A Week in Yunnan Province, China

I’ve traveled a lot in China, but one place I always wanted to see and never made it to was the Stone Forest near Kunming. My wife, on the other hand, has always wanted to visit Lijiang to the northwest of Kunming. So we turned this into more of a “Yunnan province” trip to see both of our wishes and then some.

The last time I traveled in China was in 2012, though. Things have changed quite a bit since then, as far as being a tourist goes. In theory, it should be much more convenient now to travel, but in practice, there are a lot of hoops for foreigners to jump through. Alipay, for instance, was a bit of a pain to set up and occasionally didn’t work for certain vendors. And booking things sometimes required a Chinese citizen with a national ID number to make the reservation. So if you’re planning to travel in China, do your research first! Such logistics are their own blog post, and I only want to use this time to talk about the travel itself.

Day 1: The Stone Forest

We actually arrived in Kunming the night before, but it was too late to do anything. For our first full day in Kunming, we skipped the city altogether and went straight to the Stone Forest (aka, Shilin). For as much as I had hyped it up in my mind, I was still pleasantly surprised. People generally spend about 2-3 hours there, but we were there for five, and I could have kept going if we weren’t dragging my wife’s parents along with us!

The Stone Forest is split up into “major” and “minor” scenic areas, and the major area has a lot of interconnected trails that you can easily get lost in. Most tour groups don’t venture very far into these trails, so it’s a great way to experience the Stone Forest away from the crowds. At the very least, I recommend seeking out Sword Peak Pond and Peak View Pavilion. The latter has the best view of the whole park:

An eye-level view of the Stone Forest's gray limestone formations

Day 2: Kunming

There wasn’t anything specific I wanted to see in Kunming itself, so the events of this day were kinda thrown together at the last minute. Kunming is famous for its flower markets, though, so we stopped by the Dounan Flower Market first. It’s fun to see, if you’re into bouquets, bonsai plants, and/or succulents.

Next, we booked it up the nearby West Hill mountain (aka, Xishan) to see the Dragon Gate grotto:

A pathway and Chinese gate built into the side of a mountain

Xishan is arguably a full day excursion, so we did not do it justice by rushing things and only seeing the Dragon Gate, even if the Dragon Gate is the most popular landmark there.

Lastly, we explored the inner city a little more and visited the Jinma Biji Archway and the East and West Pagodas that face each other across a walking street:

A tall, yellow pagoda glows in the sunset

I was also interested in seeing Yuantong Temple, but we did not have time and would have needed to cut Xishan to make it before closing. In retrospect, we could have spent another day in Kunming. It would have given us a chance to also see the nearby Dongchuan Red Land.

Day 3: Lijiang

We took the train from Kunming to Lijiang, which is about a four hour ride. Lijiang has three “old towns,” and we stayed in the one called Shuhe. It’s known for being the quieter and more peaceful one. We arrived early enough in the afternoon to spend the rest of the day exploring the streets of Shuhe:

A bridge connects two neighborhoods of the old town

There’s at least one shop on every street selling Yunnan flower cakes, so make sure you try some!

Day 4: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Lijiang’s old towns are cute, but it’s the proximity to other attractions that makes it such a popular destination. For instance, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (aka, Yulong Xueshan) is only an hour’s drive away. This national park is basically China’s miniature version of Switzerland with hints of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong (from my Top 10 list).

The national park consists of four main scenic areas, and you probably only have time to see 2-3 of them in a day. We tried to do three, which was maybe a mistake, as it really limited how much time we could spend in the central Blue Moon Valley area. This is where all of the beautiful blue and green lakes are, and it would have been nice to have time to walk the full length of it:

Looking down at a turquoise colored lake

The other two areas we visited were Spruce Meadow and Yak Meadow, both of which offer similar views of the snow-capped mountains. If the yaks are in town, I’d say go for Yak Meadow over Spruce Meadow. Unfortunately, we were there too early in the season for the yaks, and so I found Spruce Meadow to be the more pleasant walk:

Snow-capped mountains tower over a small meadow

Overall, I enjoyed this day a lot, maybe even more than the Stone Forest, even though the scenery here wasn’t necessarily anything I hadn’t seen before.

Day 5: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Another popular day trip from Lijiang is the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This one’s a bit farther away, though, and unless you plan to do the two-day hike (yes, two days!), you’ll only spend 1-2 hours there. So I’m not sure I would recommend it, to be honest. But don’t get me wrong, the canyon is still neat:

Steep canyon walls meet at a river below

If you come earlier in the year, the water is supposedly a prettier color, and if you come later in the year, the water is more “active.” So we might have just picked a bad time. Ultimately, we would have preferred spending the whole day in Lijiang. We did at least return with enough time in the day to explore the main old town of Lijiang:

Water wheels sit at the entrance of the old town

This one was definitely more scenic than Shuhe, but it was also very commercialized. The shops were much more in your face. But if you’ve traveled at all in China before, then you know that’s par for the course.

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  1. China makes a wonderful vacation destination. There are sooo many amazing things to see, both natural and manmade.

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