Adventure Travel in Yunnan: Lijiang and Shangrila, China

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We made it to Yunnan! Usually, our family trips consist of idyllic beaches found around Asia: for example this year we went to Bali in October and December and then Boracay in February. Beach trips are just easy; everyone’s happy. But, sometimes it’s important for the four of us to venture out of our comfort zone, and we did just that with this trip to Yunnan Province in China. Specifically we travelled to Lijiang and then later spontaneously went to Shangrila. Oh! It was such a fantastic adventure. Despite being terribly cold, we just embraced the entire experience. There were temples to see and monasteries to visit. We rode both bikes and horses. We hiked snow capped mountains and meandered through cobblestone villages. We toured hard in the day only to return to a wonderful hotel rooftop to relax layered up before dinner. We ate all sorts of Chinese food, and then finally, right when we needed it most, we found a wonderful Western establishment in Shangrila named Compass (once there ask for the cutie below in the animal hat named Eileen). We slept well on top of electric blankets that kept us warm and a fire with embers smouldering all night. The kids drummed, we listened to glasses of wine, and over meals we played a Chinese poker game called Big 2. The trip was jam-packed yet rewarding all the same. We had such an amazing time that I would highly recommend this trip to other families. Down below (after all the pictures) I’ve included more particular details. Seriously, take this trip! It was adventure travel at its best, and the Yunnan and its people are truly spectacular.

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Adventure Travel to Yunnan

Getting There:
It’s a little tricky. The main city you want to fly into is Kunming. From there, you can choose to travel to Lijiang, Dali, or Shangrila. We chose Lijiang and then drove 4 hours to Shangrila. Tiger Leaping Gorge is on the way from Lijiang to Shangrila which makes for a nice little pit stop. Basically with Kunming as the port of entry you have three charming towns (well, cities with old towns) to choose from.

Best Time to Travel:
This is a super busy place! It wasn’t too bad when we went, but it would be best to avoid traveling to the Yunnan during Chinese holidays. Also, to escape the crowds of Lijiang Old Town, we stayed in Shuhe Old Town. Shuhe is referred to as what Lijiang used to be like before it became so popular and built up.

Staying There:
We stayed in Shuhe instead of Lijiang and it was perfect. In fact we never actually went to the Lijiang’s Old Town because we Shuhe totally sufficed. We stayed at Lijiang New Huifeng Resort Hotel. Kevin had to call for our booking, and after the initial contact, an email correspondence ensued. Patti is the (only) individual at this establishment that speaks English. Giver her a call: +158 8756 9046. I would highly recommend the room we stayed in for a family with older kids: the kids had a loft upstairs with two large twin beds. Kevin and I had a gorgeous king that was so cozy next to the sitting room complete with a fireplace. The entryway had an outdoor tub that was used daily. This room was our perfect haven! Plus, we spent many later afternoons on the rooftop.

Biking:
There’s a ton to do in these old villages. Biking is a very common activity. We rented bikes one morning and one afternoon. There are bike rental vendors all over; they’re scattered about Shuhe’s alleyway corners. We easily biked to another little village called Baisha. It’s was a cinch navigating there.

Horseback Riding:
There was another hotel in Shuhe that we referred to often since this establishment caters to English speaking visitors. It’s called the The Bivou–it is lovely. Even if you don’t stay there, stop by. We almost switched to this hotel, but in the end our room at Huifeng was better where our family suite had a fireplace! Go to this little hotel immediately. They all speak English and will totally help you sort out your itinerary–even if you are not staying with them. We booked our horseback riding trip with them that included a (very random) boat excursion on a (super shallow) lake. (We will forever chuckle about that weird boat ride–think Venetian oars but your driver taking over because the little Chinese woman doesn’t know how to work the boat!) The horses are small little beings with a thick, shaggy fur. We rode up a a hill for about an hour and then worked our way back down. At the end, we stopped at a local’s home and enjoyed an experience of hot pot. It was actually very tasty! Again, The Bivou organized this for us. You can see all their itinerary plans here. On our final night in China, we arranged to eat here, and enjoyed such an amazing Yunnan cooked meal. It was reminiscent of our dinner with Pei in Beijing. Again, we highly recommend this cute little boutique/adventure hotel.

