10 villages to explore in Yunnan … before they are crushed by modernization

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.

10 Villages in Yunnan-page-001


 1. Cizhong 茨中

Cizhong, Yunnan

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

The iconic Sideng Theatre in Shaxi.

The iconic Sideng Theatre in Shaxi.

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

The Xinggong Tower, built in 1390.

The Xinggong Tower, built in 1390.

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.

More info and full story : Untouched by timeWeishan


 4.  Donglianhua 东莲花

The watchtower of one of the Ma's courtyards.

The watchtower of one of the Ma’s courtyards.

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, YunnanYunnanyi 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

Traditional Bai architecture in Xizhou

Traditional Bai architecture in Xizhou

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

The main entrance to the Zhang Family Gardens in Jianshui, Yunnan

The main entrance to the Zhang Family Gardens in Jianshui, Yunnan

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

Tuanshan, Yunnan

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.

On your way to Tuanshan, do not miss the Yellow Dragon Temple and the Double Dragon Bridge.

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

Heshun, Yunnan

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.

You can choose to stay in Heshun or in the nearby town of Tengchong. In less than an hour you can get to Lianghe, home to what Chinese people call the ‘Dai Imperial Palace’.

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

The streets of Lushi

The streets of Lushi

Certainly the most off-the-beaten track destination of this list, Lushi, due to its location, feels untouched by time.

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

There are 39 comments

  1. Nathalie

    Awesome blog! I’ve stumbled upon it while researching my Yunnan trip. I would really love to go to Cizhong. Since it is quite a long journey, I assume one would need to stay overnight. Is it possible to find accommodation/a homestay upon arrival? Neither Ctrip nor the internet in general show any hotel nearby except for the pricey Songstam Lodge…

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Nathalie. Thank you! I’m glad you like my blog and hope you’ll find everything you need to prepare your trip in Yunnan. About Cizhong : yes, there are homestay accommodation on site. The village has gotten a lot of attention recently and locals have their guesthouses which are not listed anywhere on the internet. You can read my two articles about Cizhong here : https://travelcathay.com/tag/cizhong-mekong/
      Happy travels in Yunnan!

      1. theepowerofgood

        I live in Viet Nam – it is the same here. It comes with an extra kick in the face of the environment too. But you’d know something about that being in China.

      2. Gaetan

        I don’t if Vietnam qualifies as a ‘post-socialist’ country, but it seems that when it comes down to tourism and modernization, Vietnam and China have a lot in common.
        Did you go to the northern Vietnam and minority areas? Is ethnic tourism developing there like it is in China?

      3. theepowerofgood

        Socialism is alive and well in Viet Nam… *leans closer to the mic.
        Yes Viet Nam and China have much in common, though Viet Nam would be loath to admit it.
        Ethnic tourism is definitely increasing in the Northern and Central Highland ethnic minorities. Though, it seems to be for international visitors, not so much for the domestic tourists.

  2. Linda

    Thank you so much for your detailed reports on this beautiful part of China! Im currently planning a trip to Yunnan and thanks to your blog I will visit a few of the villages. Without your very helpful instructions how to get to those places it would be much more difficult to figure things out. So thanks a lot!
    Sincerely, Linda

  3. mstochina

    beautiful photos, and lots of good info; my family and i will be relocating to the area in the fall and will refer back to your blog to find out where to visit!

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you Tara! Yunnan is definitely my favourite province in China … and yes, there is so much to see besides Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian (which are nice).

  4. Tara

    I went to the main sites – Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian but there is so much more to see. I would love to go back at some point. A very good map!

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you Jackie. Some parts of rural China are changing as fast as the coastal cities. I’m glad you enjoy my stories and pictures. In a couple of years, these places will be very different.

  5. pighand360

    Wonderful articles! I just started digging into traveling and blogging recently and it is a great pleasure to find this blog. I have been to Lijiang once and I must admit I was a bit disappointed by the modernisation it has been showered with. I am pleased to see your website and appreciate you good work in putting these remote destinations together for fellow travelers. I will definitely keep your site in mind and continue to follow up with your updates. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Gaetan Green

      If you want to see Wong Fei Hong memorial hall and kung-fu related exhibition, you should go to Foshan’s Ancestral Temple (祖庙). I doubt that he made to Yunnan 😉

  6. buntymcc

    I love the last photo. The photo from Donglianhua, a Muslim village, shows may representational images, something you don’t ever see in Islamic decoration. Why is that?

      1. buntymcc

        So when Islam blended with local culture I take it there was also a blending of religious practices. Of course this was before the Republic and the move to wipe out all religions.

      2. Gaetan Green

        Again, on the picture, it’s only a courtyard gate. Islam in China had to ‘blend in’ on the surface during the Ming dynasty (this is why Donglianhua mosque or Xi’an mosque look very Chinese and definitely not middle eastern). I am not specialist of the question, but Islam in China did not integrate other practices of Chinese folk religions. You can try and read articles and book by Dru Gladney, an American scholar who has done extensice research on the Hui (the Chinese Muslim).

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