Backpacking in Yunnan, China: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Choosing a destination to travel to in China can be daunting. There is so much to see and do, but rather than try and cram too many places into a short trip it’s better to focus on one area. I chose Yunnan (followed by a week relaxing in Yangshuo) and it was a great decision. I weaved my way through old towns, amazing mountain scenery and otherworldly karst formations – it’s not an easy to place to travel though, so hopefully this guide to backpacking in Yunnan helps.
I flew from Malaysia to Kunming, the biggest city in Yunnan. It was a cheap flight (around $150 1 way), which makes it a budget-friendly detour. Another common way to get into Yunnan is through the land borders with Laos and Vietnam. I talked to some travellers who did it and it seems like a pretty painless experience.
Getting a Visa
You’ll have to organise this in advance. I saw so many signs in Laos and Vietnam offering to take care of it for you, so if you decide last-minute to head north to China it shouldn’t be a problem. I got mine in Singapore. It took 3 days and cost about $100 SGD (80 USD).
How much does it cost to travel in Yunnan?
$1000 USD a month is my rough budget while travelling long term. During my month in China (Yangshuo included) I spent around $1400, including flights to and from Malaysia and the visa. Day to day expenses aren’t too bad, but entrance tickets to attractions really start to add up. The stone forest cost about $30, and the ticket to visit Yubeng was around $35. Almost any attraction you visit will have a fee that’ll make you think twice about whether to actually pay it, but the attractions and scenic areas are almost always worth it.
I’m not a fan of Chinese food, so I ate western food quite a lot and it added up. Accommodation was fairly cheap, but I slept in more dorms than ever before which wasn’t really ideal. Dorms cost anywhere between ¥30-60 ($5-10 USD), with single rooms usually priced between ¥60-150 ($10-25 USD). Keep reading for more specific information on accommodation in Yunnan. Buses and trains are pretty expensive. A typical 4 hour bus ride costs around ¥65 ($10USD).
Yunnan (and I’m assuming China in general) is a tough place to travel, mainly due to the language barrier. It’s hard to get around if you don’t speak Chinese, and in some towns it seems like you’re the only one who speaks English. The people are generally friendly though, and will usually help as much as they can. Once you get out of the bigger towns you’ll notice a drop in the quality of bathrooms, until eventually a toilet with a working door feels like luxury. Attractions and tourist towns in Yunnan often get swamped by local day-tripping tourists, so try and get places early and avoid popular attractions on weekends.
Transport while backpacking in Yunnan
Transport in Yunnan is quite expensive, especially the buses. Trains are far more comfortable and surprisingly a lot cheaper, so try and travel by train as much as possible. I took 2 overnight trains and 1 overnight bus – the nights spent on the trains were 2 of the best night’s sleep I got in Yunnan, and the night on the bus was a cramped, uncomfortable experience.
The best places to visit in Yunnan fall into 2 categories: Old towns and places with amazing scenery.
This is the most westernised town in Yunnan and makes for a great place to relax for a few days. It was a former backpacking heavyweight which has been taken over by Chinese tourists in recent years, but it still retains its backpacking roots. English is widely spoken and you can find pretty much any food you might happen to be craving. The scenery around Dali is really nice, and I’d recommend shelling out for the 3 Pagodas. I stayed at the Tibetan Lodge, which was right on the main tourist street in Dali. It did get a little loud, but it was such a nice room, the staff were friendly and spoke excellent English, and it only cost ¥80. Read a full article on Dali here.
On purely superficial terms, Lijiang is better than Dali. The streets are among the nicest you’ll see in any old town in Asia, but with beauty comes admirers, and there were just too many tourists stalking the streets of Lijiang to make it enjoyable. It becomes bearable on the outskirts of town, but the whole atmosphere of the town was a little off, so I left pretty quickly. The scenery surrounding Lijiang is great, and it’s definitely worth heading to the Black Dragon Pool to catch the view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. I stayed in a nice guesthouse for ¥80 but the staff didn’t speak any English, which made it difficult to organise onward travel.
I’m sure Shangri-la was once nice, but the fire that ripped the heart out of the old town in early 2014 put an end to that. There isn’t much of the old town left, and the new city that grew up around it is completely unappealing. The best thing about Shangri-la is Helen’s Pizza. It’s run by an Italian guy and has some of the best pizza and calzones money can buy. Accommodation in Shangri-la consists mainly of dorms and isn’t particularly memorable. Expect to pay between ¥30-40 for a bed, and over ¥80 for a room.
Further reading: The legend of Shangri-la (this town definitely isn’t it though!)
Mind-blowing scenic areas
Tiger Leaping Gorge
It takes 2 or 3 days to trek from one end of Tiger Leaping Gorge to the other, and it really is a must-do if you are backpacking in Yunnan. It’s a fairly easy trek and there are some great little guesthouses along the way. I stayed at the Naxi Family Guesthouse and got a tiny private room for ¥30. It is one of the coolest guesthouses I have slept in during my travels in Asia, and I’d recommend the trek for this guesthouse alone. I also stayed at the Tea Horse Guesthouse, which was almost as good. Read a full article on Tiger Leaping Gorge here.
If someone asked me to recommend them 1 place in Asia that they had to visit, I’d probably say Yubeng. It’s home to some of the best scenery I’ve ever seen, and is also one of the most peaceful places I’ve been. A fairly gruelling trek is required to get to the village, but those willing to put in the hard yards are richly rewarded. Read a full article on Yubeng here.
The Stone Forest
Are you writing a screenplay set on a far-off planet? Visit the Stone Forest for some inspiration. It’s an amazing place and is definitely worth the high price tag. You can visit the Stone Forest on a day trip from Kunming; it’s a bit of a hassle though. Read a full article on The Stone Forest here.
Kunming: The unavoidable big city
If you are backpacking in Yunnan you’ll almost definitely end up in Kunming. It isn’t such a bad place; it actually reminded me a lot of where I used to live in Taiwan. It’s very clean and has a couple of great hostels. I stayed at both The Hump Hostel and The Kunming Cloudland International Youth Hostel, which both had dorms for around ¥50. The Hump Hostel is in a slightly better location and has better beds and more helpful staff, but the food and common areas of the Cloudland were a lot better. I didn’t really check out the sites in Kunming, but I heard there is a temple that’s worth seeing, and some decent hiking in the surrounding hills.
Places I didn’t get time to visit
Yunnan is huge, and it’s not possible to go everywhere you want unless you have a few months. I had my heart set on seeing the Yuanyuang Rice Terraces, but my detour to Yubeng meant I ran out of time. There are also heaps more old towns to explore, and so many more scenic areas that I’ve heard are amazing.
Have you been backpacking in Yunnan, or do you want to know any other details? Leave me a comment!