Jade Mountain:
One day we went to the jagged mountain you can see in the distance. It’s called Jade Mountain. Basically, we simply booked a driver. We had such a good driver that he knew exactly where to drop us and for what. It’s a very controlled expedition, so you can’t just drive in and look around. There are tickets to pick up and lines to enter. In the end we abandoned the main site because the line for the bus that would take us to the gandola was going to be over an hour. It all seemed a little pointless in the freezing cold. We created a back up fast! Alternatively we took a gandola up to the backside of the mountain where things were less populated. It was still so lovely, and luckily I had rented a red, long, puffer coat, so I was fine. Our advice for Jade Mountain would be to take the path less beaten. It’s all beautiful and majestic, so there’s no need to wait around for hours anywhere. Also, we saw the show–it was good. In hindsight, I would have seen the show after sightseeing, but timing wise a later show wasn’t an option for us. Definitely make a trip to Jade Mountain, but don’t be afraid of trying out alternatives field different from the norm.

Tiger Leaping Gorge:
We weren’t planning on venturing to Shangrila, but we had enough during the trip to deviate away from Lijiang, and I’m so glad we did. Shangrila is a four hour car ride away, and we split it with a stop at Tiger Leaping Gorge. We had ordered an extra pizza from the night before and brought that for a picnic. There are many steps to take down to the water, but it’s worth it. The views are so extraordinary you hardly notice an increased hearth rate on the way back up. There are a couple of different options for accessing this gorge; we simply chose the drive up one; it was the perfect pit stop.

Shangrila:
It’s so very sad, but in the winter of January 2014, the Shangrila Old Town burned to the ground. This almost stopped us from visiting, but slowly and surely they are building the old town back up. We stayed at . It was very nice with a super spacious room. I did not appreciate the smoking that may occur in the common courtyard, but smoking in China is everywhere! Aside from this inconvenience, the room was huge and very, very cozy–which was needed since it was FREEZING there. This is where we had snow!

If I could have my way, I’d stay at one of the Songstam Hotels–there’s one right in the monastery village and another a short kilometer walk away. Whow! Decadence!! But unfortunately this luxury boutique hotel was out of our price range. Instead we had a lovely meal at the one that looks down on the Songzanlin Monastery. It was delicious!

Best Restaurant in Shangrila:
Another completely pleasant option in Shangrila is Compass. If you do not decide to stay there, you will definitely end up eating there. The food is soooooo good! They are by far the best restaurant in town with fresh baked goods daily. We had three meals there. We just kept going back. Plus, everyone at the Compass speaks English which was a nice relief as it’s hard to come by English speaking in Yunnan Province. (Don’t get me wrong. We got by, but it’s definitely part of the adventure!) We were able to plan our time in Shangrila thanks to Eileen who is a baker at Compass. She’s such a cutie. Tell her hello!

Activities There:
Aside from strolling around the town being built up, there is a gorgeous temple right in the center of the Old Town. Also, though, a trip must be made out to Songzanlin Monastery. Wow! What a site!! And what was so neat about it was the monks just going about their business despite tourists traipsing around their home. I really enjoyed this excursion–even though it was snowing and I was freezing my buns off. The kids too loved it!! Everyone took a turn with the camera.

Kremb de la Kremb says “Go to Yunnan!”

Our family thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Yunnan Province. If you are planning on going and have any questiosn, please do not hesitate to reach out and ask me. I’d be happy to help you out! Go!! It was phenomenal!!

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  • Dear Ann, what a beautiful post. It’s got such a personal element to it but includes all the necessary details and logistics. Your comment about beach holidays pleasing everyone made me smile. I grew up on an island and there is still no place I’d rather be. Having said that though, like you we find ourselves enjoying returning to countries we’ve visited. Patrick and I both like getting to know a place better and better. A few years ago we made a rule when it came to travel destinations – now we have three categories and don’t repeat a category until all have been ticked off. The categories are: home – somewhere new – somewhere old. We’ve been pretty good about it. How do you keep from the pull to return to places you love given the constrained period of time available to travel with children (ie school terms – the bane of my existence!) x

    • Well, luckily the kids’ breaks are our breaks. The perks of being a teacher! We don’t have a system like that in place, but I’m going to share it with Kevin. Lately, we’ve been really into trying to retrace steps for the kids. Like last summer we took a road trip down the coast of Oregon and California as it was something Kevin and I had done. We happened to go to Bali twice this year just because we didn’t feel we’d done it properly the first time around in October. Well properly isn’t the right word–thoroughly. So in December we went for three weeks. Now Bali is done for a bit. Boracay was a return trip but mainly it’s old, and easy, and just oh so lovely! Another place we always seem to return to is Thailand. We go back to places that are familiar, but we also try to see new places at the same time. Basically, wow! Look how I’m writing!! I’m just in awe and in gratitude that travel is such a major component of my life. I yearned for it right after my first trip, and I’ve been traveling since. I remember when Kevin and I first said “I love you.” We then continued to daydream about how we could travel for life. Little did we know we’d stumble upon a career that allowed us to do so!

      I’ll let you know what Kevin thinks about the travel rule of three. I like it!!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Vanisha.

      Love, Ann