Total Distance (approximate): 680 kilometers (423 miles)
Hours of Driving: 10 hours
Recommended number of days travelling (approximate): 1 week
Best for: Adventurous types who are comfortable driving long distances
Distance: 360 kilometers (224 miles)
Hours of Driving: 4 hrs 40 mins
Toll Fee: RMB165 (19 GBP/24 USD)
Places to Stay: Dali, Yunnan
From Kunming, get on the HangRui Expressway, G56. This expressway goes all the way from Hangzhou to Ruili, on the border of Burma, passing through Dali on the way. This is a relatively straightforward shot, however it is often quite congested, on holidays in particular when loads of Kunmingers take long-weekend getaways to Dali. During this time, accidents are common due to a combination of high speeds, steep mountain roads, and increased vehicle volume. If you’re unlucky enough to get stuck in an epic traffic jam, be prepared to be stuck in non-moving traffic for upwards of an hour. Bring snacks and make sure your car is fueled up! That said, there are many service stations along the way, the biggest of which is at Chuxiong which is just about the halfway mark between Kunming and Dali.
If you have a day to spare in your itinerary, Chuxiong, a hometown of the Yi ethnic group, is worth a stopover. Check out the Yi Ren old town where you can see Yi culture on display, or, if you’d rather have a more off the beaten track experience, head 33 kilometers away to Mi Yi Lu Ethnic Valley. Here there is a collection of six ethnic Yi minority villages where traditional Yi culture has been preserved.
From Chuxiong continue on to Dali. You will exit the expressway in the “modern” Dali city, which is called Xiaguan. Be careful not to exit at Dali East 大理东, but to exit where it says Dali Old Town. Once you exit the toll road, you can take either the Da-Li Expressway or National Road 214 to Dali Old Town. The Da-Li line runs along ErHai Lake, and 214 along Cang Mountain. Either will take you straight to your destination, although route 214 is somewhat easier to find and there are several parking areas conveniently located along the road near the gate to the Old Town.
To get to route 214, when you exit the toll booth, take a left on Nan Jian Road. After about 2 km, Nan Jian Road will become Yong Ping road. Stay on Yong Ping Road for about 4.5 km, then take the turn-off marked Xi Jing Line. You should loop around and come out onto Xi Jing Line, which is route 214. Continue on route 214 for about 10 km, until you start to see signs for the gate to Dali Old Town. The Old Town is on your right-hand side, and there is a parking lot at the corner of Renmin road and route 214. Once in Dali you will find an abundance of accommodations, but if you are traveling during a Chinese national holiday it is best to book in advance as rooms fill up fast.
Once in Dali there is a lot to see and do. Be sure to check out Erhai Lake, which is most easily accessible via the village of Caicun, which has become a destination in and of itself. Head down to the Caicun wharf and catch a tour boat to Jin Suo Island, where you can have a walk around a temple and a small market. The boat tickets are about RMB100 (11.25 GBP/14.50 USD) per person, but prices do vary depending on who is buying the tickets.
Another option is to rent a bicycle or an electric scooter from one of the many many shops in Dali Old Town. Since businesses in China come and go so quickly, it is best to simply walk around the Old Town until you see a shop with a number of bikes on display, rather than trying to find any particular rental store. To rent a bicycle you should expect to pay about RMB20 (2.25 GBP/2.90 USD) for the day, with a deposit of about RMB200-300 (22.50-33.75 GBP/29-44 USD). Cycling around Er Hai Lake, or to the neighboring town of Xizhou, is a really pleasant way to spend a sunny day in Dali.
Distance: 157 kilometers (98 miles)
Hours of Driving: 2 hours 15 minutes
Toll Fee: RMB70 (8 GBP/10 USD)
Places to Stay: Lijiang, Yunnan
From Dali Old Town, Lijiang is a relatively easy drive that can be done with minimal stopping, although there are plenty of service stations on the expressway should you need to. The newly completed expressway from Dali to Lijiang, G5611 (colloquially known as the Da-Li Expressway, not to be confused with the Da-Li line you took to get to Dali Old Town) is on the other side of Erhai Lake, passing through Shuanglang. If you stayed overnight in Dali Old Town, you’ll need to first take National Road 214 until you reach the town of Eryuan, where the expressway joins route 214. The entrance to the expressway is well marked and hard to miss, but if you do miss it don’t fret since route 214 was the original route to Lijiang before the expressway was complete. Note that this route will take you significantly longer though. Possible stopping places along the way include Jianchuan county, but the most interesting town is Shaxi, an ancient town that was once an important stop on the tea-horse caravan route. It is a significant distance from the expressway, so only stop there if you have a day or two to spare.
