The remote Yunnan province

From snow-capped mountains and rice terraces to vast lakes and deep gorges, the Yunnan province has some of the most magnificent and diverse landscapes in China.

This south western region was also once home to the Tea Horse Road, the longest trade route in the ancient world where coveted Pu’erh tea, which is only grown here, was transported via the town of Lijiang to Lhasa and exchanged for Tibetan medicines, spices, salt and leather. Whether you want to embrace the outdoors or visit the temples and towns influenced by the many ethnic minorities who call this province home, this is one of the most remote, less-travelled parts of China.

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From the Tea Horse Road to Tibetan-style villages

Perhaps one of the most visited destinations in Yunnan is Lijiang’s UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, much of which was sensitively rebuilt in 1996 after an earthquake. Red lanterns hang from rows of little shops selling Buddha beaded bracelets, rose flower cakes and colorful cotton pashminas, along cobbled streets interspersed with bridges and tea houses where you can try Pu’er tea.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Tea Horse Road should book tickets for the ‘Impression Lijiang’ show which takes place in an outdoor arena at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (it is also fun to take the cable car up the mountain to an altitude of 4,506 meters – you will just need to be kitted out with a canister of oxygen first). Directed by Zhang Yimou (the mastermind behind the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics), the brilliant hour-long show is performed by 500 local farmers and tells the story of the minority people who walked the Tea Horse trails: the highlight is one hundred red-caped caravan chiefs riding around the ring on horses, whooping and waving their hats.

Nearby, Dali sits on the shores of Erhai Lake: stroll around the walled old city which dates back to the Ming dynasty and you will see typical homes from the Bai ethnic minority. A drive through fields of rice and tobacco brings you to the modern capital of Kunming (known as the ‘Spring City’ because of its year-round pleasant climate). Yunnan is famous for its mushrooms – it is China’s top mushroom-producing province and more than 800 types grow in abundance, including morels and the precious matsutake. In Kuming, try mushroom hotpot, rice noodles and other typically Dian dishes which can be found at many restaurants across the city. Nearby Fuxian Lake is a popular weekend getaway. It is the deepest freshwater lake in China and impossibly pretty (the best way to see it is to hire bicycles from Chengjiang, the town at the northern end).

Alternatively, head north from Lijiang through the mountains, where the passes are marked with colorful flapping prayer flags tied like bunting to chortens, to Shangri-La. The population is mostly Tibetan and this is reflected in the houses (cream adobe walls, intricately carved wooden window frames, racks in the garden for drying hay) and the food where typical dishes include yak hotpot, baba bread and seriously salty yak butter tea – all worth trying at least once.

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