From Dali to Shangri-la | Off-the-beaten tracks itinerary in Yunnan

The road that links Yunnan’s three main backpackers haven from Dali old town (大理古城) to Lijang (丽江), the former capital of the Naxi Kingdom, and the ancient Tibetan town of Shangri-la (香格里拉) aka Zhongdian (中甸), aka Dukezong (独克宗) is pretty much a highway and a bus ride between each of these towns takes around 3 hours.

If time is not a concern and want to see less-traveled areas of the province, here is an itinerary on second-class roads which zigzags north between Dali and Shangri-la via Lijiang.

Map Dali to Shangrila via Nuodeng and Shaxi

Dali to Nuodeng

From Xiaguan’s Xingsheng bus terminal (下关兴盛客运站), the city at the end of the Erhai Lake (洱海), south of Dali old town, take a bus to Yunlong (云龙). For the first few kilometers of the journey, the bus will drive on the highway and after exiting in Longjie, the bus will follow a long windy mountain road to the sleepy county seat of Yunlong (云龙), a small and remote town where concrete high-rises are mushrooming in the downtown area.

Once in Yunlong, you will have to change to a mini-van to the nearby village of Nuodeng (诺邓). The road between the two places was enlarged and paved in 2015, so you should be in for a smooth ride. The entire trip from Xiaguan (下关) should take around 5 hours or more.

Gate to the ancient salt tax office in Nuodeng, Yunnan

Gate to the ancient salt tax office in Nuodeng, Yunnan

Nuodeng is a fascinating ancient salt village built on the slopes of steep hill. At the bottom of the mountain, you can visit the ancient salt wells. During the imperial era, the harvested salt was transported on the ancient trade routes north to towards the Shaxi 沙溪 valley, Lijiang and Shangri-la (香格里拉), as well as other parts of Yunnan. Once a wealthy village, it became an impoverished village when the Communist assumed controlled of the Chinese state in 1949 and banned all forms of trade.

Today, Nuodeng is becoming a well-known travel destination among travelers. With tourism and its famed cured ham (诺邓火腿),  the village is starting a new life.

Read my article about Nuodeng (诺邓) for a background history and everything you need to know about accommodation there.

Room view from one of the recently renovated guesthouse in Nuodeng, Yunnan

Room view from one of the recently renovated guesthouse in Nuodeng, Yunnan

Nuodeng to Shaxi

The road between Nuodeng and Shaxi 沙溪 is quite long and there are not many buses linking Yunlong to Jianchuan (剑川) or Lanping (兰坪). There used to be an early direct bus from Yunlong to Jianchuan, and also buses from Yunlong to Lanping where one could catch a bus to Jianchuan, but readers reported that these two lines were cancelled recently and it seems that the timetable displayed at Yunlong bus station is not up-to-date.

So, it seems that travellers using public transportation must go back to Dali after visiting Nuodeng.

The Tongjing Bridge in Baoluo village between Yunlong and Lanping

The Tongjing Bridge in Baoluo village between Yunlong and Lanping

Travellers who are not on a budget can hire a driver. It’s of course more expensive than the bus, but also more comfortable, more convenient and you will have plenty of the time on the way to stop wherever you want on the road : between  there are few villages with old bridges and Bai temples which constitute interesting spots. If you are not on a tight budget and can negotiate a reasonable fare with a local driver, I strongly suggest you go for that option.

Whatever option you choose, you should count at least 6 to 8 hours on the road from Nuodeng to Shaxi.

What to see on the way from Nuodeng to Shaxi

There a few interesting sites on the way, like the Tongjing Bridge (通京桥) in the village of Baoluo (包罗村), built in 1776 and renovated in 1784 and 1835, this bridge was a crucial river passage for the trade route that run in the valley linking Nuodeng and towns in the north. Like its name indicates, the Tonjing Bridge was a way (通) to the capital jing (京).

Around 30 minutes drive north of Baoluo village there is this interesting Rattan Bridge that a guy from Nuodeng touted as a must-see site in the valley. Hard to spot from the road, it constitutes an interesting and adventurous break from the long drive.

