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Yunnan Province, China: Insider’s Guide

Mei Zhang | October 31, 2014

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for China: Mei Zhang of WildChina.

Trusted Travel Expert
Mei Zhang

Sharing her homeland’s hidden gems has been Mei Zhang’s lifelong passion, interrupted only by the years she spent earning her Harvard MBA and working for McKinsey. No matter the occasion—family trip or fiftieth-birthday celebration—Mei can filter the seemingly endless options for clients to craft the experience that’s just right for them. A Beijing resident who grew up in Yunnan Province and has particular knowledge of Guizhou and Szechuan provinces too, she has close relationships with hotel and restaurant owners and makes sure that her clients get the red-carpet treatment. Her guides and drivers are the best in the business, opening the doors to authentic Chinese culture and steering travelers away from the crowds, the expected, and all things touristy. Mei was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.

Travel arrangements start at $800 per day for two travelers.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Windoo, a small lakeside lodge in Dali. The staff’s English could perhaps be better, but the hotel’s location, smack on the lake, makes up for any linguistic shortcomings. The rooms are warm and elegant and all have spectacular views of Dali’s Erhai Lake. There are only two suites, and I can always get my clients into one of them. It’s a real treat to watch the sunrise from your own bed!

Restaurant the locals love
Most restaurants in Yunnan are small family-run affairs with unrecognizable names that don’t translate from Chinese, but a very good place to graze is Weishan’s Old Town, known for its snack foods, such as steamed rice buns and sweet pancakes. You can’t go wrong simply walking down its pedestrian street and sampling the wares at any food stand. Be sure to try the stand that offers One String Noodle. It is only open in the mornings, as they always sell out by noon.

Meal worth the splurge
Dali’s Longxingyuan Restaurant serves the very best local specialties, including steamed ham, rice noodle salad, and mushrooms cooked any style. It won’t break the bank, costing $50 to $80 per person if you order enough for everyone to be happily stuffed. Everything on the menu is worth trying.

Must-have dishes
Niugan mushrooms fried with dried chili. Locals have been harvesting this wild mushroom from the mountainsides for centuries. The flavor is strong, like truffles, and the chili makes it unmistakably Yunnan style.

Small wok cooked rice noodle (小锅米线) is a very simple and scrumptious noodle soup that’s cooked over an open fire and flavored with pickles, chives, and minced pork. It will cost you about a dollar, but for such flavor you’d gladly pay many times that much.

What to See and Do

Don’t bother
Lijiang’s Old Town is quite beautiful at dawn with its cobblestoned streets and two-story wooden houses, but the whole town is overrun with tourists by 10 a.m., when the souvenir shops and bars are open and waiting for business. Yes, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, but skip it if you can’t see it first thing in the morning.

Market shopping, Yunnan, China

Market shopping in Yunnan Province. Photo by Mei Zhang.

Don’t miss
Dali. On the surface, people mistake it for a lesser Lijiang, complete with tourists and shops, but Dali—traditionally the capital of Dali Kingdom—has a beautiful soul, and the local Bai communities have managed to maintain their lifestyle in spite of the tourists. Dali has attracted a growing group of China’s urban elite, who have created a vibrant art and architecture scene here.

Hidden gems
Jianchuan Shibaoshan Grotto, in Dali, documents the history of the Dali Kingdom, which followed the Tang Dynasty. Though as important as the famed Dunhuang Grottoes along the Silk Road, it is little known and therefore little visited.

Dimaluo, in Gongshan, is a little-known community of Catholic Tibetans living in a remote village in the mountains. The setting is absolutely beautiful, and the area is full of lovely lakes and hiking trails.

Cheap thrill
The Impression Lijiang show is a live spectacle of music and dancing highlighting local cultures and performed in an outdoor park set against spectacular alpine scenery. The show features hundreds of performers in colorful costumes and was created by the famed movie director Zhang Yimou, who also directed the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony (getting the picture?). It’s performed daily. Tickets are about $30, which is very inexpensive for a show the likes of which you’ve never seen and are sure to never forget.

