Yunnan is about to become China’s number one destination for domestic and foreign travellers. Home to half of China’s ethnic minorities, this province in southwest China is cultural corridor. With landscapes ranging from high-mountains in the north to remnants of rain forests in the south, it is also a reservoir of biodiversity.
With an expanding network of highways, train lines and airports (there are direct flights from the capital to Zhongdian, Lijiang, Dali, Tengchong, Mangshi, Baoshan, Lincang and Jinghong where the a bigger airport is now complete), tourism is intensifying and getting around has never been easier.
I have skipped the well-known travel destinations of Western Yunnan’s backpackers’ trail, namely Lijiang, Dali and Shangrila to give you a list of ten easily accessible villages. Some are definitely off-the-beaten path, others have been recently been put on the map of both domestic and foreign travelers and are about to change dramatically.
1. Cizhong 茨中
Located deep in the Mekong valley between Deqin and Weixi in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous County, the village of Cizhong is located on a plateau surrounded by steeped mountains. Cizhong, which is actually a cluster of hamlets home to ethnic Lisu and Tibetan people, is home to a well-preserved Catholic church. The structure re-built by French missionaries in 1911 following anti-Christian violence, was transformed into a school during the Cultural Revolution, and was thus spared from destruction.
The locals, Tibetan- speaking Lisu ethnic people, will welcome you in their guesthouses. In the evening, you will be able to enjoy their home-brewed red wine. It’s the perfect departure point to a hike to the Christian villages of the Salween valley. Hike south towards the village of Badong and visit the two other churches of Cigu and Kaiduka.
How to get there : from Lijiang, take a bus to Weixi (3 hours) and change to a Deqin-bound bus (6 hours). The driver will drop you off at the Cizhong Bridge, a couple of kilometers from the village.
More info and full story : Cizhong, a Catholic church in Buddhist land
2. Shaxi 沙溪
Shaxi (沙溪) is an ancient trading post on the old Tea and Horse road (茶马古道) that linked Yunnan to Tibet and South-East Asia. The heart of this small village just south of Lijiang was recently restored and is the epicentre of sustainable travel in the region. A walk in the cobble-stone streets around the ancient market place dominated by the theater feels like a warp in time.
Most visitors come on a day trip from Lijiang. It’s definitely worth staying overnight in one of the multiple guesthouses and see the place without the tourists. Most travelers head to Shaxi for the colorful Friday market, remnant of the old Tea and Horse road (茶马古道).
How to get there : from Dali or Lijiang, take a bus to Jianchuan where you change to the green mini-buses which leave once they’re full.
More info and full story : The tale of Shaxi: from the Tea and Horse road to the development of tourism
3. Weishan 巍山
Weishan was the capital of Nanzhao Kingdom and became an important stop on the old Tea and Horse road (茶马古道) during the Ming and Qing dynasties. While commercialization brought by tourism is palpable in the unique pedestrian cobble-stone street that constitutes the historical core of Weishan, the town, with its ancient building has retained a feel of authenticity.
The historical core of Weishan consists of a pedestrian street that stretches from the Gongcheng Gate built in 1380 through the Xingcheng tower and to the vestiges of the south gate where will visitors will see freshly cut noodles hanging and drying in the streets.
Weishan is a base to visit the nearby sacred Mount Weibao, dotted with two dozens of ancient Taoist temples. (See my article about Weibaoshan)
How to get there : there is a bus every 10 to 15 minutes from Xiaguan southwest bus station to Weishan and the journey lasts 45 minutes. From Weishan bus station, a rickshaw costs 5 RMB to the ancient town.
4. Donglianhua 东莲花
Between Dali and Weishan, Donglianhua is part of a cluster of Muslim villages which were founded in the 13th century when the Mongols (who just invaded China and created the Yuan dynasty) dispatched soldiers from Central Asia in this part of Yunnan.
Later, the descendants of these soldiers married local women and became involved in trade on the old Tea and Horse road (茶马古道). The village of Donglianhua is famous for its Ming style mosque and for its massive courtyards houses that used to belong to wealthy merchants and caravan leaders.
How to get there : From Weishan, take a mini-van from the bus station to Yongjian (永建). In Yongjian, change to a horse carriage (5 RMB) to Donglianhua.
More info and full story : Donglianhua, the village of the Muslim caravan leaders
5. Yunnanyi 云南驿
Yunnanyi is a lesser-known village and ancient trade post on the old Tea and Horse road (茶马古道). The village is home to Yunnan’s most well-preserved inns where caravan leaders stopped overnight. Few people know that during WWII, the fields south of the village were transformed into a military airfield. A museum in the village tells the story of the US soldiers who flew from British India over the Himalayas (to avoid Japanese-controlled airspace) and who landed in Yunnanyi to supply the Chinese armies with material for their counter-attack against Japanese.
