Travel ancient trade routes from China's culturally rich southern Yunnan province to the mysterious high Tibetan Plateau, where Buddhism permeates every aspect of life.
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One of the oldest continuous civilizations on earth, the region now known as China has a rich and colorful history. Yunnan is one of China’s most mountainous provinces – tropical and lush in parts, with unmatched geography, including limestone plateaus, expansive valleys, and impressive gorges. As one of the most southern provinces, Yunnan has existed on the periphery of Chinese civilization, at times fully incorporated under imperial rule, at others, the first to rebel.
Suspended between heaven and earth in the high Himalayas, neighboring Tibet is, not surprisingly, harsh and desolate. In addition to their stunning scenery, both regions share a unique blend of cultures, an amalgamation of the various peoples who have occupied the region for thousands of years.
Come with us to experience China’s ethnic minorities and the landscapes that have shaped their lives and beliefs. On this journey through some of China and Tibet’s most stunning natural places, we’ll discover important trading villages along the southern Silk Road, 800-year-old towns that retain their old-world charm, and grand Buddhist monasteries that rise from hilltops like palaces in the sky. In Tibet, we walk with wonder around Lhasa’s Potala Palace, trek overland to explore ancient monasteries, and witness Buddhist monks in a centuries-old debating ceremony.
With plenty of opportunity to meet villagers and learn about their culture, to observe master craftsmen at work, and sip yak-butter tea with locals, there is no better way to experience the treasures of Yunnan and Tibet than on an adventure planned by us.
Dates are flexible and customizable for private departures.
Welcome to Yunnan
Upon arrival in Kunming, meet our guide at the airport and drive to your 5-star hotel. Depending on your arrival time, there may be time to explore the “city of spring”. So called for its gentle year-round climate and expansive gardens, we sample the best strolling in the city at its celebrated Bird and Flower Market.
This evening, enjoy a welcome dinner at a beautifully restored courtyard restaurant specializing in the unique cuisine of Yunnan.Green Lake Hotel, Kunming
DAY 2Kunming to Dali
Walking – easy, 2-3 hours.
After breakfast, we fly to Dali in southern Yunnan. Once the ancient capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom – and an important trading town on the southern route of the Silk Road – Dali flows across the fertile plains between Erhai Lake and the 13,000-foot Cangshan Mountains. Erhai, China’s second largest high-mountain lake, provides an important source of food for the local minority Bai people, who use the ages-old tradition of fishing with cormorants.
After checking into our courtyard hotel, built in the traditional Bai architectural style, we board a boat bound for Erhai’s eastern shore, where we disembark to explore local Bai villages on foot. The Bai people, living mostly in the Yunnan Province, are one of 56 ethnic minorities recognized by the Chinese government, and number around 1.8 million. Traditional Bai clothing is colorful, including elaborate headdresses adorned with white and red pompoms. Lunch in one of these small villages further introduces us to the cuisine of the region. The remainder of our afternoon is spent visiting Zhoucheng and Xizhou, villages known for their Bai batiks and well-preserved architecture. Our guide introduces us to the uniquely Bai architectural motifs found here, including zouma zhuan gelou – “running horses turning a corner” – a balcony that connects all the rooms on the second floor.
After dinner at our favorite restaurant in Dali, we take an evening stroll amongst the shops and old homes of town, perhaps stopping for a cup of tea at one of the ubiquitous teahouses.Dali Landscape Hotel, Dali
DAY 3Dali to Lijiang via Shaxi
Walking – easy, 1-2 hours.
This morning we embark on a scenic three-hour drive between the mountains and Erhai Lake, as we head along the old road to the city of Lijiang via Shaxi, situated in the Himalayan foothills. The market town of Shaxi was once a bustling trade station on the southern Silk Road, also known as the Ancient Tea Route, which linked trade between Yunnan and India via Burma, Tibet, and Sichuan Province. Because of Shaxi’s importance as the only surviving example of a southern Silk Road trade center, the World Monuments Fund has listed Shaxi as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world. Here we’ll visit the ancient theater, guesthouses formerly used by merchants en route to the Tibet High Plateau, a temple precinct, and the town’s ancient protective gates.
Next, we drive to Shibaoshan and discover intriguing Buddha statues scattered throughout numerous grottoes carved into the red sandstone cliffs. We walk through pine forest to find these rare remnants of stone carvings from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). We visit the most beautiful temple of the Buddhist complex here, Baoxiang Temple, originally built as a Taoist temple, carved layer upon layer into the rock cliff. Depending on the season, we may see troops of macaques, monkeys that often hang out at the grottoes and temples.
