Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture

As an area of both extreme ethnic diversity and biodiversity, the prefecture of Xishuangbanna is one of the last known refuges of both the Jinuo ethnic minority and the rare Asian elephant. Although its full name, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, suggests that it is dominated by the Dai ethnic minority, this is far from the truth. The Dai people only account for 30% of the 990,000 strong population and the prefecture in fact supports 13 of China’s 56 resident ethnic minorities. From the Jinuo people, who are peculiar to the prefecture, right through to the mysterious Blang people, cultures of all kinds have found their niche in this tropical paradise.

Xishuangbanna shares its borders with Burma and Laos, and its southerly location, coupled with its low altitude, means it benefits from a near tropical climate. In ancient times, the Dai referred to the region as “Mengbanaxi” or “Miraculous Utopia” because, even in winter, it was as hot and balmy as summer. With an average annual temperature of between 18 and 22°C (64.4-71.6°F), the weather is so consistently warm that the locals often say there are only two seasons; dry and rainy. It is often recommended to visit between November and April, during the dry season, but the exceptional condition of the roads means that even a trip during the rainy season is feasible if you want to avoid the tourist crowds. Just be sure to pack an umbrella since, in these temperatures, wearing a raincoat will practically turn you into a walking sauna!

Tropical fruits, herbs, teas, coffee and Yunnan tobacco are all in abundance throughout Xishuangbanna and form part of the rich, lusciously multi-coloured tapestry of the landscape. Some of the highest quality pu’er tea is produced in this region along what are known as the Six Famous Tea Mountains. In a place where even the mountains are famous, you know there will be plenty of stunning attractions to keep you occupied! In Wild Elephant Valley, visitors can stay in hostels near the Mengyang Nature Reserve, 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the prefectural capital of Jinghong, and make their way through virgin forests, occasionally being treated to rare glimpses of China’s only community of Asian elephants. In the Single Tree Forest you can marvel at the nine-hundred-year old banyan tree, which covers an area so large (over 120 square metres or 143.6 square yards) that it is practically a forest in of itself!

Xishuangbanna’s proximity to other Southeast Asian countries means that is has been heavily influenced by Buddhism and much of its architecture reflects this. The magnificent Manfeilong Pagodas, a complex of nine snow-white pagodas in Manfeilong Village, are the perfect place to witness the religion in action. The Water Splashing Festival of the Dai people, a Buddhist festival which normally takes place from the 13th to the 15th of April each year, is held at this complex and represents one of the most popular ethnic minority festivals in China; perhaps because it affords the opportunity to throw buckets of water on your friends! However, if you happen to miss it there’s no need to fret as the Dai Ethnic Garden holds their own Water Splashing Festival every day of the year!

From the Menglun Tropical Botanical Garden to the Mandian Waterfall, from the wild elephants through to the diverse ethnic peoples, Xishuangbanna is undoubtedly an exotic utopia that you don’t want to miss.

The Manfeilong Pagodas

With its golden tip glinting in the blinding sunlight, the main stupa of the Manfeilong Pagodas rises up like a shimmering lighthouse in a sea of rich tropical greenery. Buried in the rainforests of Xishuangbanna, on a hill near Manfeilong Village just 70 kilometres south of Jinghong City, these towering edifices are rumoured to be over 800 years old. Yet for so many years it appears they have been called by the wrong name! They are actually stupas, not pagodas, as a pagoda is a multi-tiered temple or place of worship whilst the Manfeilong Pagodas are hemispherical structures with small interiors designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation. They look like large gourds and so earned the alternate name the “Bamboo Shoot Pagodas” for their striking resemblance to bamboo shoots. That being said, we don’t recommend trying to cut them up as part of a tasty stir-fry!

The site is made up of one central stupa that is approximately 16 metres (52 ft.) in height, with eight smaller stupas surrounding it at about 9 metres (30 ft.) in height. Some say that the main stupa looks like a caring parent surrounded by her bulbous little children! According to Buddhist records, the complex was built in 1204 AD or the year 565 according to the Dai ethnic minority’s calendar. It was originally designed by three Indian Buddhist monks and was sponsored by the chieftain of a local tribe, but has recently been renovated. Today the stupas pure white bricks still shimmer as the sunlight hits their calabash shaped bodies and the bells that dangle from the top of the main stupa still chime sweetly in the wind.

Inside each stupa you’ll find a niche featuring a statue and a relief of Buddha with another niche above it containing a relief of a flying phoenix. The gates of each stupa are topped with engravings of two giant dragons and both the interior and exterior are heavily decorated with sculptures, reliefs, and colourful paintings, all in the style of the Dai ethnic minority. All of these mystical figures combine to give the stupas an ethereal appearance. With dragons guarding the outside and phoenixes keeping watch over the inside, it’s no wonder the Manfeilong Pagodas have survived for so long!

