The Gateway to Yunnan, China

yunan travel tips
We thought our entry into China via Hong Kong would semi prepare us for this massive and mysterious nation, but really, nothing can. We took a boat from the formerly British HK over to the mainland and it was like entering a new and very foreign country—goodbye English language, Roman alphabet, capitalism, and western ways of thinking and ni hao China! First up on our four-week journey through the 3.7 million square-mile country was the far southwestern province of Yunnan. Bordering Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet with the Silk Road to India running through it, Yunnan is made of 25 different ethnic minorities with an equally diverse landscape to match.


kunming bus tips
Flying three hours from Shenzen, China (the secret airport to get cheap flights out of the Hong Kong area), we arrived at the Yunnan capital of Kunming and went to the information booth to ask for directions into town. The entire “help desk” of attendants at the international airport did not speak a single word of English and had no idea what we were talking about…it was at this moment (moment #1), we realized China was going to need a new level of HoneyTrek resourcefulness. With a bit of wandering, hand-gestures, and a prayer we finally found the bus station and got two tickets to Kunming.


china tea shop
We only had one day in Kunming before catching our train further up the Silk Road into the depths of Yunnan so we spent the day exploring as much as we could. For a city dating back to 279 BC, it’s quiet modern with with cute tea shops like this, chic boutiques, grand monuments, and lovely parks.


kunming pagoda
If the U.S.A. had any monument from the 9th-century it would be a huge deal but in Kunming, and honestly most cities in China, it’s just another relic blending into the urban landscape. We found Kunming’s East Pagoda tucked off a major boulevard in a quiet park without an entrance fee or any tourists to be found.


The Kunming Gate with its curved eaves swooping up to the sky and golden characters etched across its lintel was just the kind of classic Chinese architecture we’d been dreaming about.


china flag of flowers
The displays of patriotism are anything but subtle in China—especially during Golden Week. We arrived to Kunming just after the national holiday so the Chinese decorations, landscaping and flags were in full effect.


kunming green lake park
Green Lake Park was by far our favorite part of Kunming for not just its beauty but its energy. For Golden Week and a few upcoming festivals, the Qing Dynasty-era park was decorated to the nines with floral archways and inflatable floating sculptures (think birthday bouncy house but way cooler and without toddlers), while its patrons were performing music, practicing tai chi, and playing mahjong in the gardens and pavilions. With a places like this, Kunming tempted us to stay another day.


yunnan street market
After an overnight train from Kunming, we arrived to the small city of Dali and set out to explore the surrounding villages along Er Hai lake. A mobile market travels to a new town every few days and we caught it at the northeast edge of the lake. The indigenous Bai people come here to sell their wares and shop for anything from apples to fabrics. We came for the people watching—we couldn’t get over their beautiful traditional clothing and wicker basket backpacks!


Xizhou town in China
Driving past rice fields and mountains, we continued to the historic town of Xizhou. Like much of China’s tourist attractions, there was a massive entrance fee and an overly commercialized feel that turned us off. Still curious about the Bai homes (just look at those gorgeous trompe l’oeil facades above!) and their way of life, we went around to the backstreets and explored the real Xizhou neighborhoods.


Xizhou town bridge China
This charming bridge at the edge of the village felt like it was out of a storybook.


chinese antique hats
We popped into this antique shop and loved looking at the stacks of embroidered hats, wood carvings, old pipes, and local curiosities.


Yita Si and San Ta Si pagodas
For our final stop on our roadtrip, we went to Yita Si and San Ta Si pagodas. Originally built in the 9th-century, these 69-meter tall beauties nestle at the base of the mountain just outside of Dali.


dali at night photos
We got back to Dali at nightfall, just as the old town gates were lighting up. Walking up to the balcony, we took in views of the lively streets. Packed with hot pot restaurants, knickknack shops, and bus-loads of Chinese tourists (I think we were the only westerners there), Dali was definitely a great base for the night but the surrounding villages had us excited for what more remote Yunnan has in store.


  • that looks like a fascinating part of china

  • Fantastic stuff. We just arrived in HK today after a month in Thailand and are in China for a month as part of our 9 month journey. We will certainly take the opportunity to visit some of the places you highlighted.

  • magical .. like Alice in Wonderland

  • Frank Sun

    Glad you had a great time in Yunnan. You can easily spend a few years exploring China. Beautiful pics! Did you enjoy the famous noodle soup there?

    • Yea, we loved Yunnan and yes, I think we needed about five years more to cover China. Hmmm I’m not sure about the noodle soup but we did have our share of yak hot pot!

  • Oh, I just LOVED this entry…my dad was an armchair traveler who was intrigued by the Silk Road, so I really enjoyed reading this, and savoring each photo, knowing my father would have loved every bit of your adventure! Keep ’em coming!

    • The Silk Road and its surrounds is really fascinating part of China. We are touched it made you think of your dad and his love of travel, thanks for sharing!

    • awwww….that means a lot Franky, so glad it brought you back. China was great. a challenge to be sure, but your dad totally would have loved it!

  • I enjoyed the post but also always enjoy the photo gallery you always offer at the end of each post.

    • Thanks for sticking with us all the way through to the slideshow! There is so much we have to share from every given place that the ten photos and captions we have in the blog is really just the tip of the iceberg.

  • If you spend any time reading our blog, you will see that China was a decidedly mixed bag for us! We also tackle it after spending some time in Hong Kong, and like you, while we knew it would be different, we thought it would be more similar than it was!

    Our biggest mistake is probably that we took the train from HK all the way up to Beijing. It made sense at the time to start our adventures in China’s northern capital & most famous city, but we think we would have been better served by starting in its south and working our way north. We still really regret that due to timing issues, we were not able to visit Yunnan & Sichuan province… by all accounts they are truly China’s best places.

    (Also good on you for hitting China AFTER Golden Week. Yet another mistake we made… sigh.)

    • lol, yes China was a mixed bag for us as well….lots of spitting, language barriers and fake temples….but when we got past those hurdles we loved it. and with regards to golden week, it was total coincidence, but in the end it worked our perfectly 🙂 – where are you guys at now?

  • Peggy Healy Parker

    Wonderful report on what is inaccessible to most of us. If you get to Hangzhou, let us know — we are helping to promote this beautiful city. Peggy

    • Thanks, Peggy! How great you are repping Hangzhou, what a wonderful place! We spent two days biking around the lake and soaking up the sights. More on that in a week or two!

  • Jeffery Whalen

    Great post! I’m looking forward to seeing more about your trip through China!

    • The Avatar forest, Phoenix City, Shanghai, the Great Wall…there is so much more to come! So glad to have you along!

  • Beautiful photos as always–the colors are so vivid! Is that a whole sunflower in the final two shots?

    • So glad you liked the photos guys…and it makes us smile that you looked through the slideshow as well! Yes that is an entire sunflower in those last two…we just had to buy it. Very tasty and 100% sunbaked!

      • Your photos are always a feast for the eyes! Also, that sunflower sounds delicious!

  • so funny – we were thinking about going into yunnan when we’re in northern laos! think it’s worth it? the steep visa fee is giving us pause!

    • China is amazing but to warrant the huge visa fee and the paperwork I think you need a minimum of two weeks in the country (though ideally 4 weeks). To really experience Yunnan outside the touristy spots you need that extra time since it’s big and not as easy to get around but if you’ve got the time it’s totally worth it. If you are coming from Laos I think that very southern part of Yunnan is particularly interesting–look into the rock forest!