We continue on to Lijiang (about two hours), arriving late this afternoon. An attractive city laid across a sweeping mountain valley, Lijiang’s surrounding snowcapped peaks make it one of the country’s most popular travel destinations for its own citizens. Its name means “beautiful river,” and water flowing from the mountains is diverted into numerous canals that circulate throughout the city. We check into our Naxi courtyard-style hotel, perfectly situated within Lijiang’s charming Old Town and from which we can explore the labyrinthine cobblestone streets.Zen Garden Hotel, Lijiang
Walking – easy to moderate, about 2 hours.
This morning we visit Puji Temple, a working Buddhist temple and monastery near Lijiang. From Puji village, we hike uphill to the temple. If we are lucky, we may have the opportunity to take part in a prayer ceremony with the resident monks. From the temple, we continue up another 15 minutes or so to the summit of the mountain and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the temple below. The tranquil setting, complete with beautiful crab apple trees, creates a meditative mood for a brief rest before returning to the village.
This afternoon finds us back in Lijiang, exploring the Old Town, constructed some 800 years ago. Apart from some of the modern goods for sale, the town has remarkably remained largely unchanged since the Ming Dynasty. In this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we are transported back in time and step into a world of narrow cobblestone streets divided by canals of clear, flowing water. Willows and other trees hang over the water, and arched bridges – as well as simple wooden planks – span the canals, linking the alleyways. The Old Town is a snug collection of shops, cafés, courtyard hotels, and market squares. Many people live above their shops and string red paper lanterns across buildings and trees, which glow warmly at night. During our exploration we encounter a local Dongba expert (a term referring to Naxi priests, culture, and writings), who introduces us to the history of the Naxi people and their written language – Dongba pictographs.
Finally we visit Black Dragon Pool, where snowmelt from the surrounding mountains collects in the small lake to feed the canals of the city. The 18th-century park features a marble arch bridge, flowing gardens, and several small pavilions. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looms in the distance and, when not shrouded in mists, provides magnificent photo opportunities. You may also choose to visit the nearby Museum of Naxi Dongba Culture for a further introduction this minority group.Zen Garden Hotel, Lijiang
DAY 5Xuehua and Wenhai Village
Hiking – moderate, 2-4 hours; option to horseback ride instead (elevations up to 10,000 feet).
Today we have the rare opportunity to meet one of the Yi minority’s most senior shamans, the Bimo of Xuehua. While access isn’t particularly easy (we’ll drive two hours in a 4 x 4 to get to the remote village of just 80 Yi citizens), it is certainly worthwhile to meet this normally inaccessible dignitary. The Bimo is a sacred office held by one family over generations. The current Bimo carries on his family’s tradition and continues to act as chief mediator of tribal disputes. At this time of rapid development in China, listening to the Bimo’s unique perspective is fascinating.
After departing Xuehua, we set out on a half-day hike to Wenhai village, traversing the high mountain ridge on foot or on horseback, and descending into the Wenhai valley by mid-afternoon. Along the way, we marvel at the stunning surroundings and beautiful views of Lijiang (the valley is home to 15 rhododendron species and over 20% of China’s total bird species).
Tonight, back in Lijiang, we are welcomed into a Naxi family home to experience an authentic dinner of local dishes. Over a cup of tea, we have the opportunity to discuss life and culture with our host family, for further insight into their fascinating history and current lifestyle.Zen Garden Hotel, Lijiang
DAY 6Lijiang to Zhongdian via Tiger Leaping Gorge
Walking – easy, 2-4 hours.
Following breakfast, we take an excursion to Tiger Leaping Gorge, stopping en route at Shigu, a small outpost named for a monument erected here in the 18th century by one of Lijiang’s Mu clan to mark a victory over the Han Chinese army. Also here, the Yangtze River makes its first bend, flowing south before turning 180 degrees and flowing north, as it snakes from its source on the Tibet-Qinghai border toward Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Red Army forded the Yangtze at this point during the “long march” in April 1936. We continue to Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world’s deepest – more than 6,500 feet deep – and sandwiched between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain. From viewing platforms on various levels, watch the raging torrent where the wide Yangtze is squeezed to its narrowest point, just 82 feet. The name derives from a legend of a fleeing tiger which jumped the gorge to escape a hunter. Acrobatic feats aside, you’ll feel the sheer power of the river thundering in your body as it courses through this narrow gap.Heading north, we continue through stunning mountain scenery, past the multiple peaks of Yulong Xueshan and skirting an old airstrip remnant from the WWII days of “flying the hump,” when U.S. forces flew supplies into China after the Japanese closed the Burma Road. On our two-hour drive, we head through Lisu and into the land of the Yi, where horses roam freely, boys herd goats, and wildflowers are scattered across mountain meadows. The road traverses the vast Lijiang valley into a maze of verdant ridges, textured wheat fields, and massive gorges punctured by waterfalls and sienna rivers, colored by the rich red earth of the surrounding hillsides.