Just to the south of the stupas, you’ll find a large footprint imprinted on a rock. According to local legend, this is the footprint of Sakyamuni[1] and is thus greatly revered by the local people. Both the Manfeilong Pagodas and the nearby Black Pagoda were built in honour of this rock. The Black Pagoda, towering over the Manfeilong Pagodas at 18 metres (59 ft.) in height, is equally famous and has an equally misleading name, as it is now silvery white in colour! It is seven-storeys high and was originally black, but has suffered numerous paint jobs that have now led to the confusion regarding its name.

The Manfeilong Pagodas and the Black Pagoda are dedicated to Hinayana Buddhism, a small branch of the religion that is known for being particularly conservative, and if you visit the Black Pagoda nowadays you’ll still find monks diligently worshipping there. Every year, usually from the 13th to the 15th of April, Dai people from Manfeilong Village gather at the stupas and the pagoda to celebrate the Water Splashing Festival. This Buddhist festival represents the New Year according to the Dai calendar and involves chasing your friends and family while splashing water on them! The Dai people are known for their friendliness and will happily let visitors take part in the celebrations. After all, it’s always better to have more targets in a water fight!

[1] Sakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.


xizhou 01

Xizhou literally means the “happy prefecture” and, if you take one look at its idyllic surroundings, you’ll see why. The town lies on the richly fertile strip of land between Erhai Lake and the Cangshan Mountains, and is only 18 kilometres north of Dali Ancient Town, making it a rural paradise that should not be missed. The town has achieved great renown throughout Yunnan for its beautifully preserved buildings, which are a seamless mixture of Bai ethnic minority and Qing Dynasty style architecture. Over 200 of the households are registered as national cultural relics, which practically makes the town a living museum. And, if that doesn’t tempt you, the locals even have their own kind of pizza!

The town was originally formed by the Yan, Dong, Yang and Zhao clans from the Bai ethnic minority. Many of the mansions scattered throughout Xizhou were founded by these families and the Yan Family Compound has now been converted into a delightful museum. The houses were built based on the Bai concept of “three rooms and one wall screening, four joints and five courtyards”.

The first half refers to the structure of the main house, which will usually have one main room, two side rooms and a “shining wall” that reflects light back into the house at sunset. The second half refers to the four courtyards in the corners of the compound that join the four walls together and the fifth courtyard that sits at the centre. The homes themselves are decorated with hexagonal honeycomb patterns, elaborately carved gateways, colourful paintings, and marble ornaments. They are considered some of the most well-preserved examples of Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) architecture and their Bai ethnic flair is what makes them unique.

But how were these ancient farmers able to build such fine mansions? By becoming rich of course! During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the four clans of Xizhou amassed great wealth through trade. Thanks to the Tea-Horse Road, Bai merchants were able to trade locally sourced tea and marble throughout Asia. The rich merchant families then encouraged their children to pursue a life of academics and many went on to successfully take the imperial examinations. Thus Xizhou rapidly became a community of prosperous merchants, officials and scholars.

When the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911, the Bai businessmen didn’t panic; they just kept on trading! Some of these families were so wealthy that they were able to send their children overseas to study. During the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the National Army used Xizhou as a stronghold. They successfully protected the town from Japanese soldiers and thus it suffered little damage throughout the war. When many Chinese intellectuals fled to this safe haven, the Huazhong University was established and Xizhou soon came to be known as the “Cambridge of the East”. Thus much of the town’s architecture was saved from destruction and many of its locals went on to become professors in universities around the world. When you consider just how small and isolated Xizhou is, its economic and academic development is truly outstanding.

Nowadays most activity in the town circulates around Sifang Jie, the old town square. There you can find many vendors selling charming souvenirs, such as Bai batik[1] cloth, embroidered clothing, marble ornaments and various antiques. You can also sample many local snacks there, including Yunnan-style barbecue and Xizhou baba (喜州粑粑). Xizhou baba is a lardy flatbread that is either topped with minced pork and spring onions or filled with sweet red bean paste. Its circular shape and use of meaty toppings has earned it the nickname “Xizhou pizza”. Just don’t go asking any of the vendors for stuffed crust or pepperoni!

Part of the town rests on the shores of Erhai Lake, making it the ideal place to go for a swim or simply take in the pleasant scenery. If you fancy a longer stay, the old Yang family compound has been converted into a hotel and is now named the Linden Centre, after its American owners. The hotel also acts as a cultural retreat, running numerous tours throughout the year.

Yan Family Compound

xizhou yan familyThis ancient mansion is considered one of the most characteristic examples of Bai architecture in the town. It once belonged to the Yan family but was donated to the local government and converted into a museum. The “shining wall” of the principal house is adorned with stunning calligraphy, while inside the museum you’ll find many of the precious items signifying the wealth of the Yan clan.

Here you can also to take part in the traditional Three Teas Ceremony. During the ceremony, you drink three cups of tea; the first is bitter, the second is sweet, and the third is a cleansing tea that is bitter, sweet and spicy. The first cup symbolises suffering, the second represents the happiness of overcoming hardship, and the third signifies reflection on the past. Just don’t get too wrapped up in your own spiritual musings, or your tea will go cold!

