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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.

Getting there

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).

Annoyances

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.

Old towns

Dali

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.

Dali is a popular stop-off while backpacking in Yunnan, China

Lijiang

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.

Lijiang is one of the busiest towns you'll see while backpacking in Yunnan

Shangri-la

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!)

Shangri-la was destroyed by a fire, but you'll probably still end up there while backpacking in Yunnan, China

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.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is a great trek while backpacking in Yunnan, China

Yubeng

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.

Yubeng was my favourite place when I was backpacking in Yunnan, China

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.

The Stone Forest is one of the coolest things to see while backpacking in Yunnan, China

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.

Kunming, the biggest city you'll see while backpacking in Yunnan, China

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!

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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30 Comments

  1. July 1, 2014 at 5:20 pm — Reply

    I have heard many good things about Yunnan from friends that have visited the area on a artist exchange program. Norway have relations to Cunmin and I have also had visits by artist from Cunmin here in Norway. So we have talked a lot of visiting Cunmin and Yunnan. Your travel tips was very helpful, thanks!

    • Jon Algie
      July 2, 2014 at 4:22 pm — Reply

      Thanks Bente, hopefully you make it there one day!

  2. July 2, 2014 at 12:43 am — Reply

    I love China as a destination and visited the country recently. Unfortunately, i had to miss out Yunnan from my travelling map. But after reading your post here, I’m really cursing myself. Yunnan is so beautiful! From what I see in the pictures, I’m sure you enjoyed your stay in this blissful piece of land.

    And Yes, Malaysia is such a haven for budget airlines! 🙂

    • Jon Algie
      July 2, 2014 at 4:23 pm — Reply

      It was great, I’m sure you also saw some amazing stuff though! There is so much to see in China, really requires more than 1 trip.

  3. July 2, 2014 at 9:27 pm — Reply

    My first travels were to China and I didnt get to really explore it, went to the main cities so would love to go back and ‘really’ see it. Yunnan looks beautiful so definitely need to try and get there.

    • Jon Algie
      July 5, 2014 at 1:34 am — Reply

      It’s a great place to travel! Next time I’ll go to the main cities, gotta see the Great Wall at some point!

  4. July 2, 2014 at 10:53 pm — Reply

    I can imagine the great challenge of the language barrier while traveling around here. The photos here look stunning!

    • Jon Algie
      July 5, 2014 at 1:34 am — Reply

      It wasn’t easy, the people were friendly and helped as best they could though.

  5. July 3, 2014 at 2:46 am — Reply

    Thanks for the great information on this destination! It’s the one place I want to be sure to visit in China (aside from the Great Wall). I was very tempted to cross the border when I was in Vietnam, but I ran out of time. 🙁 Hope to get there one day!

    • Jon Algie
      July 5, 2014 at 1:38 am — Reply

      I was the same when I was travelling in Vietnam, thought it was a better idea to save it for another trip though, didn’t want to rush it!

  6. July 4, 2014 at 5:50 pm — Reply

    Great post Jon. We’ve also spent a month in China but only managed to visit the north-eastern area, and I would love to return to tour the south. Shame about Shangri-La, but Tiger-Leaping gorge sounds awesome! As you said, the cost of attractions in China does add up. We tried to pass ourselves off as students using a terrible makeshift student card… I know it’s not honest, but it worked!

    • Jon Algie
      July 5, 2014 at 1:41 am — Reply

      I wish I had have done that too. I talked to people who had diving student IDs and they worked. Pretty much anything with student written on it seems to work.

  7. July 18, 2014 at 2:33 pm — Reply

    Thanks for this information Jon! I’ve wanted to travel in Yunnan for a long time but I must admit to being a little intimidated by China. I’ve bookmarked your post for future reference. 🙂

    • Jon Algie
      September 4, 2014 at 10:36 pm — Reply

      Cheers Marie, China is pretty tough but definitely worth it!