This afternoon, we arrive in Zhongdian, the center of Tibetan culture that was renamed Shangri-La County in 2001 after the region described in the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon. Surrounded by rangelands dotted with grazing yaks and ponies, the city’s outdoor billiards tables, classical Tibetan and monastic architecture, and Chinese karaoke restaurants create a place of startling contrasts.Songtsam Hotel, Zhongdian
After breakfast, we visit the Buddhist Songzanlin Monastery, built in 1681 by the Fifth Dalai Lama and painted in royal colors of gold and ochre. It’s the largest in Yunnan and is supported by 108 columns, an auspicious number for Buddhists. This Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat Sect monastery, is one of the most important Buddhist monasteries in southwest China, and is sometimes referred to as “Little Potala” for its resemblance to the iconic Tibetan palace. Although a popular place for visitors, our guides have exclusive access to private areas of the monastery, allowing us to get a private glimpse of the monks dining areas, rooms, and other areas normally off-limits to the public.
As we explore the complex we become acquainted with Shakyamuni Buddha, Song Khapa, the creator of the Yellow Hat Sect (which the Dalai Lamas belong to), and the local guardian deities. We discover many treasures, including exquisite frescoes, Buddhas, and other relics accumulated over the centuries.
Next, we join pilgrims along the kora (pilgrimage path) around Ringha Hill, surrounding the Ringha Temple. The act of walking the kora clockwise around a sacred object is carried out by pilgrims as a devotional exercise. Here, we will likely see pilgrims gathering sacred rocks and herbs, lifting printed prayers to the wind, and leaving personal items in places of spiritual significance. It is not unusual to see goats and chickens ranging free as well, released by pilgrims as an offering to gain merit.
Tonight, we dine at Reshi, enjoying a traditional Tibetan hot-pot dinner, a local specialty in which a crockery pot sits over a flame set in the middle of the table. In the light, boiling broth, a mixture of local vegetables and meat sizzle. After our meal, local musicians perform traditional Tibetan music for us.Songtsam Hotel, Zhongdian
DAY 8Zhongdian to Lhasa
This morning we take a spectacular flight above the Himalayan Plateau into Tibet. On arrival, we meet our local guide and head to our hotel in Lhasa for check-in. At just over 12,000 feet in elevation, the city is one of the highest in the world. The rest of the day is free to acclimatize, and if energy permits, we may explore the lively and colorful Barkhor Square market near the Jokhang Monastery.
Lhasa is the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama, and Tibetan Buddhists regard this city as the holiest center in Tibet. Both the Potala and Norbulingka palaces, two renowned landmarks, were once residences of successive Dalai Lamas until the Chinese took control in 1959, forcing the 14th, and current, Dalai Lama to flee to India, where he remains in exile. Today, the Potala has been turned into a museum, and locals often picnic in the park setting of Norbulingka. This evening, we have a relaxing supper at our hotel.Kyichu Hotel, Lhasa
DAY 9Lhasa and the Potala Palace
City walking – easy, 2-3 hours.
Today, we visit the awe-inspiring Potala Palace, the imposing and often photographed complex stacked atop Marpo Ri (Red Hill) high above the Lhasa valley. Since its construction in 1645 on the site of a destroyed 7th-century palace, the Potala had served as the main residence for successive Dalai Lamas and headquarters of the Tibetan government, until the 14th Dalai Lama was exiled to India in 1959. The massive fortress-like structure, comprised of the secular White Palace and the sacred Red Palace, as well as ancillary buildings, provided dormitories for the large staff. It also included schools, chapels, a printing house, and tombs. The palace features more than 10,000 shrines, 200,000 images, and 1,000 rooms.
After lunch, we explore the Drepung Monastery, situated in the Gambo Utse Mountains and considered one of the three great Gelugpa university monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism. At one time it housed as many as 15,000 monks. We discover its many religious relics, including wood carvings, bronze statues, and colorful murals.
Later, we visit a Tibetan carpet factory, where weavers still use old-style vertical looms to create carpets in the traditional style. At the Dropenling Handicraft Development Center, we discover a workshop and gallery that showcase other locally made handicrafts. Established by The Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund, Dropenling provides economic incentives to preserve traditional Tibetan crafts and culture.
