I’ve been getting some private requests from friends regarding my trip in China, so I thought of sharing a few tips and experiences—hopefully you guys would benefit from it!
Disclaimer: I don’t travel super luxuriously, but I don’t believe in squeezing myself too dry just to save on a few bucks too, so what I’m sharing is what I think fits my budget and comfort level. It is important to add in buffer/rest days for the places so you don’t get too exhausted by the end of it—travelling for me is a journey, an experience, not marking attendance! Especially since my trip is 3 months, so I added in extra buffer time for rest.
We flew to Kunming the next day after we returned from NYC, so it’s:
- Do laundry
- Check weather forecast
- Repack our bags
I carried 1 cabin luggage worth of Hanfu for warm weather, 1 checked-in luggage of warmer clothes, toiletries, make-up, gifts (yes, visiting many friends along the way), and 1 backpack (the backpacker kind of bag) for shoes and warmer clothes.
Because we’re travelling across different altitudes and regions, we had to have clothes for all 4 seasons, and likewise, footwear.
For my photos, I only have 1 mirrorless camera—Sony A6000, and 3 lenses (wide angle, portrait, and landscape lens). I regret buying the landscape lens cos my #instahusband doesn’t really know how to use it yet, so it’s quite a hassle carrying it around. My most frequently used lens is my wide angle—I learnt from my previous trip to Xiamen, that many of the spaces are either crowded, have narrow space, or require you to capture a large landscape with the person in it. So a wide angle is a must-have (it costs as much as my camera itself, but totally worth it!).
MUST HAVEs (life saver!)
A pair of super warm knee length, flat sole boots. When you can keep that much of your body warm, you generally would be fine with less clothing on top (for me it works anyway). And most of the times, my skirts are long enough to cover my unsightly boots, so it works for photos too. I got mine on Taobao for about 30SGD, and it really served me all across continents and weather conditions.
Sports/trekking shoes. A fair bit of stairs climbing and walking for some sights, some cobbled streets with sharp pebbles lining the floor, so thick soles are good.
WeChat app. THE messaging app in China. Also works as payment app for Chinese but foreigners can’t really use it so just forget about that function and use cash. It’s a bit unrealistic to expect foreign visitors to set up a Chinese phone number and get a China bank account, so I can imagine the process would be more painful for non-Chinese than it was for me (I used my aunt’s WeChat payment function for most transactions and orders). But I will also share how foreigners can try to hack it wherever possible.
[Again, if you have a China friend with you, or have a Chinese bank account, then you can practically do everything with this WeChat app like calling for cab, ordering takeaways (my favourite thing is to order takeaways when I’m in my hotel/accommodation cos they’re ranked by combination of proximity and rating, so it’s better than going out there and hoping you’ll get good food), pay for almost everything like things from Ctrip]
Ctrip app Best app for booking of accommodations (besides Airbnb), tickets and guides! (if you want to save a few more bucks on train travel, the official train authority has an app or can visit the website: 12306 to buy tickets. You will save 20rmb/ticket of admin charges compared to purchasing from Ctrip. You need to collect the tickets at any train station in China with the order number and your passport before your trip. Leave ample time for that.)
***Because Ctrip is very aggressive in acquiring market shares and works with lots of attraction partners, before you head to any attraction to buy tickets at the door, do a check on Ctrip app and it is typically 10-15 RMB cheaper/pax. Some Chinese friends would do that at the door, you have to wait about 5-10 mins for tickets to be issued after buying it online. You can also buy attraction tickets via wechat app.
[You need to have a Chinese citizen friend, or someone with a Chinese bank account to help you make the bookings on the app and pay via WeChat, because it’s not available to foreigners. Also, some sights do not allow non-Chinese citizens to purchase tickets via this app, so you could only buy them at the door. It definitely reduces flexibility of your trip if you do it before your trip, but that’s the only way if you want to save money AND time.]
Baidu Map app Google map is very limited in China, most places that we go are not found on google map, so do download Baidu map app for navigation purposes!
Toilet Paper. Yunnan, as beautiful as it is, is devoid of toilet paper for some reason—it’s non-existent in public toilets, and in smaller hotels further into Shangri-la, they give you a pathetic bunch of toilet paper just for you to get by on a day-to-day basis.
Sunblock KEEP putting on sunblock when you are in Yunnan. It’s got super high UV exposure due to high altitude, and reapply every few hours! Do it diligently. Don’t forget the neck, the back of neck, hands and forearms!
Moisturiser (I cannot recommend Lanolin enough, I got it at NTUC for just $4 for 3 big bottles. I didn’t find it in other NTUC but there’s one at Shaw Plaza which stocks it. It’s not oily, gets absorbed into your skin pretty fast, no artificial smell, and keeps your skin in tip top condition) and lip balm Yunnan is extremely dry, so you would start to itch if you don’t get yourself moisturised regularly, and lips would start to crack quite badly.
Wet Wipes. I don’t recall toilets having water when I was in Shangrila. Yes, they have the taps, the sink, but WHERE’S THE WATER?!?! It would also be useful to cover your nose and mouth when you go into toilets without any flush or anyone maintaining them. 😛
Don’t let me scare you, it’s still bearable. At most return it to mother nature in the open if you’re not too shy about it. Or adult diaper—that’s a thought!
Note: don’t carry any sharp things like scissors or knife in any luggage if you are taking trains. The Kunming train station is particularly strict about it. I know cos they confiscated my craft scissors. 😂 it was because several years ago, some terrorists carried out a massacre with their long knives at the Kunming station. And arrive at station at least 0.5hr before your train.
