There’re too many places to visit, so what I’m recommending is just a tip of the iceberg. I’ll list a few other places for your consideration–places I will visit another time!
Having stayed in NYC for a week before coming to Yunnan, I really wasn’t very interested in touring the city, and I was travelling with my aunt who has some preconceived ideas of where she might like to go, so the places in Kunming aren’t necessarily the best places.
KUNMING (about 1,900m above sea level)
Kunming is known as the city of flowers, because its weather is like spring all year round so they have a lot of species of plants. If you are into cherry blossoms, you could go Kunming early March to see the special Yunnan cherry blossoms that are more intense/brighter pinkish red blooming on some streets or hilltops.
A few good places for flowers (I didn’t manage to go because my aunt wanted to go to specific places… to my dismay):
- Yuan Tong Hill 圆通山
- Kunming Ecological Park 昆明郊野公园
If you are into the clear blue sky, with clear blue water and photo-op with seagulls, then you need to visit their boardwalk at Dian Chi 滇池. It’s really a nice walk along the lake, with LOADS of seagulls–kids might be scared or they might like it. They don’t attack people, and you need to try very hard with a breadstick to get their attention.
There’re people along the boardwalk asking to help you take pictures with the bird eating the bread in your hands, for a cost of 30RMB (6sgd) , you can take your camera and get them to take it for you if you want a group shot, or you can just buy the breadsticks from the roadside sellers for a few RMB and DIY. You need to roll the bread into a dense, hard stick, so you could hold one end and the other end is sticking out clearly for the birds to eat.
Go there early about 10am, so you get the right amount of sunlight for photos, and birds. Any later, apparently the birds would be full and won’t eat the bread.
We also visited the Kunming Expo area, which is a total waste of money. They have lots of flowers apparently, but they were mainly just that one specie and one or two colours of that laid out in very regular rectangular fields. Although, we were pleasantly surprised by pockets of Wisteria enclaves, some remnant of cherry blossom tree, and other flowers in bits and pieces. But nothing spectacular, and the admission people there try to con you to buy expensive tickets to ride on their cabbie cos they say it’s a SUPER long walk in. LIARS! Thankfully we didn’t buy their stories, it’s really quite a short walk of about 30 mins from the entrance to the end with lots of resting stations.
The main purpose of going through the expo, besides the flowers, is to see the summer palace of Wu San Gui 吴三桂–the Ming dynasty military general who opened the doors to the Manchurian troops and caused the fall of the Ming dynasty rule. But people are more interested in the story of him and his concubine–Chen Yuan Yuan.
In popular lore, it was widely believed that Wu Sangui’s motivation of defecting to the Manchurians was because Li Zicheng (head of rebel army) captured the Ming capital of Beijing. And in an attempt to gain Wu’s allegiance, Li also captured his beloved concubine and raped her (whatever must’ve went through Li’s mind to think that would make Wu kowtow to Li is totally beyond me). Wu, then wrote to the Manchurian’s Qing regent, requesting to join forces to oust the rebels from Beijing, and that’s when the Manchurians took over the rule of China for the next 300 years.
Anyway, the Golden Palace of Wu Sangui wasn’t much of a spectacle. It’s really because he was so famous that I went there. If you just want to visit that place, you could skip the cable car ride from the Expo, and head directly to the hilltop. You save a lot of admission fee that way.
We spent a very brief 2 days in Kunming, so we didn’t get to see much (also, jetlagging). Kunming’s a central place to travel from outside of China to other parts of Yunnan. You can join tours at Kunming to get a comprehensive tour of the region, or you can hop on a bullet train to head to Dali to start getting used to the high altitude as you head towards Shangri-la.
If you head North, that’s where Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-la are, and if you head South, you could go Xishuangbanna which is another region with a lot of ethnic cultures.
