishuitai Rock pools and prayer flags at Baishuitai

Shangri La:

The monastery at Shangri La The monastery at Shangri La The monastery at Shangri La The monastery at Shangri La Pagoda on the hill above Shangri La Shangri La Shangri La The enormous prayer wheel in Shangri La The market in Shangri La Dancing in the central square in Shangri La

From there it was a fond farewell to the group and a bus down to Dali, for a couple of days chilling by the lake and checking out another lovely old town. There are some decent bars there too which I checked out with a Dutch guy (with whom I’d also share a rather eventful night out in Bangkok a few months later). I stayed at Jade Emu Guesthouse which I would definitely recommend (or neighbouring 5 Elements Hostel), and visit the Bad Monkey for a lively drinking hole with their own quality local craft beers.


Dali old town View from Dali city walls Statue in Dali old town

View of the lake from the university in Dali

View of the lake from the university campus near Dali’s old town

Street food in Dali

If you’re a westerner who has cheese cravings after being in China for a while, these local cheese stick snacks are an absolute treat

After Dali I made my way to Kunming for a few days to plan my route to Southeast Asia. While not a particularly exciting city, the altitude gives it a pleasant climate (it’s known as the City of Eternal Spring) and staying at Cloudland Hostel I met some more interesting characters to hang out with including an Italian photographer just back from the China-Myanmar border region where he’d taken some outstanding photos documenting the effects of the double-edged sword of development on the hill tribe communities there. That was the border I wanted to cross, but the Myanmar overland situation ruled it out (and still does for the China border) so I ended up going down to Xishuangbanna by bus and on to Laos & Thailand from there – for more on the routes from Yunnan to SE Asia see here.

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