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Welcome to the ancient cities of northern Yunnan, a very famous region that exposes the culture of the Bai minority closeby to Erhai Lake and Lijiang Naxi culture. We also discover Shaxi, an oasis on the old caravan tea-horse route. A revealing tour of three cities in three very distinct natural settings.
We head off to Dali which will take around 5 to 6 hours (excluding breaks) to travel the 360km journey. Dali is home to the Bai minority and was a stronghold of the kingdom of Nanzhao (738-902) and epicentre of the Dali Kingdom (937-1253). The region, notably the shores of the Erhai Lake (literally the Ear Shaped Lake), and the surrounding areas where bronze dating back to 1000 BC has been found, played a strategic role in Yunnan’s history. The Bai (who nowadays number less than 2 million) first settled in the region more than 3000 years ago and their first dwellings surrounded the lake. Following their victory against the Tang Empire in the 8th Century, they founded the Kingdom of Nanzhao, which you will have already heard mentioned throughout your trip. The Bai are most distinguishable by their clothing - predominantly white (from which the Bai take their name, “Bai” means white in Chinese) and by their homes, which are very particular to this region and you will be able to see example of these in Dali old town.
Dali marble is so well known and of such a high quality that, in Chinese, marble is literally translated as “Dali stone”. It is extracted from quarries in Mount Cangshan and exported in massive quantities to other countries throughout Asia.
Optional: You will have the option to visit a marble factory en route. The Chinese particularly appreciate the mountain, river and cloud like patterns which appear in marble when it is polished.
For a number of years Dali has been in the tourist spotlight and the number of visitors is growing every year. In order to avoid these crowds, therefore we have decided to stay in Shuanglang which lies on the western bank of Erhai Lake. This lakeside stay will add another theme to our trip which we haven’t yet come across as extensively, water! In fact, people from Yunnan often say that their province has everything but the sea, but with the 250km2 of lake on offer here, you could even say that Yunnan even has a little interior sea.
Optional: You will stay in a famous local artist’s house in the village. A number of other artists, especially from Kunming, have relocated to the village to enjoy its pleasant atmosphere including the famous choreographer Yang Liping who organises the show “Dynamic Yunnan”.
We will then travel by bike around Shuanglang. You will travel along the shores of the lake, discovering the daily life of the Bai fishermen set against the background of the impressive Cangshan Mountains. The pace of life for most local people hasn’t changed much in decades and you will get a real sense of the local culture that you won’t be able to find in Dali. In the same way as in Yuanyang region, local markets pass through here on a daily basis. If you are lucky you will be able to shop at the Shase market which takes place on every 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th of the month.
Optional: Depending on the weather you will be able to enjoy a barbeque in the evening and enjoy some of the fresh fish caught from the lake.
Departure for the old town of Dali, 2km to the south, where you can still find some typical Bai homes. A relaxed and warm atmosphere seems to ooze from these white walled homes, on which you can find paintings representing mountains, running water, birds and flowers. Their front porches, famous throughout the country, are distinguished by their beautifully carved arches.
We will set off for the Three Pagodas at the Chongsheng temple, situated around 40km/25 miles away on the other side of the lake (taking around 1.5 hours to circumnavigate). The temple is a mystical emblem of the town and stands proud at the foot of the Changshan Mountains. The Pagoda of the Thousand Awakenings was built in the ninth century and designed by an engineer from Chang'an (nowadays known as Xi'an) and is characterized by its square plan, similar to that of the Wild Goose Pagoda found in the ancient imperial capital, symbolising the influence the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the region. The three pagodas were part of a vast monastic centre which unfortunately was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake. The remaining temple was restored and transformed into a museum which you have the opportunity to visit if you wish to do so. The site is particularly impressive when the sun sets behind the mountains and illuminates the ochre colour of the pagodas.
We will eat lunch en route for Shaxi, which is 150km/90 miles southeast of the Mountain and which will take around 5 hours to reach depending on the traffic. We should arrive by the evening.
Shaxi is a traveller’s oasis that used to be a major stop on the Tea-Horse Road that ran through the region, forming a major part of its heritage and history. Less well known than the Silk Road, it still remains a key trade route between the most remote areas of Xishuangbanna (in the far south of Yunnan) known for its pu'er tea, Tibet and, by extension, Nepal, Laos, Burma and India where other goods are traded. It was during the Tang dynasty (618-907), when the Tibetan interest in tea grew rapidly, that the route become famous. Tibetans would trade their horses for this typical Chinese export on a complex, high-altitude trade route on which Shaxi became one of the major stops.
Nowadays Shaxi is a subtle blend of an oasis, a kind of western cowboy town, a backpackers’ haunt and a typical Chinese village that is unlike anything else in China. Ancient stables have been perfectly renovated and transformed into charming hotels, whilst traditional wooden homes have been changed into restaurants and cafés, where travellers can enjoy the relaxing ambience of the village and recharge their batteries. It's common in Shaxi to just sit on a bench all day, appreciating the peace and quiet, as village life slowly passes by.
Shaxi is typically the kind of place that you “relive” after your visit. You can enjoy a free morning here by exploring the maze of paved avenues that make up the heart of the old town, or equally by discovering the surrounding countryside that is notable for its okra earth that you also find, logically, in the houses in the village made of earth-bricks. Cross the bridge to the south and you will be in the heart of the local countryside, an ancient caravan route.