DALI (about 2,000m above sea level)
Getting there from Kunming
The odd thing about going to Dali is, if you travel by car it’s only about 4hrs by highway, but if you travel by normal train, it’s about 6-7hrs. You’d have thought it’d be ok to top up a little to go by car, especially if you have 3-4 people, but the cost difference is just too much:
To get a car to transport you to Dali, it’ll set you back about 1,500 RMB (about 300 SGD), but if you travel by normal train, it’s only going to cost you 64 RMB/pax (about 13 SGD/pax) for the cheapest seats. I would recommend going for the next tier of tickets which is the sleeper carriage with bunk beds at 97.5 RMB/pax (20 SGD/pax). After all, if it’s by normal train it’s going to be 6-7hrs so it’s best you make yourself comfortable. the hard seats are non-reclinable seats that are joint together (not individual seats) like park benches, cushioned. Also, smokers are everywhere in China. Even though they can’t smoke in the cabins, they tend to smoke at the connection point of the cabins and nobody bothers to close the doors so you get smoke-chambered for a fair amount of time.
But this information would no longer be relevant soon because come 1 July 2018, you would be able to take bullet train from Kunming to Dali—only 2hrs ride! So definitely make a trip to Dali!!
Accommodation: Airbnb’s star-gazing glass room
We paid a bit extra and stayed in the glass room that gave us a glimpse of the night sky and sunrise in Dali. This place doesn’t have an attached bathroom, and has a tight space. But it’s a really romantic place to be! No regrets.
The owners are extremely friendly, helpful and down-to-earth. Give really good recommendation and the place is filled with cats and dogs! You could see that people and animals are really happy living in Dali, and dogs would walk with a bounce like how we would skip and run when we were kids.
There are many other rooms as well with attached bathrooms, so that’s another option. But do note, the place is not smoke-free so you might have neighbours who smoke in the common area etc. The star-gazing room we stayed in was alright because it’s isolated.
Lights in city go out later in the night, so you can see more stars when more lights in the neighbourhood are switched off.
The accommodation’s quite central, you can take a walk in its night market in the old city street as well (nothing much to buy honestly, cos they’re all mass produced, same everywhere, and quite artificial/irrelevant). Can pop by the pubs and bars cos they have good singers though. It makes you realise that China really doesn’t have a lack of talent.
My Guide: Yang Jie (WeChat contact: yangjie2387)
There’s a trend these days for drivers to double up as tour guides and photographers. That’s the kind of service we engaged. They’re not professional guides who can tell you a lot about the places, but they provide you with an entire day’s ride to places, recommendation of sights to visit, and they take photographers with their DSLR cameras for you.
I only engaged mine for 1 day, and was extremely satisfied with the results. My Dali guide was from the Bai ethnic group who are the majority in the Dali area, so he could also bring people to more authentic places besides the nice photo-op places!
As I mentioned, WeChat’s the only way to contact anyone in China, so you can add him: yangjie2387 on wechat and understand more about the trip before going. His rates are 400rmb/day (9am—6pm) for one round around Erhai Lake. If you are hardcore photography person, you might want to book him two days so you can capture the sights in different lighting situation, and go around it counter clockwise and clockwise, and some surrounding places. I missed a few cos of the lack of time, so will definitely go back again!
Bring along a memory card for him to use so you don’t need to transfer from his memory card to your laptop etc.
There are a few other options for similar services too, such as riding a colourful jeep for your entire trip—slightly pricier, but more modern/cool. I didn’t wanna be baked by the sun and Jeep isn’t really comfortable, so I didn’t go for that option.
Some of the photo-op places you go would charge admission/service fee, but it’s not much about 10RMB.
That’s why Dali remains my favourite place in Yunnan for photos.
