Northwest Yunnan Province is home to the famous Shangri-La, a Tibetan Buddhist town nestled in the mountains that stretch across Tibet and Myanmar. Not far from the border of each, our trip took us in a circuit with Songtsam Lodges that began in Lijiang, wound up through the mountains past Tiger Leaping Gorge to Tacheng and then ended in Shangri-La.
Here is a week-long itinerary for exploring the area with tips on how to extend your trip should you have more time. We certainly could have spent a few more days.
Day 1 & 2 - Lijiiang
Lijiang is a good place to launch an exploration of northwestern Yunnan Province. Lijiang is well-connected to the rest of China by air and rail so no matter if you're just coming up from Dali or flying in from Shanghai, many people put this UNESCO-listed city on their must-see list.
During our trip, we flew into Lijiang arriving at our hotel, the Crowne Plaza Lijiang, at around noon. We spent the afternoon exploring the old city until it was time to go to the evening performance of the Naxi orchestra. We spent another half-day walking around the old city, having fun trying exotic foods at the street-food market before getting picked up by our Songstam Lodge minivan to head up to Tacheng.
Day 3 & 4 - Visiting Tacheng
From Lijiang, it's a 4-hour drive to Tacheng, a village in the mountains in northwest Yunnan. The drive is really beautiful and there are points to get out and snap photos. If desired, you can book extra time to stop at Tiger Leaping Gorge. We did not, we decided to get to Tacheng in order to maximize our time there.
In Tacheng itself, there is not much. It is a small village spread out over the hillsides. But it is a beautiful place to escape to and provides a wonderful rural setting to hide away from tourist groups that do indeed crowd up Lijiang (and Shangri-La). We spent the first afternoon taking in the lodge and surroundings. The following day we hiked into the hills in the morning to observe the endangered Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkey and in the afternoon wandered up steep back-country roads to visit farms and watch the rice harvest.
Day 5 - Getting to Shangri-La & Dokar Dzong Old Town
On the fifth day, we loaded back into the minivan to make the drive from Tacheng to Shangri-La. The drive was another four-hours, again through breathtaking mountain scenery. We arrived at the Songtsam Lodge Shangri-La around lunchtime so had a bite in their comfortable dining room and then made the thirty-minute drive to Dokar Dzong (Dukezong in Mandarin) Old Town*.
Dokar Dzong is really fun to explore. It has windy, narrow cobblestone streets that are full of tourist shops, inns and small cafes. There are also large open squares where open markets pop up as does seemingly-spontaneous local dancing. Nearby is a small temple where, after making the steep climb up, you are rewarded with beautiful views of the old city and a chance to join the crowd to turn the giant prayer wheel.
*Very sadly, a fire spread through much of Dokar Dzong in mid-Janurary 2014. It was estimated that about a quarter of the ancient wooden homes, shops and inns were destroyed. As this area was one of the city's major tourist draws, it is sure to be rebuilt. Hopefully the nascent culture will not be destroyed in the process.
Day 6 - Gyelthang Monastery & Horseback Riding
On the sixth day of our trip we got up early to go and explore the famous Gyelthang (Songzanlin in Mandarin) monastery. Built up the hill, it towers above the rest of the town. It's golden rooftops shine against the blue skies. The largest tourist draw in the town, the monastery draws big crowds. We did have to jostle our way up the narrow main stairway to the top but after that, it wasn't difficult to visit the different buildings.
The visit took about two hours so we made our way down and walked around the small lake that sits at the foot of the monastery and then walked back to the Songtsam Lodge for lunch. After lunch and a rest, the kids were keen to try horseback riding so we ventured out of town to one of the many horseback riding establishments. The kids' dreams of galloping off on the Tibetan plateau were quickly dashed as the small ponies are led by workers and barely get up to a trot. But it was fun to stand out on the open plain and view the Tibetan homes around and the backdrop of mountains beyond.
Day 7 - Potatso National Park
On our final day we decided to try to get out and see some of the amazing scenery we'd driven by. Songtsam Lodge Shangri-La recommended we try Potatso National Park. The good news is that the park was indeed spectacular. The bad news is that we were there over the Chinese National Day Holidays and it was incredibly crowded.
Quicklink: Potatso National Park
Day 8 - Return Home or Extend Your Travel
Day 8 for us meant returning to Shanghai but there was certainly more to see and do in northwest Yunnan.
With Songtsam Lodges, you can continue on their circuit trips that take you on into the mountains to their other properties in Cizhong, Benzilan and Meili.