  8. January 18, 2015 at 10:07 pm — Reply

    I’m completely blog stalking you right now. I’m teaching in China and in about a month I’m planning on going through Yunnan and Guilin as well. This is super helpful. I’ve heard a lot of good things about yubeng and I really want to go there now

    • Jon Algie
      January 22, 2015 at 7:56 pm — Reply

      Thanks Rebekah, definitely go to Yubeng, so glad I went there!

  9. charissa
    February 14, 2015 at 8:15 pm — Reply

    researching on Yunnan trip so thanks for these tips! Also, the split personality interview is awesome. Some day I’ll plan for an extended trip to south/central america + europe + africa too

    • Jon Algie
      March 27, 2015 at 8:47 am — Reply

      Thanks Charissa, I hope you enjoy your trip to Yunnan!

  10. April 29, 2015 at 4:10 pm — Reply

    Well-written post Jon. Im actually researching about Yunnan and I found your blog. So grateful with your informative words. Keep it up!

    • Jon Algie
      May 1, 2015 at 5:10 am — Reply

      Thanks Ale, hope you enjoy your trip!

  11. May 7, 2015 at 1:39 pm — Reply

    I’m planning a trip to Yunnan next month! This was very helpful. Thanks for this.

  12. Jay
    December 13, 2015 at 8:13 pm — Reply

    Hi Jon,

    I was researching on backpacking China and came across your site. Really like the pictures you took in Yunnan.

    I am looking to embark on a month’s trip to China around April next year but I was wondering how much should I budget for? Excluding flights into and out of China, how much is comfortable for a backpacker without sacrificing on the experience? I can read and speak chinese.

    My itinerary so far is to arrive at Xi’An, travel the silkroad through the following towns in sequence before leaving through Chengdu:
    Xi’An, Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Turpan, Urumqi, Dunhuang, Xiahe, Jiazhaigou, Chengdu.

    Would USD$50 per sufficient for 1 person?

    • Jon Algie
      December 17, 2015 at 4:44 pm — Reply

      Hey Jay, I’d say you’d be able to get by on $50 pretty easily but it depends how you travel. I also haven’t been to any of those places, but they can’t be that much more expensive than where I was. I spent around $1000 USD in a month; I moved pretty quickly but then spent the last week in Yanghsuo which was pretty cheap. I slept in dorms in the more expensive places and private rooms everywhere else, and got one overnight train which was a great experience.

  13. February 28, 2016 at 11:19 pm — Reply

    wow, nice story, it’s interesting to visit Yunnan, what the best time summer or autumn ?

  14. Jiggle
    June 7, 2016 at 8:26 am — Reply

    Hi Jon, I’m looking to visit Yunan this year September. As this the first time I’m visiting China, I’m not too sure how to transit from one city to another. Would you be able to share your detailed itinerary with me?:)

  15. MartaCaraCalamai
    July 22, 2016 at 2:42 pm — Reply

    Hi Jon, thanks for all your info. I’m going to visit Yunnan next week with my younger brother. I didn’t book any hostel, coz i prefer to explore randomly follow lonely planet guide and the indications that i read here. Just a question. Do u think is a good idea go with sleep bags and a tend? coz we don;’t have so much money and I’m afraid we can not find free dormitories or rooms. Should be safe right? Thanks a lot 🙂

    • Jon Algie
      July 25, 2016 at 10:24 pm — Reply

      Hi Marta, I didn’t really see anyone camping in the places that I went to but it could be an option. There are some pretty cheap places to stay up in the mountains but the cities,especially Kunming, can get expensive. Enjoy your trip and let me know how it goes!

  16. September 28, 2016 at 8:23 am — Reply

    I hail from Asia but have never been to Yunnan until of late where there are many articles on the beauty of Yunnan.
    Will be travelling there if I can navigate the onward travels especially in a big place like China.
    Thanks for the excellent article. Hope you enjoy the rest of Asia.

  17. Clara
    January 12, 2017 at 10:38 am — Reply

    Hi Jon! I was wondering how much time you would suggest spending in Yunnan?

    • Jon Algie
      January 13, 2017 at 3:41 am — Reply

      Hey Clara, I think I spent just under three weeks there and I had to skip a few places that I wanted to see. I’d say a month would be perfect if you have the time.

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