You can also search for more guides on Ctrip app (download the Chinese version, not sure if the English one has). Go to the following functions:
- Click on the Local Guide icon at the bottom of this screenshot
- Click on the top and key in the place you wanna search for
- Click on the car icon that means guide + transport and the list of guides who comes with different transport options would appear. Some cities would have the walking guide option, so those do not come with cars (note the difference and remember to clarify with the guides before booking their services)
- The guides who come with photography, you need to search for the keywords:
旅拍 or 跟拍
- Read their reviews (if available) and decide if it’s for you. Some people work independently, some people work in teams so who you book might not be the exact guide in the review, and they’ll assign someone else to service you based on availability
The sequence of photo-taking:
- Glass sphere and white table shoots
- Hai She park
- Boat area
- Little Putuo island
The guide will recommend you lunch place that’s affordable and good tasting. Many of the dishes are made from flowers or special plant/fish of the region, so do give it a shot! It’s not very expensive as well, 4 of us had meals that cost less than 200RMB for most of our meals in Yunnan. Usually about 150RMB. I wouldn’t recommend their fish, cos it’s full of fish bones.
Here are the places you could consider going (just show the guide/driver/photographer these pictures and they’ll know your route).
What I did was just one brief day, there’re many other sights along the way that you can ask him to stop by to take, but really, if you are a hardcore photography fan, set aside at least 2 days for pictures in Dali.
Stop 1: man-made photo-op
There’re a few to choose from, but I’m glad our guide brought us to this one cos there’re 3 different scenes to go crazy over!
Best to wear: Red or white colours, flowy ones.
Otherwise: There are red and white dresses for rent for a few SGD, so no worries about that!
I did a fusion wear with white round collar shirt and an embroidered two-layer Chinese skirt.
Stop 2: Stone jetty and trees half-submerged in water
Get ready to get wet if you want nice pictures. The water’s quite clean so no worries about dirtying your dresses!
A little background about Erhai Lake in recent years–About 1.5 years ago, all restaurants and accommodations along Erhai were ordered to cease business because there was just too much pollution in the Erhai water. There was no proper sewage system and water treatment facilities in the area for these establishments, so waste water was just dumped into Erhai, causing the water to be extremely dirty. When Xi Jinping went to Erhai, he made a comment to protect the water of Erhai, and almost immediately all the establishments were closed.
On one hand, it is definitely good news for mother nature and people visiting the lake (like myself)–because it’s being restored to its former glory for all to enjoy. But on the other hand, I can’t help but feel a bit sympathetic towards those who invested hundreds of thousands on transforming various spaces and houses into accommodations and restaurants, only to be told that they are to cease business with no compensation. I guess that’s the reality of doing business in China–there’s a lot of red tapes if you really want to do things properly, and a lot of uncertainty/risk that you need to bear. Builds resilience though.
There are plenty of trees submerged in water along Erhai, but there are a few that are kind of “famous” with queues formed to snap a picture. The next time I go, I won’t take at these places anymore. Instead, I’ll just find some unknown tree and take however I want!
The entire area was a mangrove, that’s why there were many half-submerged trees.
Stop 3: Hai She Park (Sea’s Tongue Park)
This small little land sticking out into Erhai Lake looks like a tongue, that’s why it’s literally called Sea’s Tongue Park. The reason why it’s called Sea and not Lake, is because people in the past didn’t venture much beyond the mountains to see the real sea. So when there’s a large enough pool of water like huge lakes, they call it the sea. Just a trivia, in Tibetan culture, their lakes are called Tso 措, which also refers to large pool of water like lake, sea etc.
I went around noon, so it’s really too hot for me to take much pictures. I was just busy hiding in the shades. Also, because I spent too much time at Stop 1 and 2, we were kind of in a rush to finish the rest of the spots. but there are quite a few places we didn’t take which are photo-worthy! GAH. If you bring a few more change of clothes, might be able to capture more things!
Stop 4: Boats!
This is a place that requires some balancing skills as you move from boat to boat that rocks on the water they are resting on. Again, we were super rushed so didn’t have the chance to take much pictures or change into different dresses for different feel. Good place to try interesting compositions though!