Tonight we dine in one of our favorite Lhasa restaurants.Kyichu Hotel, Lhasa
Hiking – moderate, 3-6 hours (elevation gains up to 1,200 feet).
After breakfast, we drive a short distance to the ancient and seldom-visited Pabongka Monastery. Local legend claims that the surrounding land was home to two divine tortoises—a male and a female—which now take the form of two granite boulders here. Carved into a rock at the entrance to the temple, you’ll see the mantra Om mani padme hum, or “Hail to the jewel in the lotus,” referring to the Buddhist belief that all people inherently possess the qualities necessary to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
Then we set out on a hike that will vary in difficulty depending on the option we choose. Our challenging option leads us to the Sera Monastery, following a trail up to the Tashi Chöling hermitage for fantastic views of the Lhasa valley. Continue up the ridge and along the flanks of Phurbu Chok to the Sera Tse hermitage and then to the Dode Valley. The trail reaches a maximum elevation of 12,300 feet, with a 1,200-foot elevation gain overall. An easier, less strenuous option is available from the first hermitage, from which those who wish can descend the hill and take a bus to the Sera Monastery. The hike will be tailored to suit the abilities of the group. The Sera Monastery was founded in 1417 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa on a site where the teacher and his foremost students had established hermitages. One of the three main Gelupka monasteries in Lhasa, Sera is an important spiritual center for Buddhist monks. Inside the monastery, you’ll find vast temples and college complexes. We mingle freely with monks going about their daily duties, and visit the printing center, where sutra texts are still printed by hand on traditional paper. Here you can try your hand at making your own print. We will time our arrival so that we can watch the monks during their mid-afternoon debate, an ancient tradition. In the courtyard, nearly a hundred monks hone their debating skills in an elaborate clapping ceremony – a lively, entertaining affair.
For those who didn’t have the chance to visit the Jokhang monastery on Day 8, we return to this holiest of temples, to which pilgrims journey each day from all across Tibet. Some even prostrate with each step throughout their trek until they reach the monastery’s threshold. The pilgrims then recite sacred mantras, kindling the continuously lit chömay (butter lamps) and honoring deities with white scarves and spinning prayer wheels. With a 1,300-year-old history, Jokhang was built by King Songsten Gampo to house two Buddha images belonging to his two wives. One wife chose the site at Lake Wothong, as she believed the lake to be the heart of an evil witch in need of purging. The lake was filled in, but according to some, a deep pool still exists beneath the temple. One of the temple’s two original images, the pure-gold statue of Jowo Sakyamuni is Tibet’s most precious Buddha image and depicts the “the Enlightened One” at age twelve.Kyichu Hotel, Lhasa
DAY 11Lhasa to Shigatse
We depart Lhasa for the countryside this morning, and ultimately Shigatse (approximately 4.5 hours), Tibet’s second largest city. The 600-year-old city is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, second to the Dalai Lama in spiritual leadership.
Along the way, we stop for a picnic lunch at Yamdrok Tso Lake, one of three holy lakes in Tibet and the largest freshwater lake at the south end of the Himalayas. On a peninsula jutting into the beautiful expanse of turquoise water, Mt. Donang Sangwari rises to 17,520 feet, with the glacier-clad peak of 23,000-foot Nojin Gangzang further in the distance. There is time to take a stroll along the shore of the lake, believed to be the female guardian of Buddhism in Tibet, blessing and protecting its people. On our drive to Shigatse we have plenty of opportunities to stop and stretch our legs.
After checking in at our hotel, we’ll explore the local market before delving into Buddhist culture one last time with a visit to the Tashi Lunpo Monastery. Founded by the first Dalai Lama in 1447 and later presented to the Panchen Lama, the Tashi Lunpo Monastery is the largest in the region and is part of the Gelugpa university system, at one time housing nearly 5,000 monks. Here we’ll find the tomb of the first Dalai Lama and those of successive Panchen Lamas. Though nearly two-thirds of the monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, most of the buildings that were razed were monks’ residences, and many of the more impressive halls, courtyards, chapels, and galleries have been preserved.
This evening, we enjoy a final celebratory dinner at our hotel.Shigatse Hotel, Shigatse
DAY 12Shigatse (via Lhasa) to Shanghai
After breakfast, we return to the Lhasa airport (approximately 3.5 hours) for our flight to Shanghai. Upon arrival in Shanghai we say farewell, and from here you may connect with international flights home or spend additional time in this modern city.
Please note that this is a typical itinerary, and actual activities may vary to take advantage of weather conditions, local events, and to allow serendipity to play a hand in your experience. Accommodations are as outlined in the itinerary, although we reserve the right to change these should the need arise.
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