The Rattan Bridge in the valley linking Nuodeng to Lanping

The Rattan Bridge in the valley linking Nuodeng to Lanping

Finally, there are quite a few Bai ethnic minority Benzhu temples 本主庙 which are dedicated to a myriad of local gods and legendary deified figures. Except the few buses that run back and forth between Yunlong, Lanping and Jianchuan, there is not much traffic and locals are very friendly.

Locals were keen to drop their daily activities to show us one of their Benzhu Temple located on top of steep hill dominating the village. They were also proud to explain that the entire village participated financially, and after years of saving money, they were finally able to renovate their temple and put a brand new series of statues.

Inside a Bai Benzhu Temple

Inside a Bai Benzhu Temple

Shaxi to Lijiang

Shaxi definitely deserves at least a couple of days. In addition to the historical core of the village, you can rent a bicycle to explore the Shaxi valley, hike to the Stone Treasure Mountain of 石宝山 and discover the One-Thousand-Lion Mountain 千狮山 near the town of Jianchuan 剑川. Allow at least 2 days to soak in the laid back atmosphere of Shaxi.

The iconic Sideng Theatre in Shaxi.

The iconic Sideng Theatre in Shaxi.

In front of some hostels in Shaxi, you may see a sign in Chinese ‘拼车到丽江’. It means that several people are getting together to share a mini-van to Lijiang. It’s an interesting way to meet new people, travel at a reasonably low price to Lijiang and avoid to stop in Jianchuan to change bus. However, the mini-van may not leave on the day you want. So, you will have to take the mini-van back to Jianchuan and change to a bus to Lijiang. Last time I checked, there were four daily buses to Lijiang at 9.30 AM, 11.30 AM, 1.30 PM and 3.30 PM. If your bus driver is cheap, he may take the old road, but since the new Xiaguan – Lijiang highway is open to traffic, it will probably be a 1.5 hour smooth drive to Lijiang.

Plan on arriving early and spend some time visiting the old town of Jianchuan 剑川, well-preserved and away from commercialization we see in other Yunnan’s ancient town like Weishan 巍山, or Lijiang 丽江.

Ancient courtyard mansion in the old town of Jianchuan

Ancient courtyard mansion in the old town of Jianchuan

Lijiang to Shangri-la via Tiger Leaping Gorge

In Lijiang, once you have visited the old town, shopped in its countless stores, visited the must-see sites like the Black Dragon Pool (黑龙潭), the ever-expanding old town of Suhe (涑河), the quaint village of Baisha (白沙) and decided it was time to hit the road again, you will embark on a journey through the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡 and into Diqing Tibetan Autonomous County via the multi-ethnic village of Haba 哈巴 and the White Water Terraces aka Baishui Tai 白水台 on the long windy mountain road with a breathtaking view on Haba Mountain 哈巴雪山.

I have already described this part of the itinerary in my post ‘Back Roads Itinerary from Lijiang to Shangri-la‘, so I refer you back to this post for bus schedule, accommodation on the way and travel time on this alternative road towards the Tibetan areas of northern Yunnan.

Behind the Tiger Leaping Gorge on the road towards Haba

Behind the Tiger Leaping Gorge on the road towards Haba

Shangri-la back to Lijiang

Like the phoenix, Shangri-la is reborn from the ashes of the January 2013 fire which destroyed 75 % of the “old” town of Dukezong. After visiting this Tibetan outpost of northern Yunnan, you have several choices. First, you fly out from the local airport; second you take a bus back to Lijiang (3.5 hours), or Dali (6 hours), or Kunming (10 to 12 hours) via the new road; third, you take the long way back to Lijiang, explained below.