Bragging rights
Only a small part of Gaoligong Mountains National Park is open to the public. There is a beautiful ten-mile hiking trail that is reserved for park rangers and requires a special permit for anyone else to access. We can arrange for travelers to overnight at the simple ranger station at the trailhead and then head out with a local ornithologist or botanist to see the extraordinary species of plants and birds the next day.

Dali has attracted some of China’s leading artists, filmmakers, dancers, and photographers. For travelers who are interested in learning more about the arts in China, we can arrange a private visit to the home of one of these national cultural icons or even dinner with one of them overlooking beautiful Erhai Lake.

Take a leisurely bike ride to the market in Dali to buy some fresh wildflowers and a clay pot in which to arrange them. Back at the hotel, spend time reading—perhaps a book about the explorer and botanist Joseph Rock—while sipping freshly made green tea. Later in the day, ride your bike 15 minutes to the home of a Bai villager to learn to cook a mushroom or stir-fry dish, followed by dinner with the family. Finish the day with a soak in a hot spring or massage in a spa.

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Best Times to Go

There’s something good to be said for every season in Yunnan: From February to June, spring arrives early and in waves of cherry blossoms, rhododendrons, and wildflowers everywhere. July and August can be rainy, but this is the best time to escape the heat that sweeps China at this time. And there’s another silver lining: The rain brings wild mushrooms of every variety, but most notably the prized matsutake. Served stir-fried, deep-fried, or au naturel, they’re delicious! October ushers in crisp blue skies and fall colors, making the high mountains all the more striking. In January, verdant, tropical Xishuangbanna, which borders Myanmar and Vietnam, cools to the delightful mid 70s. Its terraced rice paddies are flooded in preparation for planting, making a photographer’s fantasy come true.

Worst Times to Go

Avoid Chinese golden week, October 1–7, and Chinese New Year (which moves by the lunar calendar). During these times, the old towns of Lijiang and Dali are jam-packed with Chinese tourists.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Rushing through the province as part of a grand tour of China. Yunnan connects the rest of China with Tibet to the northwest, Myanmar to the west, and Laos and Vietnam to the south. It is home to 25 different ethnic groups, and its diverse topography ranges from the tropical south to the northern glacier-covered peaks, less than a 40-minute flight away. If you spend only two weeks in Southeast Asia, give at least one of them to Yunnan.

Scam Alert

Yunnan borders Myanmar, so Burmese jade shops are everywhere. But unless you are a jade expert, chances are high that you’ll be overpaying for a piece of stone.

Tipping Tip

There is no need to tip in restaurants or bars. Tipping in general is not part of the culture. However, tipping is expected in five-star hotels and with guides and drivers who speak English. A gratuity of $25 per day for the guide or $15 per day for the driver is standard.

Airport Intel

There are many local airports in Yunnan, but all flights stop in Kunming, the capital city. The new Kunming airport is the nation’s third largest, so allow plenty of time to transfer, as you often need to pick up and recheck your luggage when taking a connecting flight.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Sunblock and Diamox. Most parts of Yunnan are about 3,000 feet above sea level, where sun can be brutal during the day. Anyone venturing into the Tibetan part of Yunnan (Shangri-La, for example), should travel with Diamox, in case of altitude sickness.

Perfect Souvenir

A bamboo basket. Yunnan locals use these when shopping for vegetables, and they’re sold in all the markets. There are different styles by different ethnic groups. The only problem is that they’re fairly large and can be a hassle to carry home. Some women carry them on the plane in place of a purse; if you buy two or three you can have them boxed and check them.

Instagram Moment

At the first bend of the Yangtze, near Lijiang, where the river curves north, there’s a perfect vista of charming villages dotted along beautiful mountainsides. Classic China!

Cangshan Mountain is glorious when photographed from the lakeside in Dali, with the mountain chain encircling the Old Town and a vast carpet of cultivated fields in the foreground.

There are great portrait ops all over Yunnan, of ladies from different ethnic groups—Tibetan, Yi, Naxi, etc.,—in their native dress and with big smiles spread across their faces.


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