[1] Batik: A cloth-dying process whereby a knife that has been dipped in hot wax is used to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth.

Yunnan Cuisine

With its rich biodiversity and diverse ethnic minority population, Yunnan is a tantalising melting pot of exotic ingredients, vibrant flavours, and ethnic flair. Yunnan cuisine is sometimes referred to as Dian cuisine and is known for its moderately spicy and sour dishes that boast an unexpected sweetness. Each signature dish attempts to preserve the original taste of each ingredient used and this is what makes Yunnan’s style so unique.

Mushrooms and mints feature as a prominent ingredient in many dishes, but other unusual ingredients include flowers, ferns, algae and even insects. Just don’t try to worm your way out of eating these peculiar treats, or you’ll regret it! In the south of Yunnan, the signature dishes have also been heavily influenced by Burmese, Lao and Thai style cuisine, meaning that ingredients such as lime juice, coconut, and palm sugar feature widely. With that in mind, here are just a few examples of what makes Yunnan cuisine so utterly irresistible.

Steam Pot Chicken (汽锅鸡)

Steam Pot Chicken

This dish is particularly striking, as it’s made using an invention that originated from Yunnan. This cooking tool, known as a steam pot, is made of clay and the bottom of the pot has a funnel-shaped opening that goes up through the pot. When it is placed over boiling water, steam travels up the funnel into the pot and, if the pot is covered over, the steam will be trapped inside. Thus it’s an ideal tool for steaming food whilst also sealing in much of the flavour.

Steam Pot Chicken dates all the way back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and was formally discovered by Emperor Qianlong while he was taking a tour of Yunnan. He tasted this time-honoured dish and admired it greatly. The dish itself is relatively simple and chicken is the meat of choice because it steam cooks easily. Chicken is added to the pot, along with rare medicinal herbs that are native to Yunnan. The chicken is then steamed for between three to four hours, until the meat is mouth-wateringly tender and the soup gives off an irresistible aroma. The herbs used vary from restaurant to restaurant, so each dish will be a little different wherever you go!

Crossing the Bridge Noodles (过桥米线)

Crossing the Bridge Noodles

The unusual name of this dish comes from an old Yunnan legend. The most popular version of the story is about a Qing scholar who would retire to an island in the centre of a lake every evening to study for the imperial examinations. His loving wife used to cook him dinner every day, but as she crossed the bridge to the island the noodle soup would go cold. She then hit upon the idea of using fatty chicken to make the broth so that the layer of hot oil covering the soup would keep the heat in. In this way, she was able to deliver a delicious hot meal to her husband each day.

Nowadays, this noodle dish is hugely popular throughout Yunnan and many locals have it regularly for breakfast. In some restaurants, the broth is served separately from the raw ingredients and you cook the dish at your table like a hotpot, while in other restaurants it will all be served together. First the broth is made by boiling a fatty chicken with pig bones. Then meat, such as chicken, pork, liver, fish, or ham, is added to the broth along with an assortment of boiled vegetables. Finally the rice noodles are added and the dish is seasoned with chilli oil, ground peppers, sesame seed oil, and salt to taste. Each vendor will have their own variation on this tempting treat, so be sure to try a few and find the one you love!

Old Granny’s Potato (老奶洋芋)

Old Granny’s Potato

The name “old granny’s potato” comes from a long running joke in Yunnan that this dish is so soft even an elderly person with no teeth could eat it easily! But don’t worry; you won’t have to go all the way to an old folks’ home to find this home-cooked delight. This potato dish can be found in most restaurants throughout Yunnan and is the ideal comfort food, similar to mashed potatoes or bubble and squeak. Cooked potato is first mashed and then stir fried with a selection of seasonings, including garlic, spring onion, dried chillies, and ground Sichuan pepper. Fresh or pickled vegetables, such as pickled mustard, pickled cabbage, fresh carrot, and sweet peppers, are sometimes added depending on preference. The meat-eaters among you can also add Xuanwei ham to the dish, which gives it an extra salty, smoky tang. This dish can be easily adapted to suit anyone’s palate and is so comforting to eat that it feels like a warm hug from a loving granny.

Wild Mushroom Hotpot (野生菌火锅)

Wild Mushroom Hotpot

Every year, from June to September, visitors to Yunnan are greeted with a plethora of delicious, edible mushrooms, for this is the annual mushroom season! Each one is named based on its appearance or taste, ranging from the monkey head mushroom and the cow liver mushroom to the rare and highly prized matsutake or pine mushroom and the fish-flavoured seafood mushroom. These funky fungi are a banquet in of themselves and each boast unique flavours and medicinal qualities. Along Guanxing Road in Kunming there is even a mushroom hotpot street, where small restaurants crop up during mushroom season and serve only their variation on this delicious dish.

