Road Stories #47: Our hitchhiking trip through Yunnan province

Shangri-la, China - header


Tucked away in the south-western corner of China sits the spectacular province of Yunnan. One of the most culturally and ethnically diverse parts of the country it became one of our favourite regions due to its stunning nature, interesting towns and as the place of some great experiences. Here are some of our highlights:

Tibetan people in Shangri-la - Yunnan province, China

Tibetan people in Shangri-la

Lijiang – the UNESCO town you might want to avoid

It may seem strange to start with one of our least favourite places but Lijiang is a UNESCO listed town that would be fabulous if it weren’t for the fact that tourism has ruined it. Take way the legions of tour groups, tacky souvenir shops and the bars pumping out live music and what you’re left with would be great. Small winding streets, picture perfect architecture and a slice of China you could only dream of. But you can’t remove these things and so it isn’t great. We did meet a wonderful force of nature called Emily, though, who seeing our inability to find accommodation, swept us up, organised everything and then took us for dinner. We would be seeing her again in Shenzen.

Read also: “International Youth Hostel in Lijiang – the perfect base to extend your Chinese visa”

Yi people in Lijiang, China - Yunnan province, China

Yi people in Lijiang

Dali – a beauty that can’t be missed

It is hard to say why Dali captivated us so much. At its worst it is a smaller Lijiang, there are shed load of tourists and an invasive street of exceedingly loud live music so loved by domestic Chinese tourists. However, Dali felt so much more intimate, prettier and generally more relaxed.

We also struck gold while couchsurfing, Luxi, a master chief and the brains behind Rice & Friends, a Chinese culinary school, was an interesting girl. The most un-Chinese of a Chinese girl, she taught us how to make Jiaozi, traditional Chinese dumplings for our cultural relay project and taught us a lot we didn’t know about Chinese cuisine. A really useful and eye-opening experience.

Read also: “How to make Jiaozi – traditional Chinese dumplings in 3 different ways”

A man and his lama, Dali, China - Yunnan province, China

A man and his lama, Dali

Tiger Leaping Gorge – the best hike in China

Despite having to pay to go on a hike (this is China after all), the trek along Tiger Leaping Gorge was one of the best we have done on the trip. The views were stunning, the nature luscious and the exercise invigorating.

Read also: Tiger Leaping Gorge – hiking guide

Tiger Leaping Gorge, China (23) - Yunnan province, China

Views at Tiger Leaping Gorge

The failed hitchhike

We had set off with the noble intention of visiting the UNESCO listed Yunnan rice terraces. What started as an adventure, quickly descended into a farce.

Getting out of Dali was easy enough and within two rides we had made it to Tonghai, over halfway to the rice terraces and the place we had planned to sleep for the night. The next morning we reached the town of Jianshui, the last major town on route. This is where the problems started. We had been dropped off in the middle of town and had no idea which was the best way out. We tried what we thought was the right road but 3 hours later and we still hadn’t got anywhere. We changed tack and started walking, trying to find a different way south. The walk was so long that by the end we were dead on our feet. When a lady stopped we pounced. She was very enthusiastic to help but didn’t really understand what we wanted. Eventually, we managed to convey that we needed the road leading out and we were on our way.

Then things got weird. We were on the right road at last and when a guy stopped who said he was going to our destination, we started congratulating ourselves on a job well done. In retrospect, a big mistake.

We ascended along winding roads until we were enveloped in fog. Far enough away from civilisation, our driver turned to us and suddenly demanded money. We replied that we travel for free, the car stopped, and we and our bags were unceremoniously dumped on the road side. Now we were in a little bit of a pickle, the road was deserted and there were no houses in sight. While we were pondering our current situation our unfriendly driver had returned. He made hand signals indicating that a tree had fallen up ahead and the road was blocked. He then offered to drive us back to Jianshui for free.

Not knowing quite what to make of this performance and after realising the hopelessness of our predicament we took him up on his offer.

We slept in Jianshui that night, less than 50km from where we had started, cursing our luck!

Man and plastic bottles, China - Yunnan province, China

Typical sight on Chinese roads


We couchsurfed with a Turkish guy called Serdar and an American guy called Jose. Jose was wearing an Indian sarong. He didn’t speak Spanish. His real name is Oliver… Nice guy though… That is all!

Kunming by night, China (1) - Yunnan province, China

Kunming by night

Our route through Yunnan Province, China

written by: Jon

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