map of china
Map by Evan Hecox

The East’s Wild West

Discover Yunnan, an uncommon convergence of rushing rivers, ancient villages, and snowy peaks that's fast becoming China's premier adventure playground

map of china
Craig Simons

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SHANGRI-LA AIRPORT, SHANGRI-LA CITY, SHANGRI-LA GORGE: Over the past eight years, the name Shangri-La has been popping up all over China’s Yunnan province, making me wonder whether the government has taken a crash course in marketing. They, of course, borrowed the name from British author James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, the story of four plane-crash survivors who stumble into a stunning Tibetan valley capped by the “loveliest mountain on earth.” I had read Hilton’s tale in the mid-nineties, when, as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China’s Sichuan province, I was determined to discover his inspiration for paradise. I found it in Yunnan province, in southwestern China.

china yunnan

china yunnan Left: the village schoolhouse; Right: the view from the streets

map of china

map of china Map by Evan Hecox

Before World War II, Yunnan was one of the world’s forgotten corners, a kind of Chinese Siberia where emperors banished felons, dissidents, and unwanted officials. It wasn’t the sort of place you’d take the kids: Tigers and leopards hunted in the southern rainforests; in the north, the Hengduan Mountains, which rise as high as 18,000 feet, were just as fierce, with four of Asia’s greatest rivers—the Yangtze, the Salween, the Mekong, and the Irrawaddy—carving through rock to create gorges that plunge more than 10,000 feet in places. To appreciate the sense of scale, imagine wedging the Mississippi, Missouri, and Colorado rivers into a space the size of West Virginia, then adding snow leopards, lesser pandas, and black-necked cranes.

During my two-year stint teaching English, a few fellow volunteers and I crisscrossed Yunnan, racking up our best China adventures—mountain-bike rides through thick jungle tucked along the Laotian and Burmese borders in the south and muscle-wearying hikes in the Hengduans, in the eastern Himalayas. Besides the killer scenery, we’d unknowingly signed up for Anthropology 101: Yunnan is home to 25 ethnic minorities, and we mingled with the tribes, dining on coagulated pig’s blood, visiting a Tibetan who hadn’t left his mountain hermitage for 22 years, and sleeping in monasteries with fluttering tapestries and golden Buddha statues. But it wasn’t until March 2003 that I finally pinpointed paradise: northwestern Yunnan, roughly 100 miles east of Burma and a day’s drive from Tibet, at 9,000 feet on Mount Balagezong, in the Hengduans. Sharp, snow- covered mountains rose behind strings of red, green, and blue prayer flags. Brown-and-tawny lammergeiers—one of the world’s biggest birds, with a wingspan of up to ten feet—banked overhead through a perfect blue sky. The stillness, the sun, the view, the feeling of reaching a place so remote that locals had never heard of New York, much less 9/11, created a euphoric surge.

SOME THINGS, of course, had changed. During my Peace Corps trips, the only other foreigners we saw hung out in dingy backpacker cafés in cities like Lijiang and Dali. When I first visited Shangri-La City—then called Zhongdian—in 1997, a bus dropped me off on an empty, snow-swept street corner. From what I could tell, there were only two hotels in the entire city of 70,000. On my recent return, scores of hotels were crowded between karaoke bars and pool halls. A new airport, with direct flights from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, and a slew of upstart outfitters had made Shangri-La City an accessible outpost for the real Shangri-La. And foreigners were taking advantage of the new conveniences: More than a million tourists, mostly from other parts of Asia, visited last year, an astronomical jump from 2,000 tourists in 1992. It was beginning to feel like a Thai resort, minus the palm trees and mixed drinks, and I worried that the laid-back pace I’d found years ago might have disappeared. But I had no need to fear: At 168,000 square miles, Yunnan is bigger than California, and much of the land remains empty and wild.