Stop 5: Little Putuo and some islands
We were SUPER exhausted by the time we reach this stop, felt like an amazing race of photo-ops… Didn’t have energy to change much or take much photos so ended with these two surprisingly nice pictures! Importance of good #instahusband (will do another post after the trip on how to train an instahusband! lol)
We ended the day about 7pm+, so we gave our guide an extra 50RMB (he didn’t ask for it, but we felt bad). That’s the nice thing about people in Dali–they aren’t that calculative it seems. Everything’s slow and easy and laid-back. Very good place for honeymoon or staycation.
LIJIANG (about 2,500m above sea level)
Dali to Lijiang is about 2hrs by normal train and 34RMB/pax (cheapest seat), for a bit more comfort I would recommend the 49RMB/pax option. But boy, the carriage is a long walk from platform cos it’s the end of the train (yes, so spoilt… want good seats, then complain about the carriage being at the far end of the train.. lol my Singaporeanness is coming out!)
Accommodation: Airbnb Zen-style suite
Most accommodations in Lijiang have this really kitschy decoration, supposedly a hark back to the traditional houses of the indigenous people of Lijiang (the Bai people). But It’s not really my kind of thing—it’s one thing to visit a UNESCO site to learn about it, but it’s another to live in an artificially built up place that looks last century. Especially since most of the places allow smoking tenants, I decided to go for Airbnb again!
We opted for a Zen-style accommodation which really looks like a mini suite with tatami table for tea, and a sofa and coffee table. The toilet is the Japanese style toilet and their shower stuff were all Japanese brands and nice to use. THEY ACTUALLY HAVE HAIR CONDITIONER!!! (cries of happiness)
It seems a little pricier than the others (about 150-200RMB/night for normal accommodation) and this is about 300RMB/night, but I find that it’s really worth it.
Just some background information about setting up inns and accommodations in Lijiang Old Town since we’re on this topic. Apparently the annual rental on average is about 400,000 RMB/ year (about 85,000 SGD/year), not including your renovation costs and other overhead. Renovation is about 2million RMB (about 450,000 SGD/year), easily. Because this is a UNESCO site so conservation work has to be done and a lot of cost has to go into making an old house liveable for modern travellers.
I read a lot of horror stories of touring sites around the area, so I thought of just taking a break. BEWARE of scammers saying they’ll take you to Lashi lake or some sights for 50RMB or cheaper, they’ll usually scam you at the end of in the middle and you’ll end up paying much much more! The market price for a whole day at Lashi lake that includes trekking on horse around the lake, and canoeing in the lake, is about 250RMB/pax (plus minus). The owner of the airbnb I went knows a good one apparently, so can contact her for recommendations if you’re staying there.
Sights: We went to the Lion’s Hill (Shizi Shan) which is the highest point in the entire Old Town area, so you could get a good view of the old and new town. But I don’t really recommend it because there’s nothing more to it. On the other hand, If you visit their Mu Fu (Residence of their ancient ruler who built the residence in Ming dynasty circa 16th century), you could see almost as good a view and you learn a lot more about the history of Lijiang. Mu Fu was built in the likeness of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and it is a really nice stroll in its garden and courtyards. Go when it just opens at 10am, that’s when there’s least people and you can have the place to yourself. There’s free guided tour (mandarin) so do join in and learn about it! They will sit you down in the middle for tea, and they’ll promote their tea to you. They’re all quite reasonably priced at 30rmb/tin (I checked on taobao, the price is very reasonable) and they’ll send to any China address for free if you purchase 4 tins. Good for travellers like me who can’t carry too much stuff throughout my trip. You can ship back to Singapore via Ezbuy, Oops.sg or other freight forwarding companies.
Here’s a few random spaces I found and took photos at, all courtesy of my amazing #instahusband!
If you live in the old town, get up early about 8ish 9am and walk around the old town–it’s the most quiet in the morning. The crowd starts streaming in from afternoon and peaks at night.
OK, up next, Shangri-la!