As with all hotpots, you’ll first be presented with a large pot containing broth. The broth is boiled at the table and will contain a mixture of seasonings based on that restaurant’s secret recipe. You can then add a selection of raw ingredients, including day lily bulbs, vermicelli, leeks and Chinese lettuce. You will then choose a selection of tasty mushrooms and your waitress will tell you in what order they should be placed in the broth. This is to make sure they are all thoroughly cooked and ready to eat. Some of these wild mushrooms are mildly toxic until they are cooked through, so we strongly recommend following your waitress’ advice carefully. Trying something new makes for a fun risk, but eating a toxic mushroom is not a risk you want to take!





The silent Stone Forest of Yunnan, with its rocks jutting out of the ground like petrified trees, is an ancient wonder unmatched throughout the world. Its history stretches back over 230 million years, when it was once a vast uninhabited ocean. As the water drained away, giant rocks appeared in its wake and slowly eroded over time, forming the alien shapes that we see today. There’s an old local saying in Yunnan that goes “if you have visited Kunming without visiting the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time” and, blunt though it may be, it speaks to how important this site is to the people of the province. Everyone sees something different in this stony wonderland. You may find these fanciful rocks look like animals, plants, people, or even deities! Or they may just look like rocks.

The Stone Forest, or Shilin (石林) in Chinese, is about 90 kilometres (56 mi) away from the provincial capital of Kunming. The site is divided into seven areas known as the Greater and Lesser Stone Forests, the Naigu Stone Forest, Zhiyun Cave, Lake Chang, Lake Yue, Dadie Waterfall, and Qifeng Cave. Each of these scenic areas has its own peculiar charm. As soon as you enter the Stone Forest, you’ll be met with a plethora of rocks looming over a crystal clear lake. Just beyond the lake, you’ll find the Lion Pool, where a huge boulder resembling a squatting lion stands guard.

This is the entrance to the Greater and Lesser Stone Forests, which are full of fantastically shaped rocks that are sure to spark your imagination. From the ethereal sounding “Lotus Peak” and “Pinnacles Propping up the Sky” to the rather more amusing “Stone Singing Praises of Plums” and “Rhinoceros Admiring the Moon”, we’re sure you’ll delight in learning the names of these many formations and perhaps inventing a few names of your own! In Zhiyun Cave, you’ll find a spectacular and rather spooky subterranean version of the stone forests outside. This miniature, underground forest is illuminated by coloured lights, giving it an otherworldly appearance, and it is said that no matter which rock you knock on, each one has a different voice.

Like Zhiyun Cave, Lake Chang boasts a small rocky forest of its own. In this 3-kilometre-long (2 mi) lake there are numerous underwater stalagmites that give the pool the appearance of an aquatic labyrinth. The lake is so massive that there’s even an island at its centre! Not far from all these karst delights, you’ll find the Qifeng or “Strange Wind” Cave. From August to November every year, gales lasting two to three minutes in length burst out of the cave at 30 minute intervals. No one knows the precise nature of this natural phenomenon, but witnessing this “strange wind” first-hand is both a shocking and delightful experience.

If you take a walk through these extraordinary labyrinths, you may even come upon the protected zone, where you’ll find ancient frescos painted on the stone walls. These “cave paintings”, so to speak, date all the way back to the Neolithic Period and were made using a mixture of animal blood and minerals. They are one of the few remaining links to our evolutionary ancestors and the sight of them, in their humble glory, is truly breath-taking. Alongside the many fossils and paintings that are part of this protected zone, it’s hard not to feel as though you have returned to your primal beginnings. That is, until you return to your tour bus and wonder how our ancient ancestors ever got by without air-conditioning!

Perhaps the most famous karst formation in the Stone Forest is that of the mythical Ashima. According to legend, Ashima was a kind, intelligent, hard-working and beautiful girl from the Sani branch of the Yi ethnic minority. In some variations of the story, she falls in love with an orphaned shepherd named Ahei, whilst in other variations Ahei is her loving brother. Ashima’s happy life takes a turn for the worse when she catches the eye of Azhi, the son of a wealthy landowner. When she refuses his offer of marriage, Azhi arranges to have her kidnapped and brought to his fortress. On discovering his beloved is missing, Ahei rushes to confront Azhi and engages him in a riddle-singing contest. After three solid days of singing, Ahei won the contest and rescued Ashima. Tragically, as they are rode away from the fortress, the nefarious Azhi opened the floodgates and diverted the river into the valley.

Ahei survived, but Ashima tragically drowned. When the immortals heard Ahei’s anguished cries, in an effort to comfort him they transformed Ashima’s body into stone. She now stands in the Stone Forest as a symbol of hope and freedom to choose who you wish to marry. Every year, on June 24th according to the Chinese lunar calendar, members of the Sani branch gather at the stone statue of Ashima and celebrate the Torch Festival. They take part in traditional performances, such as wrestling, bull fighting, pole-climbing, dragon-dancing, lion-dancing and the A-xi Moon Dance, and pay homage to their heroine. The story of Ashima was first transcribed in the 1940s and performed in Kunming. Nowadays, it is considered one of the top Chinese dance dramas and has been translated into eight different languages, enjoying performances across the globe.

