Lightfoot Travel has just come back from a truly eye-opening trip through southwest China’s Yunnan Province, and we can’t wait to share our experiences, excursions and wonderful hotel finds!
First stop on any Yunnan tour is the historic old town of Lijiang, filled with cobbled streets, shingled roofs, sizzling street food, and stalls overflowing with brightly woven scarves and tapestries. Unfortunately a lot of the time it’s also filled with other (noisy) tourists. However, get there early in the morning or the middle of the day if you can stand the heat (most tourists shun the sun), and you’ll find it far less busy. Spend the afternoon visiting Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, where you can take the cable car up to three different scenic spots – we recommend either of the top two as most opt for the easiest lower spot. Our top pick for accommodation is hands down The Banyan Tree Lijiang. The view from the main entrance is truly iconic – a pagoda set against the mighty snow covered mountain, seen through a beautiful archway. The grounds are vast, villas spacious (make sure to get one with a hot tub!), and dining options superb. We spent a lovely afternoon sitting on the grass by the pagoda with a glass of wine, watching the light change against the mountain as the sun sets.
Next on any Yunnan traveller’s itinerary needs to be the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is a contender for world’s deepest river canyon. Despite having a lot of hype to live up to, we were duly impressed. The gorge is 20 kilometres-long, and as you walk along the precipitous path and look across at the mighty Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range, you really realise what all the fuss is about. We spent the night at Halfway Guest House, which is simple, clean, and a great place to meet fellow hikers for a cup of tea on their Inspiration Terrace overlooking the gorge.
The fabled Shangri La is next on the Yunnan circuit, and should not be missed. A short 2-hour drive from Tiger Leaping Gorge, the scenery transforms into vast plains, Tibetan stupas, and fluttering prayer flags. Songtsam Retreat is a stunning boutique hotel at an elevation of 3,380 metres, overlooking the Shangri La hills and the Songzanlin Monastery – the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnnan. The rooms and suites are fitted out with beautiful Tibetan furniture, big comfortable beds, and real fireplaces that staff will come light up for you on request. The property is set amongst fields where the neighbouring village’s livestock roam freely. At times the only sound that can be heard is the clanging of cowbells below – an absolutely lovely sound so unlike anything us city folk are used to! Songtsam’s bar is warm and cosy for a pre-dinner drink, the Tibetan restaurant serves delicious local dishes, and the spa is open till 9.30pm for those wanting a post-dinner massage. We recommend waking at dawn, walking the short trail to Songzanlin, and circling the monastery walls with some of the monks that reside within.
Last on this journey is a spot up near the Meili Mountain Range. Six hours by car from Shangri La, and right next to the Tibetan border, we chose the adorable Songtsam Meili. The Meili area is ideal for hikers and those looking to really get lost in the mountains. The ranges you pass on the narrow, winding road to Meli are huge, spectacular, and this remote region is far from what most think of when imagining bustling China. From the Songtsam lodge you can visit local villages, trek the nearby mountain trails (slowly but surely as the altitude can really get to you!), or just relax on the terrace with a glass of locally produced Shangri La wine and take in the breathtaking scenery. An unexpected surprise at Songtsam was the evening “party” where staff and guests sing and dance. It sounds cheesy and we were reluctant to join in, but one awkward rendition of “Yellow Submarine” later, it quickly transformed into one of our most memorable nights!
Temperatures are warming up and for Shangri La in particular, the best time to go is mid-May to July when the fields are brilliant green and full of flowers. Our guide told us that Autumn is also exceptionally beautiful. While Yunnan may not be on your radar just yet, we can’t recommend this region enough and highly recommend it for those who love mountains and hiking, tasting a range of varied cuisines, experiencing Tibetan culture, and participating in random impromptu song and dance parties in the lobby of your gorgeous boutique hotel.