Optional: Additionally, you could visit the dramatic Three Terraced Pavilion, an extremely rare building in such a remote area. Whilst there, it is worth taking the opportunity to visit the nearby Buddhist Temple.
If you are lucky, your time in Shaxi will fall on a market day. Held every Friday, the market attracts many Bai and Yi peoples, the two major ethnic groups that populate the region. They often come down from remote corners of neighbouring mountains to exchange all types of food products and day-to-day necessities.
Shortly after lunch we will take you to Shibaoshan (literally ‘stone treasure mountain’), an impressive collection of temples, caves and stone sculptures, the most ancient of which date from the 9th century, and which detail the life of important figures from the Nanzhao kingdom (8th-9th century). You will also notice some religious effigies, such as the statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, or the renowned Stone Treasure, a striking black rock that symbolises the female genitalia that many women come to touch to improve their chances of conceiving a child.
The visit will also allow you to take a walk offering spectacular views of the surrounding valley and villages. But watch out! The area is home to monkeys who like to liberate passers-by of all of their snacks
After the walk we will return to Shaxi, where you will have a free evening.
Head to Lijiang which takes around 2h30 to 3 hours to travel the almost 100 km /60 mile journey. This magnificent labyrinth of traditional redwood and brick houses topped with grey slate roofs, canals, stone bridges and cobbled streets in 1999 was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Small interior courtyards are furnished with flowers and bushes to which the locals tend and that give this town its beautiful, and special, aroma. It’s a real paradise at the heart of Naxi culture. Originally coming from Tibet over 2000 years ago, the Naxi first lived as nomads in Sichuan before settling in Yunnan. There are around 300,000 Naxi People living in China, found mostly in Yunnan and Sichuan. They are most notable for their expertise in canal building which assures each home has running water, Lijiang being a perfect example, their literature, religion, and by their social organisation which is both “matrilocal” (whereby couples move in with the wife’s family) and “matrilineal” (where succession favours females over males).
The Dongba script is the keystone of the Naxi culture, supposed to be the only pictographic writing still in use in the world, and whose shamans (we are now on the fingers of the hand) are the guarantors. The Canon Dongba is a veritable encyclopaedia of over 1000 volumes that describe the Naxi mythology and deal with cosmology and astronomical treaties.
In Naxi culture, there is no marriage as sexual liberty takes precedence over formalised unions. Children, who do not know their fathers, are raised by their mothers, aunts and maternal uncles. Additionally the Naxi are split into 2 groups, including the Na (eastern branch) who live near the Lugu Lake and whose society still operates based around matriarchal clans.
We recommend an early rise to enjoy the peace and quiet of the early morning. Lijiang is also known as the “Big Inkpot” due to the network of canals which flow through the village resembling an inkpot that has been knocked over. Crossing over the labyrinth of alleyways you will arrive at the “Lion Hill” which offers you a fantastic view over the village below. At the top, there will be a chance for a quick coffee break on the terrace so you can relax after your ascent to the top.
Afterwards, we will visit the Mu Palace which is named after the Chinese Empire warlords who ruled from this magnificent residence in this region during the Mongol Dynasty (13th century). The palace is a vivid example of Ming and Qing architecture, based on the same style of architecture as the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Following the visit to the palace we will head to the edge of the old town where you will be able to enjoy the local market and get a feel for the ‘real’ Lijiang, where you will see locals still dressed in traditional clothing selling teas, vegetables, fruits and even daily tools in a very vibrant and animated atmosphere.
From here we will walk to the Black Dragon Pond Park in the north of the town which offers, on a clear day, a panoramic view of the famous Jade Dragon Mountain which you will visit the next day.
We will then head back to the vibrant heart of the old town.
Note: the pond is now dry, Yunnan Province is a victim of repeated drought in nearly two years
You will be free to enjoy the evening yourselves, wandering around the town as the night falls and red lanterns are placed outside people’s homes.
Note: This day will be spent entirely on foot, and as sometimes the cobbled streets can sometimes be slightly slippery we recommend wearing sturdy shoes. The order in which we visit the sites may be modified depending on the hotel in which we stay.
The trip up Jade Dragon Mountain, which stands majestically to the north of the city, will be the ‘mountainous’ stage of our stay in Lijiang. The mountain, also called Satseto in the Naxi language, takes its name from the God of War in the Dongba religion. The number of visitors to the site is rather high and so we will instead visit an area less well-known, but quieter and more rural, called the Yak Prairie. The view from here over here over the glacier is as equally as stunning as from the more popular destinations.
If you wish to climb to the highest point (5600m) at Ganzidou, please consult us for further advice.
Transfer to the airport and flight to your next destination.
Rates vary frequently. Please conatct us to get the best possible price based upon your travel period and specific touring needs.
Our services include:
Our services do not include:
Yunnan: Garden of Eden - Winter Package - 17 Days / 16 Nights
Hunan Province : National Park and Minority Villages - 8 Days / 7 Nights
Bangkok Protests – Update
New Tour: Northern Laos Revealed
New Tour | Two Great Walls in a Campervan