The Stone Forest can be easily reached from Kunming via the numerous tour buses that shuttle between the city and the scenic area, which take approximately 3 hours. There are a handful of hostels and hotels near the Stone Forest and, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can even rough it in one of the designated camp sites within the scenic area. Although there are not many restaurants in the area and many of the dishes there are quite simple, we feel this only adds to the rustic charm of the site. Just don’t get too used to living like a caveman, or you might become one!

Shuhe Town


While Baisha Village was the birthplace of the Mu clan and Dayan Town (modern-day Lijiang Old Town) was the metropolis where they guided the ethnic Naxi people to prosperity, Shuhe Town trumps them both as the first known settlement of Naxi people in Lijiang County. It is unsurprising that, like its two historic cousins, Shuhe Town was included by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This sleepy little town rests in the idyllic countryside about 4 kilometres northwest of Lijiang Old Town and sits at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which is pretty apt considering the Naxi word “shuhe” literally means “a village at the foot of a peak”! Though it may lack the bustling lifestyle of Lijiang Old Town or the abundant cultural artefacts of Baisha Village, its charm lies in its peaceful rural simplicity.

The town is made up of 1,000 households, each built using rocks that were harvested from the nearby mountains, and its 3,000 residents make a humble living from farming, tourism and leatherworking. Like Lijiang Old Town and Baisha Village, it was once an important trade hub on the ancient Tea-Horse Road. However, Shuhe’s originality lies in its history, as the town perfectly exhibits how the ancient Naxi people made the transition from an agricultural civilization to a commercial culture. While Lijiang Old Town and Baisha both effectively started out as trading centres of the Mu clan, Shuhe was transformed from a humble farming village into an instrumental transportation centre. This is evidenced not in grand murals or historic epics but in the architecture of the town itself, which slowly developed from simple wooden dwellings to elaborately decorated stone mansions.

Qinglong Bridge is just one of these stone structures and dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This 400-year-old bridge is about 25 metres long and its worn flagstones serve as a reminder of the many thousand feet that have tread its length over the years. It is considered to be the first old stone bridge built in Lijiang County but, in spite of its age, it has yet to retire!

shuhe ancient town 01Shuhe is sometimes referred to as Longquan or “Dragon Spring” Village because of the sacred spring at the end of its main street. This bubbling spring, known as Jiuding Dragon Pool, can supposedly be heard from miles away and the local Naxi people believe the fish that reside in this pool are the spirits of gods. That being said, eating the fish will not give you godlike powers so don’t go fishing in the pool or you’ll be chased out of the village! The spring was considered so sacred that a temple, known as Beiquan or “North Spring” Temple, was built just behind it. The locals still pray here and the majestic Sansheng Palace, the most architecturally unique part of the temple, is decorated with art handcrafted by Shuhe’s master leatherworkers.

The town is wonderfully tranquil, but take a trip to the square on market day and you’ll be met with a cacophony of footsteps, laughter, and the shouts of vendors plying their wares. It’s the perfect opportunity to embed yourself in the daily life of the Naxi people and peruse the local stalls, where you may pick up a few souvenirs. Though your suitcase may be weighted down with handcrafted leather bracelets and Naxi embroidered silk portraits, your wallet will certainly end up a little lighter!

Along the main waterway, there are a number of restaurants serving Naxi and Western-style food. With the verdant mountains above you and the trickling streams below, be sure not to get too carried away admiring the landscape or your food might go cold! The peak tourist season in Shuhe is between May and October but, if you have the chance, we recommend visiting the town outside of peak season to avoid the crowds.


Shaxi ancient town 01

The sleepy town of Shaxi near the Heihui River is a far cry from what it once was. However, go there any given Friday and you’ll be met with the bustling local market, the last remnant of a trading culture that has all but disappeared in modern-day China. Like Dali Ancient Town and Shuhe Town, Shaxi once prospered thanks to the ancient Tea-Horse Road but, unlike its local counterparts, it has not yet suffered from the commercialisation that tourist towns inevitably succumb to. Though Shaxi boasts a few Western-style restaurants and boutique hotels, its relative inaccessibility compared to many of the other ancient towns in Yunnan means it does not receive the hordes of tourists that can make these spots a little less magical.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Shaxi became one of the focal trade hubs along the Tea-Horse Road and by the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties it had flourished into one of the most affluent towns in Yunnan. Shaxi’s success largely arose from the salt wells that were dug near the town. It soon became the salt trade capital and, with salt being one of the most valuable commodities at the time, it prospered far beyond expectation. Revenge may be sweet, but success is evidently salty! This allowed the town to expand and many of the elaborate buildings found throughout Shaxi were erected during this time.