This time around, I went straight for the centerpiece of this massive playland: the Shangri-La Gorge, a 680,000-acre conservation reserve that, locals told me, gets fewer than 100 visitors a year and is home to blue sheep and the lesser panda, a raccoon-size relative of the giant panda. I’d heard about a 50-mile round-trip trail in the gorge from friends in Beijing who described El Capitan–like cliffs, crystal-clear water, intact Tibetan culture, and, for much of the year, great weather. It’s also relatively easy to get to—a three-hour flight from Beijing to Kunming, followed by a 50-minute hop to Shangri-La City and a two-hour drive north to the trailhead. The plan was to take five days, following the Gonju River east before climbing to a ridge under the frame of 18,200-foot Mount Balagezong, which would leave plenty of time for a leisurely return.

THE TREK STARTED at an iron bridge that Mao Zedong’s ragtag troupe of peasant soldiers reportedly crossed in 1935 in the middle of its 6,000-mile Long March. We hiked north through peach orchards and tiny villages of two-story packed-earth homes with beautifully carved wooden windows. During the summer, from June to September, monsoon rains sweep up from India and wildflowers poke through, but in March, only prickly pear cactuses and the cobalt-blue river enhanced the red-earth landscape. We were at almost 7,000 feet, but at this latitude, 28 degrees—the same as Tampa, Florida’s—the temperature was a perfect 72, warm enough for shorts and T-shirts. We took our time, stopping to look at a pile of stones with Buddhist prayers carved into them and to talk with farmers tending a barley field. We met a 46-year-old man whose face was as furrowed as a freshly tilled field. He told us that he had once seen a snow leopard, one of the world’s most endangered and elusive animals, while out hunting on a nearby mountain. He didn’t shoot. “It was too beautiful,” he explained.

By the time we reached our first camp, under a stand of pines by the river, the sun was almost gone. But China’s eight yuan to the dollar affords luxuries, and while we played, our guide, a 29-year-old Tibetan painter named Lobsang Tsultrem, pushed ahead with three packhorses and pitched our tents. We sat down to dinner—fried mushrooms, pork seared with red chilies, green beans roasted with garlic—and then huddled around a fire while Lobsang explained the practice of Tibetan sky burial. After death, he told us, bodies are fed to vultures, partly as a final sacrifice but also to bond with nature. “The birds fly to the highest mountains,” Lobsang said. “So people are returned to the most holy places.”

The next morning we crossed the river and slipped into a forest of evergreens and rhododendrons. Northwestern Yunnan is home to about 165 species of these colorful flowers, and in May and June, the best time to hike, the blossoms explode.

Less obvious but just as real were the ghosts and gods of the mountain people. With his broad, boyish grin, Lobsang pointed to a stone spire that rose hundreds of feet into the air. “That’s the daughter of Mount Balagezong,” he said. “Her father forced her to marry a man she didn’t love. So she fled. That stone is where she hid.”

Lobsang told us other mind-boggling tales—of couples drinking from a holy spring reputed to guarantee conception, and how a demon tormented locals for centuries until a benevolent god killed it—but there wasn’t much time to think about the spiritual world. On the second day, 12 miles into the 16-mile trek, we began to climb. In some places the Hengduans rise thousands of feet over a few miles. After five minutes my shirt was soaked.

Luckily, paradise was waiting. At the top of the ridge, we arrived in Bala village, population 90. Chickens, donkeys, and pigs milled around between houses with large open-air courtyards, and I sat with a group of old women and asked them why the valley is named Shangri-La.

“Shangri-La means ‘moon and sun,’ ” one said.

“No, no, no,” another cut her off. “Shangri-La means ‘people have good hearts.’ When strangers come, they welcome them.” For me, the view of steep, snowy peaks, festive prayer flags, and distant pine forests was plenty paradisiacal.

The next day we followed a dirt trail into an old-growth forest festooned with strings of fluorescent-green lichen that looked like tinsel. We hit snow at 10,000 feet, and the rest of the hike was the best kind of slog, as we picked our way between rocks, occasionally sinking to our knees.