The village is small, boasts well-preserved ancient architecture and is untouched by tourism.
How to get there : take a bus from Xiaguan Southwest bus station to Xiangyun (there is a bus every 10 min) and then change to a local green mini-van. Tell the driver you want to stop at Yunnanyi.
More info and full story : Stepping in Yunnan’s history in Yunnanyi
6. Xizhou 喜州
Situated near the banks of the Erhai Lake (洱海) Xizhou flourished during the 1800s and 1900s when families of local merchants successfully tapped into the trade opportunities brought by the old Tea and Horse road (茶马古道). Ideally located near the foreign backpacker’s haven of Dali, Xizhou is not overrun by tourists, and features good example of traditional Bai architecture.
How to get there : Xizhou is just 20 km north of Dali old town. From Dali you can either take a bus, hire a car or a rent a bike to explore Xizhou.
More info and full story : Outside Dali, exploring Xizhou’s Bai architecture
7. Jianshui 建水
Jianshui is an increasingly popular stop on the road to the Hani rice terraces of Yuanyang or Vietnam-bound travellers via the border town of Hekou. In the heart of the busy town lays an unsuspected and remarkably well-preserved old town which flourished during the Ming dynasty as a regional center where scholars prepared the imperial examination.
The main highlights of Jianshui are the Zhu Family Garden (a maze of courtyards and garden in the heart of the city), the Confucius temple which is one of the largest in China, the Chaoyang Gate (which looks like the Tian’an Men Gate) and a walk through the ancient town dotted with many water wells still being used by locals.
A visit to Jianshui is not complete without a trip to the Double-dragon bridge.
How to get there : Jianshui is connected to Kunming south bus station. Buses run every 15 to 30 minutes and the journey takes about 3.5 to 4 hours.
More info and full story : 7 things to do in Jianshui
8. Tuanshan 团山
Just 20 kilometres west of Jianshui (建水), the history of Tuanshan (团山) is embedded in local history. Four-hundred years ago, a Chinese merchant involved in mining (the region is rich in tin and copper) fell in love with the village of Tuanshan, nested in the middle of green hills and surrounded by fertile red soil. Other Chinese families joined him and the cobble-stone streets are lined with ancient mansions (some more luxurious than others) and gardens. Although there is a 50 RMB entrance fee, it is still off-the-radar to many tourists.
How to get there : in Jianshui, hire a yellow mini-van in front of the KFC. The driver should charge you around 200 RMB for a round-trip and he will wait for you. On the way to Tuanshan, stop at the Double-Dragon Bridge (Shuanglong Qiao) a seventeen-span bridge claimed as a marvel of ancient Chinese architecture.
More info and full story : Tuanshan, a piece of Ming history in Yunnan
9. Heshun 和顺
The once quiet village of Heshun near Tengchong in western Yunnan is attracting a growing number of Chinese tourists . There is now 80 RMB entrance fee (which will increase in the coming years) and a plethora of guesthouses and jade stores.
Closer to Mandalay in Burma than Kunming, Heshun was once on the Jade Road and the Tea and Horse road which linked Yunnan to Burma and other Southeast Asian countries. Many Heshun natives left on these trade routes and the village is nicknamed the ‘Hometown of Overseas Chinese’. The most visited landmark is the Heshun library, a unique structure in rural China which shows how important education was to locals. Some locals have opened their courtyard mansions to tourists. Walking in the streets, you will find adobe mansions which still defy time, but not for long.
How to get there : From Xiaguan, take a bus to Tengchong (6 hours). Heshun is just 5 km away. There are many guest houses in Heshun and more comfortable in Tengchong.
More info and full story : The ancient village of Heshun, a traveler’s guide
10. Lushi 鲁史
By now you’ll have noticed that many of the villages in this list were on the old Tea and Horse road (茶马古道) and Lushi is no exception. Tea grown locally found their way to Dali were it was transformed into the famous Tuo tea or Tuocha (沱茶) and then redistributed throughout Yunnan and Tibet.
Built on a gentle slope and surrounded by mountains, the cobble-stone streets that criss-cross Lushi have been polished by the passage of horse caravans. In between the adobe and wood houses (some of which are more than 300 years old) there is an impressive view on a scaffolding of tiled gabled roofs and the mountains.
How to get there : from Xiaguan take a bus to Fengqing (5 hours). It’s another 3 hours to Lushi on a windy mountain road. Buses leave in the morning only. There are basic accommodations in the new part of Lushi.
More info and full story : On the road less traveled in Yunnan, the ancient village of Lushi