The town is largely inhabited by the Bai ethnic minority and many of its old buildings follow the Bai-style of “three rooms and one wall screening”. The house will usually consist of one main room, two side rooms and a “shining wall” that faces west so as to reflect light back into the house at sunset. The houses normally have three storeys in total and nine rooms, as nine is an auspicious number in Bai culture. The ground floor usually consists of one large sitting room flanked by two bedrooms, while the upper floors are used for storage with a special room set aside for the ancestral shrine.

Life in Shaxi mainly revolves around Square Street, the town’s central square. This ancient plaza is covered in red sand bricks and has two Chinese scholar trees standing at its centre that are each centuries old. It is still fully functioning on market day and is surrounded by a number of small temples, shops, teahouses and restaurants. It is flanked on its east side by an ancient stage and on its west by the 600-year-old Xingjiao Temple. The many ancient alleyways that branch out from Square Street are the backbone of Shaxi and provide access to its outer reaches. They lead to the village gates and pass by ancient caravansaries, eventually heading out towards Dali, Tibet and the salt wells.

The ancient stage is widely considered to be the heart and soul of Shaxi. The craftsmanship with which it was made is palpable in its many intricate carvings. It was built during the Qing Dynasty and is part of the three-storey Kuixing Pavilion. If you pay 10 yuan (about £1), you can ascend the ancient stage and head up to an exhibition of locally excavated cultural relics on the pavilion’s second storey. Just don’t linger too long on the stage, or the locals might expect a performance from you!

If you fancy getting in touch with the town’s history, you should certainly take a trip to Ouyang House. It was one of the original caravansaries and has been home to generations of muleteers over a period of one hundred years. In the early 1900s, the Ouyang family opened their house to passing caravans and offered food, lodgings and entertainment. They swiftly became the leading innkeepers in Shaxi and their substantial income enabled them to renovate and extend their inn. Nowadays, you can pay just 5 yuan (about 50p) to take a tour of the house and marvel at its ancient stables, guest quarters, kitchen, and ancestral shrine.

In spite of all these visual wonders, the must-see attraction in Shaxi is the town market, which has supposedly been held weekly since 1415. Although it started as a small affair, it has now become an all-consuming venture that billows out from the town square and floods the streets of Shaxi every week. From 10am till 5pm every Friday, goods ranging from washing machines to embroidered shoes and exotic fruits can be purchased at this eclectic market. It is a living remnant of Shaxi’s history as a trading post and is a spectacle of vibrancy, colour and animation that should not be missed.

Not far from the town you’ll find Mount Shibao, which is a mountain that has been delicately engraved with Buddhist carvings that date back to the 7th century. These 1,300-year-old carvings, punctuated by small temples along the mountainside, are truly stunning and make for a wonderful day out. If you decide to cycle out of the town, there are many small Bai and Yi villages in the Shaxi Valley that are only a short distance away and each boast their own unique attractions, from the renovated Pear Orchard Temple in Diantou Village to the Kuixing Pavilion of Changle Village.

If possible, we recommend you aim to catch the Temple Fair of Prince Shakyamuni, which takes place on the 8th day of the 2nd month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. During this festival, locals in colourful traditional clothes gather at Xingjiao Temple and parade through the streets carrying statues of Shakyamuni[1], while a team of people beat gongs and drums to liven up the procession. Performances will take place on the ancient stage throughout the festival and the celebrations carry on late into the night, electrifying the town square with bright lights, lively music and joyous dancing.

[1] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the name Sakya, which is where he was born.

Shangri-La County

Like its counterpart in James Hilton’s novel The Lost Horizon, Shangri-La (Xamgyi’nyilha) County in northwestern Yunnan is an isolated paradise awash with snow-capped mountains, colourful flowers, sparkling lakes, and lush pine forests. It was originally named Zhongdian but was renamed in 2001 in an effort to boost foreign tourism in the area. Yet, in spite of the mystical name change, the area is still relatively quiet and provides a welcome break from the thronging tourist crowds of Lijiang and Dali. The county rests on the border where Yunnan, Tibet and Sichuan meet and is home mainly to the Tibetan ethnic minority, who still refer to it by its traditional name of Gyalthang or Gyaitang, meaning “Royal Plains”. With names as grand as these, the county has a hefty reputation that it nonetheless manages to live up to.

While the county city, aptly named Shangri-La, is split between the Han and Tibetan ethnic groups, the county also plays host to a smattering of 13 of China’s ethnic minorities, including communities of the Naxi, Bai, Yi and Lisu people, and the surrounding countryside is entirely dominated by Tibetan villages. Thus it’s the ideal place to learn about Tibetan culture and experience life in a Tibetan village first-hand. In the southeast section of the city, you’ll find Dukezong or Dorkhar Old Town, a small Tibetan town that has thrived for over 1,300 years. Tragically large parts of the old town were destroyed during a fire in 2014 but, thanks to evacuation efforts and extensive rebuilding, no one was harmed and the district is still open for tourism.