In two hours we were sitting amid the ruins of a village that Lobsang said was sacked several generations ago, in a Tibetan version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. It was hard to imagine Tibetans massacring one another in such a remote place, surrounded by 17,000-foot mountains that have never been summited. But the scattered stone blocks from the houses attested to the violence. The ghost town was a reality check: Paradise, it whispered, is fleeting. Which means it can also be momentarily perfect.

Finest China
Landscape lovers, take note: everything’s big in Yunnan

Paradise isn’t one-size-fits-all. Some folks find inspiration hanging 150 feet up a rock wall or feeling their calf muscles hemorrhage as they mountain-bike switchbacks at 12,000 feet. Others prefer less grueling options, like floating the Mekong River. Yunnan’s got all that and more.
BIKE Yunnan has some of the best-preserved Tibetan culture anywhere. You’re still more likely to meet yaks than cars on the dirt-and-asphalt road that winds 250 miles north from Shangri-La City to the frontier town of Litang. The road, which opened to foreign travelers in 1999, passes several of China’s most impressive Tibetan monasteries. Uphill sections—some reaching altitudes of 12,000 feet—can be killers. If you burn out, daily buses connect the two cities. Xiong Brothers bike shop (011-86-871-530-1755, [email protected]), in Kunming, can organize tours. Guides and equipment rental start at $50 a day.
RAFT In Yunnan’s deep south, tucked along the borders of Laos and Burma and at the northern limit of Southeast Asia’s rainforest, Xishuangbanna offers a perfect complement to the north: It’s tropical-hot, almost always sunny, and totally relaxed. Dwindling numbers of leopards, Asian elephants, and—it’s rumored—tigers live in the area. Though you’re not likely to catch sight of any, you’ll see plenty of birds. The Banna (as it’s nicknamed) is home to some 400 species, including magnificent kingfishers and striated herons. A great way to see Xishuangbanna is by rafting the Mekong River. From Jinghong, the entry point, take a one-day float past thick jungle, stopping in a remote village along the way. Wen Yan Lai, (011-86-691-216-1957, [email protected]), a longtime resident and fluent English speaker who goes by the name of Sara, can organize trips for $60 a day, but tours are rough around the edges. Between July and August, it rains ferociously almost every day.
ROCK-CLIMB Near Kunming, limestone mountains rise sharply from Dian Lake, with its 132 square miles of turquoise water. According to Bob Moseley, a conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy and an avid climber, the potential for new routes is almost limitless along the two-and-a-half-mile cliff above the lake basin. Fifty-odd established climbs range from short sport routes to technical multipitch lines on 1,000-foot vertical walls. Kunming is called the Spring City because of year-round warm temperatures, but the best time to visit is between April and October. Moseley put together the premier guide on Yunnan climbing ( Climbers should bring their own gear, but information and some equipment are available at Kunming’s Climber Outdoor store (011-86-871-313-2783, [email protected]).
R&R For China-based expats, few places are more popular for a time-out than Lijiang, a storybook town of cobblestone lanes, quaint restaurants, and twisting canals beneath the 18,000-foot peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The city of 330,000 got more than three million visitors last year. Fortunately, escaping the crowds is easy. Nature Conservancy–trained guides (011-86-139-8882-6672, lead day- and weeklong treks in the nearby mountains.

United Airlines (800-538-2929, flies to Beijing from San Francisco starting at about $580 round-trip. From Beijing, there are flights to Kunming every day ($219 one-way; China International Travel Service, 626-568-8993, In Kunming, catch a 50-minute flight to Shangri-La ($110 one-way). Khampa Caravan (011-86-887-828-8648,, the Shangri-La City–based outfitter I used for this trek, can arrange intra-China travel and runs trips all over Yunnan. Tours cost about $120–$130 a day and include everything except airfare, alcohol, and incidentals.

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