Yunnan tourist trail
- This article is an itinerary.
This itinerary describes a popular route to some of the major tourist attractions of Yunnan. Of course, it leaves various other popular places uncovered, notably the tropical paradise Xishuangbanna and the trip west toward Ruili at the border with Myanmar.
The big attractions of this route are as follows:
- The lovely old cities of Dali and Lijiang, both former capitals of small kingdoms and both major tourist towns today
- Sensational trekking areas, notably Tiger Leaping Gorge near Lijiang or, going further afield, Three Parallel Rivers National Park
- Mountainous areas and Tibetan peoples in Northern Yunnan, around Zhongdian and Deqin
The various places on the route feel quite different to the traveler:
- Dali feels like a backpacker hangout, similar to Yangshuo; there are Western restaurants and tourists everywhere.
- Lijiang is among the most beautiful cities in China and the Chinese have certainly noticed; there are tour groups everywhere.
- Zhongdian (now Shangrila) feels more like a Tibetan town than a city in central China.
What they all have in common are mountainous scenery, interesting architecture, ethnic minorities and lovely handicrafts — wood, silver and especially fabric items.
Getting to Kunming 
Most travelers will reach Yunnan via the capital, Kunming. There are several ways to do this:
- By air from anywhere in China
- By air from Southeast Asia; see Discount airlines in Asia
- By train from the north, from Chengdu
- By train from the northeast, from central China, via Guiyang
- By train from the southeast, via Nanning
See Overland Kunming to Hong Kong for other routes.
The nearest SE Asian neighbour, Lao Cai, Vietnam allows you to walk over the border, to Hekou. Then plenty of buses (fares ranging from 85 to 120 Y) to Kunming. A very lively and hassle free overland crossing.
From Luang Prabang, night sleeper buses take you to Kunming for about 50 to 60 US withhout having to bear the misery of making it on your own to the border. Tickets available at Luang Prabang South Main Bus Station. There are, of course, plenty of minivans from tour agents all over Luang Prabang, that take you to the border, from where you find your way to Kunming.
This is five hours by bus, which makes a pleasant and comfortable trip.
There is also an overnight train, which is very popular with tourists. Unfortunately, it is also popular with thieves; watch your belongings. This is the only train on this route; beyond Dali it is all buses.
Unfortunately, the train and most buses (even ones that say "Dali") deliver you not to Dali Old Town but to Xiaguan, the nearby capital of Dali Prefecture. See the Dali article for information on the rest of the way.
In 2007 there were several day trains from Xiaguan to Kunming, taking 4 hours. Travel agents in Dali said they were sold out. The railway station in Xiaguan sold tickets a day ahead. I assume they also run Kunming-Dali, but ask at the station. Railway Kunming-Lijiang is under construction.
This route somewhat overlaps the Burma Road built during World War II and running from Kunming to Lashio in Burma. Not much of the old road is left, but bits of it and some milestones are still visible.
This is about four hours by bus.
There is also a comfortable 10-hour overnight bus direct from Dali to Zhongdian. Taking this on your way north may not be the best choice since you miss some great scenery by traveling at night, it bypasses Lijiang, and the rapid change from Dali's 2000 m. to Zhongdian's 3200 m. risks altitude sickness. However, it can save time and hotel costs on the way back.
This is about a five hour bus trip. The scenery is great. It includes mountains, terraced fields, picturesque villages and the upper reaches of the Yangtze river.
This is a bus trip through sensational mountain scenery; Zhongdian is at 3200 meters, Deqin 3500, and the passes higher yet. It is beautiful but somewhat scary. In winter, the road is sometimes closed and is not recommended even if it is open.
Alternate routes to Zhongdian 
The above describes a route starting at Kunming. It is possible to do that route but travel on past Zhongdian, into either Sichuan or Tibet. You could also start the described route from Zhongdian after arriving from Sichuan or Tibet. For details see Overland to Tibet.