Thankfully Guishan Temple was not damaged in the fire and is still home to a handful of Buddhist monks who perform daily morning prayers. Alongside the temple you’ll find the ancient Zhuangjin Tong, a 21 metre-high (69 ft.) prayer wheel that contains 100,000 smaller wheels. To put that into perspective, it’s seven times the size of an African Elephant! It is considered to be the largest of its kind in the world and takes six people just to spin it. So next time you’re in the supermarket and you’re pondering how difficult it is to push your trolley around, remember those poor weary monks pushing that colossal wheel.

Just an hour’s walk north of Dukezong, the Gandan Sumtseling Monastery has garnered great fame as the largest of the 24 Tibetan monasteries in Diqing Prefecture. The temple complex is home to over 600 Buddhist monks and is the ideal place for visitors to learn more about this ancient, mysterious religion. Yet it is once you leave the urban areas of Shangri-La that you begin to appreciate its true beauty. The county is home to three of the most famous mountains in Yunnan, known as Meili, Baimang, and Haba Snow Mountain, and the Tibetan people consider Meili Mountain so sacred that it is one of only eight mountains they actively worship. Thus climbing it is both sacrilegious and illegal but, with its tallest peak Kawagarbo reaching a whopping 6,740 metres above sea level, we sincerely doubt there are many mountaineers itching for this virtually insurmountable challenge!

Both Meili and Haba Snow Mountain make up part of the Three Parallel Rivers National Park and the Haba Mountain also makes up one side of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The county is full to bursting with some of the greatest natural tourist attractions in China but, if you fancy avoiding the dizzying altitudes of these mountain parks, the Pudacuo National Park is a more forgiving place where tourists can marvel at the rich biodiversity of the region without having to worry about passing out! It was the first national park in China to meet the IUCN’s[1] standards and is home to over 20% of the country’s plant species and one-third of its mammal and bird species, with almost 100 of these being currently endangered. Throughout spring and summer the park is covered in a blanket of orchids, camellias, azaleas and numerous multi-coloured flowers that make its meadows appear almost ethereal.

We recommend visiting Shangri-La between March and October since frequent snowstorms cause the area to practically shut down during the winter months. Throughout mid to late June a horse-racing festival is held in the city of Shangri-La and, although the festivities are heavily crowded, it’s a wonderful way to connect with the local culture and witness some traditional dancing, singing, and of course horse-racing!

[1] IUCN: The International Union for Conservation of Nature

Cuihu Park

Cuihu Park Kunming

In most places across the globe, seagulls are regarded as vermin, but in Kunming they are met with admiration, flocks of visitors, and heaps of tasty titbits. That being said, these are not just any seagulls. These are the rare black-headed seagulls, which have migrated from Siberia to Kunming every winter since 1985. From early November through to late May, Cuihu Park plays host to a flurry of lively seagulls as they prepare to settle down for the temperate winter in the city. With its verdant islets, emerald pools, towering pavilions, and tropical forests, it’s no wonder that seagulls and humans alike descend on the park every year to take advantage of its many attractions.

Back during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) the site of Cuihu Park was just a swampy marsh that locals used to grow vegetables, lotuses, and rice, earning it the name “Vegetable Lake”. It was originally part of Dianchi Lake, but as the water-table dropped it eventually separated, leaving behind the Green Lake or “cuihu” (翠湖) that merited the park its current name. The park consists of about four small sub-lakes and four islands that are connected by elaborately decorated bridges. These are Mid-lake Island, Goldfish Island, Bamboo Forest Island, and Palm Island. Each island has its own unique delights on offer, from watching the shimmering carp meander through the lakes to relaxing with a picnic under the shade of tree.

On Mid-lake Island you’ll find the Lotus Temple, Fish-Viewing Pavilion and Mid-lake Pavilion. A part of the Mid-Lake Pavilion, known as the Water Moon Pavilion, was once the site of one of the earliest cinemas in China. Nowadays the entirety of the pavilion is used by locals for recreational activities, such as practising Tai Chi, singing, and the playing of traditional instruments. If you’re lucky, you may even catch some of the elderly local women dancing there at night. These women may be older, but they still know how to have a good time! At festival time, this pavilion plays host to a myriad of wonderful performances, such as lantern shows and flower shows. Unsurprisingly, the Fish-Viewing Pavilion is a platform where visitors can admire and feed the resident koi carp as their while away their lazy days in the lake. But be warned, if you try feeding the fish during winter you may end up with a flock of jealous seagulls instead!

In the northeast of the park, near the Bamboo Forest Island, you’ll find the Nine-Dragon Pond. This is in fact a spring, not a pond, and earned its name because the water trickles from nine holes, which the locals believe are home to nine dragons. The Bamboo Forest itself boasts an array of bamboo species, including several varieties of the rare Chimonobambusa. These towering poles of stunning, hollow grass are both beautiful and rather haunting. With all this tantalising bamboo around, it’s a small wonder Kunming isn’t overrun with pandas.

