Back roads itinerary from Lijiang to Shangri-la in Yunnan, China

The ancient town of Lijiang (丽江), a hike in the Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) and Shangri-la (香格里拉) aka Zhongdian (中甸) are destinations which rank high on most Yunnan-bound traveler’s bucket list.

After hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, travelers go back to the main entrance of Qiaotou (桥头), a small dusty town located on the main road between Lijiang and Shangri-la.

In this post, I want to give an alternative roads to those who have more time, feel more adventurous and want to hike a little bit more. This itinerary goes through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, stops in the multi-ethnic village of Haba (哈巴村), go on to the White Water Terraces (aka Baishui Tai 白水台) and ends up in the outskirts of Shangri-la at Dabao Tibetan Buddhist Temple (大宝寺).

You’ll find a sketch map at the end of this article.

West Diqing, Tiger Leaping Gorge

Pros and Cons

The advantage of this itinerary is that it is slightly off-the-beaten path, offers additional hiking and trekking opportunities around Mount Haba, the mountain which faces the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, more breathtaking landscapes and also the occasion to do a loop in the region.

The disadvantage is that because it is a lesser traveled area, public transportation is scarce. The road between the White Water Terraces (aka Baishui Tai) is quite long.

West Diqing, Haba

Step 1 : Beyond the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Those who want to skip the hike in the Tiger Leaping Gorge can start directly in Lijiang. There is one direct bus to  Sanba (三坝), which is the name of the town where Baishui Tai (白水台) is located, departing from Lijiang Bus Station (丽江客运站) on Kangzhong Lu (康仲路) south of the old town.
The bus leave in the morning, take the old road (but you can still talk the driver into taking the highway and exit in Baihanchang (白汉场) if you are willing to pay the extra fee) and stop at Qiaotou for lunch.
The bus leave again around 12.30 pm from Qiaotou and drives through the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Every one has to pay the 65 RMB entrance fee, even if you are just driving through.

If you are not afraid of heights, do seat on the right side of the bus, by the window, for a prime view of the gorges and the cliffs. After the gorges, the road meanders through the mountain and the bus arrives in the village of Haba around 3 pm.

It is of course possible to hike the gorges, stay one night in a guesthouse and take the bus early afternoon when it drives through the gorges.

Behind the Tiger Leaping Gorge on the road towards Haba

Behind the Tiger Leaping Gorge on the road towards Haba

Step 2 : Discovering Haba and hike more

Haba (哈巴) is a cluster of ten villages, spread-out on the foothill of Haba mountain, home to eight ethnic minorities (Han, Hui, Bai, Pumi, Tibetan, Yi, Lisu and Naxi).

The village of Haba is slowly opening up to tourism and most of those who venture in this part of Yunnan have only one goal : climbing Haba mountain.

West Diqing, Haba

If there is still energy in you after long hikes in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, you can go for a quite afternoon hike on the yak pastures which dominate the valley, but you can also go on a 2 to 3 days trek around Heihai Lake (黑海) and to the top of Haba Mountain (哈巴雪山).

Big Brother Bao, the owner of the ‘On the Clouds Inn’ in Haba (云上哈巴客栈) is the right guy to help you organize your hikking, trekking or climbing experience in the region.

If you don’t speak Chinese, don’t forget to bring your phrasebook. But even if you don’t speak the same language, Big Brother Bao and his wife will definitely make you feel at home with their locally grown food (and since they belong to the Hui ethnic group, they are Muslim and their food is halal). They can also organize your travel to the White Water Terraces and even to Shangri-la.

Haba is more a late spring – summer – early fall destination.

On the yak pastures above Haba village

On the yak pastures above Haba village

Step 3 : The White River Terraces of Baishui Tai

It’s a 35 km drive (around 45 minute to 1 hour) from Haba village to the entrance of Sanba 三坝 where the terraces of Baishui Tai are situated. The mini-van will drop you off at the entrance where you have to pay the 35 RMB fee.

From the entrance count at least 20 minutes walk to get to the top and admire the natural mineral terraces. You can spend a whole hour, walking around and find your way to the source where an old man sell incense stick.

West Diqing, Baishuitai

Those who enjoy unusual landscape features will enjoy the time spent in Baishui Tai, where the deep green-blue color of the water contrast with the forested mountains in the background.

There are a few restaurants near the entrance of the White Water Terraces and a few tired guesthouses which do not see many visitors. Since public transportation is scarce and schedule changes,  and if you do not want to get stuck overnight in town, ask for the most current information if you stay in guesthouse in Tiger Leaping Gorge, in Haba village and, depending on your budget, consider booking a car or a mini-van in Haba.

If you decide to go back to Lijiang via the Tiger Leaping Gorge, you will have to pay the 65 RMB entrance fee at the entrance of the gorges.

West Diqing, Baishuitai

Step 4 : Up to Shangri-la

From Baishuitai to Shangri-la, it’s another 100 km on road which winds through the forest before reaching the arid plateau in the outskirts of Shangri-la. It takes at least 3 to 4 hours, depending on the driver.

If you have hired a car, you can easily make a quick stop at Dabao Tibetan Buddhist temple (大宝寺) which is located twenty kilometers outside of Shangri-la. Once you’ve reached the plateau, you will see a sign that indicates the direction of the Ringa Banyan Tree Resort. Take the road on the left and you’ll enter in a valley.

Dabao temple is located behind the last village, in the middle of a forest hill. One reaches the small temple after climbing up a flight of stairs. It is by no means as impressive as Ganden Sumtseling. It is just a small temple used by local villagers and it is free of tourists, although an old woman will charge you 10 RMB if she is selling incense at the main entrance.

West Diqing, Dabao temple

Step 5 : Leaving Shangri-la

From Shangri-la you have several options.

  1. Continue north towards Deqin via Benzilan. Benzilan is home to the Dongzhulin Monastery and Deqin is known for its Feilai temple and the view of the Kawakarpo. From Deqin you can consider going down the Mekong Valley with a stopover in Cizhong 茨中 to visit the catholic church. You’ll be able to admire the Mekong Gorges on the way to Cizhong. Don’t wait to long. The construction of the Wunonglong dam on the upper Mekong River is about to change this part of Yunnan for good. From Cizhong, you’ll be able to catch a bus to Weixi and from there to Lijiang or even Dali.
  2. Go back south by bus. From Shangri-la main bus station, you’ll find buses toward Lijiang, Dali, Kunming and other destinations in Yunnan. If you still have time, take a bus to Jianchuan 剑川 where you’ll change for a green mini-van to visit the Shaxi Valley.
  3. Fly off from the airport. They’re regular flights to Kunming, Beijing via Chongqing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.

Visualize your itinerary

The below sketch map is not to scale. It indicates all the different places I mentioned in this article. Road standard vary from region to other, but all roads are generally in good condition.

Yunnan Map DLU - DIG-page-001