Because we’re travelling at the in-between period of Spring and Summer, most of the Spring flowers have dropped and the Summer ones have yet to bloom. So you’re gonna catch remnants of some flowers like peach blossom, some cherry blossom (Yunnan’s cherry blossom is of bright pink, a specie unique to Yunnan, unlike the pale ones in Japan), Wisteria etc.
If you go in second week of March, you could catch their rows and rows of cherry blossoms. Some famous places are Kunming’s Yuan Tong Hill 圆通山, Dali’s Dali University, and you’d see bits and pieces of fields with wild peach blossoms, pear blossoms along the entire road as well.
Also, we narrowly missed the birds in Shangri-la. They fly to Shangri-la in winter, and leave when it’s warmer. But we did catch lots of seagulls in Kunming–will go to that later.
Fewer people! Most important thing when travelling in China is the crowd. It really makes or breaks your experience, so definitely avoid any public holiday period, school holiday (Chinese New Year, early April–Qing Ming period, early May–Labour Day period, Jul & Aug summer school holidays, early October–National Day, Jan & Feb winter school holidays) period in China, even if that means you’re not at a place at its “best” season. We did it and the trip and sights turned out to be amazing still! You don’t have to worry about fighting for the best accommodation to get the best view of the sights, you don’t have to queue to get in to places, and you don’t need to get into unnecessary arguments with people for cutting your queue! 😛
So I think that leaves us with: early March, mid-end April, mid-end May, September, and mid-end October to visit China. Other periods might be too hot or too cold, so not ideal as well. Different regions have different flowering periods, so it’s possible to check with guides or online on the suitable time to visit each location if you really want to see flowers!
I am breaking my Yunnan trip entry into 2 main journeys to share so each post wouldn’t get too heavy. Also, we’re going to high altitude of almost 4000m at some parts, so it’s good to have a day or two to let your body get used to it as you move along and you can consider doing short visits based on this instead of taking it all in at once:
- Kunming—Dali—Lijiang (about 1 week)
- Shangrila (4 days)–depart from Lijiang and can return to Lijiang [Write-up pending, will update and hyperlink when it’s up]
The itinerary summarises to this:
Day 1: Arrival in Kunming
Day 2: Kunming 1 Day sightseeing
Day 3: Kunming—Dali by slow train (6hrs), arrival in Dali accommodation (didn’t take overnight train, not recommended)
Day 4: Dali’s Erhai Lake photo-tour
Day 5: Dali rest day
Day 6: Dali—Lijiang by slow train (2hrs), arrival in Lijiang accommodation
Day 7: Lijiang Old Town visit
Day 8: Lijiang rest day (haha, there’re plenty of sights, I will write in detail, just that I don’t have a good feeling about Lijjiang so didn’t bother going)—no need to go to Jade Dragon mountain if you are going to Shangri-la, that’s what everyone says. cos Meili and others are less touristy and nicer.
Day 9: Driver/Guide picked us up from Lijiang to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge, White Water Terrace, and stayed overnight in Shangri-la
Day 10: Ganden Songtseling Monastery and Meili Mountain (view from distance)
Day 11: Balagezong Scenic Area
Day 12: Napa Lake & Flight out of Shangri-la
—> There’s the option of continuing to Tibet from Shangri-la, there are typically a few routes to Tibet from China: Yunnan-Tibet, Sichuan-Tibet, and Qinghai-Tibet. But for foreigners, it’s a bit difficult because you need special permit to enter Tibet, and you can only follow certified tour agencies around Lhasa. To go to other parts of Tibet, it’s yet another kind of permit. That makes the route impossible. I’ll try to do more research and see how we could hack this, but meanwhile, we can only do loop tours within China.
All these location names wouldn’t make sense to you (well they didn’t until I see the places), so i’ll go into details of these locations in the individual posts.
The entire route when mapped out on google map looks like this:
Yunnan is known for its extremely diverse ethnic communities since it borders with Myanmar, Tibet and India. In China, many ancient regions are known with one word, and this word for Yunnan is Dian 滇. Because of the many mountains and valleys in Yunnan, accessibility and infrastructural development were very limited in the past. Increasingly, they are working on building more highway access, bullet train and roads, and building a stronger tourism brand for itself. So I think it’s best to visit these places in the next 3-5 years, before the entire world starts swarming in. And that means bearing with the toilets! Once they fixed the toilets, that’s when you’ll see crowds!
One of the most frequently mentioned point when travelling through Yunnan is its importance in the ancient silk road/Tea Horse Road茶马古道, which joins traders from the West through India and Tibet to central China via Yunnan and Sichuan–AKA Dian-Zang Route (Yunnan-Tibet route), and Chuan-Zang Route(Sichuan-Tibet route) in today’s tourism terms.
That’s why the culture is so diverse in this part of China. The soil and land is so fertile in these regions too! All kinds of plants, fruits, trees, flowers, natural habitat and geographical formations! It’s really quite safe too! Because the indigenous people are so abundant in the places we go (especially Shangri-la), and combined with their religious beliefs, it is really a peaceful haven on earth. It’s the non-natives from other parts of China who go there to make a living that you need to be a bit more wary of (scammer alert on high).
It’s a great place to understand Tibetan culture as well, if you are not able to travel to Tibet.
It’s critical that you speak Mandarin well though, although it’s possible to engage guides in English (significantly higher cost), but certain things are hard to translate, especially when it comes to more philosophical things when visiting the monastery.
Don’t join large group tours if you can help it. They may seem cheaper, but there’re shoppings and unnecessary visits to locations that waste your time. Get a guide who drives you around and pay him for what it’s worth, you’ll enjoy your time there immensely more with the flexibility!