In the southwest section of the park, the aptly named Palm Island is host to a variety of verdant tropical plants. This sudden burst of colour in the middle of the city provides locals with a welcome slice of nature and is also a perfect place to have a picnic. The famous statue of Nie Er, composer of the Chinese National Anthem, stands proud on this island. Nie Er originated from Kunming and it was rumoured that he liked to practise playing his instruments near the Green Lake. It is easy to see how Nie Er composed the rousing tunes of the national anthem in a place as inspiring and peaceful as Cuihu Park.

The park is so treasured by the locals that they often refer to it as the “Jade of Kunming”. With its luscious tropical vegetation, calm clear waters, zigzagging bridges, and lavishly decorated architecture, the park looks like a watercolour painting poised in the centre of the bustling city. From its gate, lined by the finest restaurants, teahouses and hotels in the city, to its serene bamboo groves and crystal-clear springs, you’ll be sure to while away many peaceful hours in Cuihu Park.

Mu Family Mansion

The history of the Mu clan is intrinsically linked to that of Lijiang; for one would not exist without the other. The Mu were a Naxi family who became well-known for their exceptional skill and experience in city planning, and eventually masterminded the construction of Baisha Village and Dayan Town (modern-day Lijiang Old Town). They managed to maintain rule over the area right up until the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when they were overthrown by the Mongolians and reinstated as Tusi[1]. Under their new title, this industrious and talented family led the region into financial prosperity throughout the Yuan, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and their glorious family mansion is a testament to their success.

In its heyday, twenty-two generations of the Mu family lived in this mansion. It once covered over 64,000 square metres (16 acres) and consisted of nearly one hundred buildings. Many visitors described it as a miniature Forbidden City because of its beauty and design. Bear in mind comparing any lowly mortal to the deified Emperor was punishable by death, so saying the mansion of an official was reminiscent of the imperial palace was a pretty risky compliment to make!

Tragically most of the original mansion was destroyed during the Qing Dynasty due to the frequent wars that broke out around the region but, from 1996 to 1999, it was rebuilt. Nowadays the complex covers half the area it once did, stretching to only about 32,000 square metres (8 acres), but all attempts were made to capture the essence and style of its original magnificence. It stretches up the east side of the Shizi or Lion Mountain in the southwest part of Lijiang Old Town and is made up of two areas; the office area and the living area.

As you enter the main gate, you’ll come upon the Yishi or Meeting Hall at the end of a vast courtyard. This marks the beginning of the office area and, as the name suggests, this hall was used to conduct official business and hold meetings. The building itself is surrounded by stunningly carved marble balustrades and on the inside you’ll find three wooden steles that have been engraved by three different Ming Emperors with the words “Devoted to the Country” (诚心报国). With an office this tranquil, it’s no wonder the Mu family were so successful. If only all offices could be like this!

Directly behind Yishi Hall, you’ll find the spectacular Wanjuan Pavilion. The word “wanjuan” (万卷) means “ten thousand scrolls” or “ten thousand books” and this pavilion is truly a book lover’s paradise, with thousands of sutras[2], paintings, and scrolls of calligraphy lining its walls. Parts of this collection are over 2,000 years old and include sacred texts of the Dongba[3] religion, volumes of the Tripitaka[4], poetry anthologies of six poets from the Mu family, and the calligraphy and paintings of numerous celebrated calligraphers and artists.

Behind the pavilion, the mysterious Hufa Hall was once the centre for the family’s religious activities, such as ritual sacrifices and prayers. To the far north of the hall, there’s a vast expanse of courtyards that represent the living area of the Mu clan. These courtyards, and the mansion as a whole, reflect the architectural style of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The layout is incredibly similar to that of the Forbidden City and the simple elegance of the decorations is characteristic of the Central Han Chinese style. The exotic flowers and rare medicinal herbs that bedeck the many courtyards are reminiscent of Suzhou’s royal gardens and the paintings on the inner and outer walls are imbued with ethnic flair from the Bai, Tibetan and Naxi styles.

At the top of the complex, there is a Taoist temple where monks still worship and Taoist fortune tellers ply their trade. In a few of the courtyards, visitors can purchase tea, beer or other beverages and settle down to a quiet afternoon spent admiring the many lush azaleas and orchids adorning the gardens. A peaceful evening spent in contemplative thought, sipping on a hot cup of tea and feeling the last warm rays of the sun as it sets over the mountains; I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

[1] Tusi: Chieftains or tribal leaders who were permitted to rule over a certain region and were acknowledged as imperial officials but who ultimately answered to the Emperor.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

[3] Dongba: The main religion of the Naxi ethnic minority. It is most famous for the Dongba script, the last known hieroglyphic writing system still in use.

[4] Tripitaka: The collective term for the three main categories of sacred text that make up the Buddhist canon. These are sutras, abhidharma, and vinaya.