The long way from Shangri-la to Lijiang | Step 1 | Deqin

If you choose the third option, you will head to the remote town Deqin 德钦 by bus between the Yangze River and Mekong River valleys. The town of Deqin compensates its lack of charm with the Khawakarpo, one of the most sacred mountain of Tibetan Buddhism and highest peak in Yunnan province at 6740 meters above sea level. Home to the powerful goddess Khawakarpo, it is believed that whoever set foot on the peak will make the ground unholy and trigger the wrath of the mountain deity. All the attempt to climb the Khawakarpo were unsuccessful and / or resulted in the death of (sometimes) all the expedition members. Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate the peak on a 240 km trail. The best view you can take at it is from the Feilai Temple (飞来寺), but be warned : the goddess Khawakarpo oftern hide her might behind clouds.

Deqin

Approaching Deqin on a cloudy day

The long way from Shangri-la to Lijiang | Step 2 | Cizhong

From Deqing to Cizhong, the bus goes through the impressive Mekong Gorges (sit on the right-hand side of the bus if you are not afraid of heights). If you are on a direct bus to Cizhong, you don’t need to worry. If you are on a Weixi-bound bus, ask the driver to drop you off at the Cizhong bridge and hike the last 5 kilometers to this Tibetan Catholic village where many locals rent rooms in their courtyard houses. The construction of a road connecting the Salween and the Mekong valley and, as I wrote on an earlier post, the construction of a dam in the Mekong Valley, are going to have a long-term socioeconomic landscape of the village and change the way people travel in this part of north Yunnan province.

Tibetan Catholic praying for rain in the graveyard of Cigu, a hamlet near Cizhong.

Tibetan Catholic praying for rain in the graveyard of Cigu, a hamlet near Cizhong.

The long way from Shangri-la to Lijiang | Step 3 | Weixi

From Cizhong, hike back to the bridge early in the morning to catch the bus to Weixi 维西, a county seat located at a 4-5 hours ride. If you hired a driver, stop in Xiao Weixi 小维西, an impoverished mostly Han-Chinese village down in the valley, home to another beautiful catholic church.

Weixi is a remote town, but there are quite a few guesthouses to spend the night and catch an early morning bus to Lijiang 丽江 or even back to Shangri-la.

 

The catholic church of Xiao Weixi in the upper-Mekong valley in north Yunnan

The catholic church of Xiao Weixi in the upper-Mekong valley in north Yunnan

How much time for this entire itinerary?

From Dali to Lijiang via Nuodeng – Shaxi – Lijiang – Tiger Leaping Gorge – Haba – Baishuitai – Shangri-la – Deqin – Cizhong – Weixi and back to Lijiang, count at least 20 days.
Not everyone has 20 days to spend traveling in north Yunnan, but this long itinerary is easily breakable into a couple of shorter itinerary so that you can enjoy both the must-see travel destination in the province and enjoy a taste of adventure off-the-beaten tracks. If you have any additional information to provide, questions or remarks, please do comment below.

Rope Bridge in the upper Mekong valley in north Yunnan

Rope Bridge in the upper Mekong valley in north Yunnan

There are 3 comments

  1. journeysofgeorge

    Hi! Thank you very much for the information! It’s been very useful and inspiring. Tomorrow we will start doing a shorter version of this route (15 days 差不多) going from Dali to Shaxi, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge and then consider seeing some of the other villages like Cizhong. Do you recommen us any local food we should try or any places to eat?? Also, if we can we would like to go to Haba or Dequin to do a hiking route but we don’t think we’ll have time to go to both, which one do you recommend us? Thanks again!

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Georges,
      Do not expect great food in Lijiang : since the town is receiving so many tourists (all unique customers who will come only once), restaurants within the old town do not have a great reputation.
      In Tibetan areas, I recommend you guys try the yak butter tea or 酥油茶 (su you cha) – which is really something you should taste.
      About hiking : I suggest you do most of your hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Shaxi also has very nice hiking trails. Either along the river between villages or in the mountain (ask about the trail to Ma Ping Guan – you will find maps in the small bookstore / trinket store on the ground floor of the theatre). Once in Haba, you can also go hiking on the pasture and in the forest (you will need a local guy). In Cizhong, you can definitely hike to the surrounding hamlets (pretty easy) of Cigu, Kaiduka and even Badong. Above Cigu, there is graveyard that dominated the Mekong. Nice view up there.
      Happy travels and stay safe!

Comments are closed.