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Perhaps the most diverse province in China, Yunnan pairs a rich mix of cultures with unequalled natural wonders. Here are three cities you shouldn’t miss…

A tell-tale sign that a city is well worth a visit is when it’s exploding with domestic tourists. Simply put, Lijiang is enchanting.

OLD TOWN  The city’s Old Town is a time-locked place with an 800-year history. A maze of cobbled streets, rickety wooden buildings and gushing canals, during the day the narrow alleys can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. By nightfall, the crowds are thick but only add to the hustle and bustle of the night markets. Stores line the pathways, selling everything from brass trinkets to tapestry and street snacks – the latter the most enticing. Daring travellers can sink their teeth into some deep-fried scorpion on a stick or snack on a bucket of crumbed silk worms. Those with a more refined palate will be happy to know there are more universal options like potato crisps and freshly cracked coconuts on offer. After exploring the Old Town, head north along Square Street to reach Black Dragon Pool at the foot of Elephant Hill. You’ll want a day to explore the area and fill a memory card or two with photos. The scenery is paradisal. Surrounding the pool, within the park’s landscape, are ancient monuments like Longshen Temple, Deyue Pavilion and Suocui Bridge.


Just 15 kilometres away from Old Town is Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The towering mountain acts as a backdrop to the whole city. The 10 peaks are capped thickly with snow and laced in mist. From afar they’re as mesmerising as the view from the top. You can ride one of China’s highest trams, sitting at 4,506 metres. It drops you off at Glacier Park, where you can access stairs to the summit. This is where you’ll get those panoramic, postcardworthy shots. For those not acclimatised to high altitudes, be warned you may feel out of breath when exploring. A combo ticket, which includes entry to a show (see image below), will cost you AUD $51 (approx.).


On the eastern side of Shanzidou, the highest peak of the Dragon Snow Mountain range, is a deep valley where the Yangtze River runs. It’s on the northern part of this valley, about 60 kilometres from Lijiang, that you’ll find Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the deepest canyons in the world with a maximum depth of 3,790 metres, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 as an essential part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan. There are wooden platforms securely built that allow tourists to walk alongside the thrashing river. There are also many budget accommodation options along the inner canyon trails for those wanting to hike. Otherwise, a day trip is enough to explore the area.

Tiger Leaping Gorge measures a staggering 16km long and consists of 18 rapids. 

A little more fast-paced than Lijiang, Kunming has a definite “modern city” vibe – five-star hotels, flashing lights, skyscrapers, the whole bit. In saying that, the city is balanced with carefully preserved ancient temples that act as hidden sanctuaries within the concrete jungle.


The grandest Buddhist temple in the province, Yuantong Temple’s architectural style is a unique mix of Yuan and Ming dynasties dating back 1,200 years. Stroll through carefully manicured gardens and over stone bridges reflected by a glistening pond. At only AUD $2 (approx.), the entrance fee in no way reflects the magnificence of the temple. 30 Yuantong St, Wuhua, Kunming 

GREEN LAKE  Kunming has a tranquil atmosphere rarely found in today’s major cities. At the centre of the city is Green Lake; as the sun rises, the park comes to life with locals practising tai chi, meditating or jogging. A stroll through the tree-lined, lakeside paths is the perfect way to start the day. Throughout the day you’ll see parents and toddlers on pedal boats, and business people taking a quick timeout before heading back to the office.
STONE FOREST In terms of getting your nature fix, there’s no better place than Shilin Stone Forest. Hundreds of knife-edged, rugged limestone towers – some 30 metres tall – appear to be bursting through the ground, shadowed by thousands more. An hour-and-a-half drive from Kunming city, the Stone Forest dates back 270 million years. Since 2007, when the Stone Forest was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, on most days the location is buzzing with people. Wangfeng Ting, a pavilion located in the centre, is often dense with visitors as it boasts a panoramic view of the thousands of grey stone towers. It may be the most convenient spot to grab a photo. A tour guide is highly recommended when visiting; they’ll be able to tell you ancient tales behind certain rocks and also get you in and out without getting lost. A day ticket will set you back AUD $36 (approx.).

A little more fast-paced than Lijiang, Kunming has a definite “modern city” vibe – five-star hotels, flashing lights, skyscrapers, the whole bit. In saying that, the city is balanced with carefully preserved ancient temples that act as hidden sanctuaries within the concrete jungle.

Shangri-La City sits at an altitude of 3,160 metres. Intense physical activity is not recommended. 


At Songzanlin, multiple buildings sit high atop a steep hill, accessed only by climbing more than 100 steps. As another gentle reminder, it’s advised that you take your time on the stairs, instead of rushing, as the altitude may take its toll. Each building is painted with red, off-white and black, and is finished with real-gold roofs and towering statues. When the sun shines, it’s almost blinding to look at.

The roof is where the first sunlight of the day hits the land. If you wake up early – before six or seven in the morning, depending on the time of year – then you can watch the sunrise and see that it hits the monastery first.

This is one of the many carefully thought-out reasons the temple was built here during the Qing dynasty, mid-15th century. It’s positioned between two mountains; in feng shui terms, the mountain to the left stands as a dragon, while the mountain to the right represents a tiger. All these elements, including the glistening lake in front of the hill, are considered good feng shui.

When you get close to the colossal temples, those monks – along with locals and visitors – make their way in and out. From the age of six, monks begin their education and continue to teach themselves Buddhism at home until they move to the monastery to live and study. Monks who reside here do so in a house with three to five others. The temple is surprisingly close to Shangri-La’s county centre, from where buses leave frequently. You’ll only need to put aside AUD $26 (approx.) and a couple of hours to cover the temple grounds.