Once you reach Lijiang you will have to make your way from the “modern city” to the Old Town, which is known as Dayan. This is relatively straightfoward — you will exit the toll booth and continue going straight, where the road will become Fu Hui Road. Continue onto Fu Hui Road for about 2 km, until you reach Yu Yuan Road, where you should take a right. One of the many entrances to Dayan Old Town will be about 500 m down the road, on your left-hand side. As with Dali, there are a great many guesthouses and hotels in both the modern town and the Old Town, but if you are traveling during a Chinese holiday it is best to book in advance.
Another option is to skip Dayan Old Town altogether, and opt for the smaller, quieter hamlets of Shuhe or Baisha. Baisha in particular offers amazing views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and intricate Buddhist wall paintings over three hundred years old. Visitors should be aware, however, Baisha is extremely small and offers next to nothing in terms of nightlife. If you want lots of activity, it’s best to stick to Dayan in Lijiang proper. However, Baisha is definitely worth a day trip. One of the main draws of Baisha is Doctor He (“He” is the Pinyin spelling of the surname, 和, but long before Pinyin was invented this character was romanized as “Ho,”), a Naxi man nearly 100 years old who practices traditional Naxi and Chinese medicine. Doctor He, who speaks quite good English, has treated thousands of patients from all over the world over the years and many swear by his remedies.
Most visitors to Lijiang also choose to take a trip to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Be aware, going to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain park is a rather pricey affair, costing over RMB200 (22.50 GBP/29 USD) per person, with additional costs added in depending on whether you choose to visit the glacier or other various parts of the park not included in the actual entrance fee. If the idea of paying a lot of money to enjoy natural scenery bothers you, give the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain park a miss. That said, the scenery inside the park is indeed stunning, and you may find it was worth the steep admission fees. Also, if you speak Chinese or can get help from a Chinese friend, discount tickets are available online.
Distance: 177 kilometers (110 miles)
Hours of Driving: 3 hours 20 minutes
Toll: RMB20 (2.25 GBP/2.90 USD)
Places to Stay: Shangri-La, Yunnan
From Lijiang Dayan Old Town retrace your steps back to the Da-Li Expressway, where you will head North for about 24 kilometers, until you reach the exit for National Road 214 (you should remember this route from your Dali leg of the journey). You can take route 214 all the way to Shangri-La, although if it is under construction as it is at present, you will have to use the Xi-Jing Line for portions of your journey. Pay attention to signage and watch for blocked portions of this road, and adjust your route accordingly. As you enter the city you will be on the Xi-Jing Line, and you will approach a roundabout. Exit the roundabout onto the South Ring road, Huan Cheng Nan Road, proceed for about 2.7 kilometers, and then take a left onto Jin Long Road. After about 500 meters you’ll see your destination, the Shangri-La Du Ke Zong Old Town.
The Shangri-La Old Town is significantly smaller than the other two old towns that you will have visited by now. The main attractions in Shangri-La, are the Ganden Sumtseling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery (known locally in Chinese as the Songzanlin Monastery) and the holy mountain, Meili (Tibetan Mainri) Snow Mountain, the highest peak of which, Kawagebo, is sacred for Tibetan Buddhists.
Songzanlin Monastery is the largest and oldest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan, and has earned the nickname “Little Potala Palace” after its resemblance to the much more well known palace in Lhasa. It is an active monastery, with many monks, young and old, in residence.
The holy Meili Snow Mountain is over 6,000 meters high and none of the main peaks have ever been summited , although many mountain climbers have perished in the attempt. China finally made this sacred mountain off limits to adventurers, and special permission must be obtained in order to attempt a climb. The Kawagebo peak is the site of Tibetan Buddhists’ annual circumambulation, a walk around the base of the peak as a part of a ritual that is known as “kora.”
From Shangri-La, you can turn around and go back the way you came, or if you like and have more time, continue your travels. Further upfield from Shangri-La is the Yunnanese route to Tibet, which may or may not be accessible with your vehicle. If you’re planning to continue overland to Tibet, check ahead with local travel agencies for an accurate update on rules and regulations, which change often and without warning when it comes to foreigners traveling in Tibet. From Lijiang, Lugu Lake is a good side trip, as is Shaxi in Jianchuan county. Whichever way you go, remember to drive safely!