Autumn Odyssey in Yunnan, China

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14675A, International


  • Tour fascinating towns and villages
  • Photograph stunning landscapes seldom seen by Western tourists
  • Meet many of China’s minority people and learn of their cultures
  • Explore the highlights of Shanghai


  • All meals from dinner on day 1 through breakfast on day 15
  • All lodging from day 1 through day 14
  • All gratuities and admission fees
  • All transportation, including three internal flights


DatesOct 26–Nov 9, 2014
StaffMartha Greason
Photo: Shen Mao Mao

Trip Overview

The Trip

The majority of this trip is in Yunnan Province, which is situated in southwestern China. It offers cultural and geographical interest at every turn. It is home to 24 minority nationalities, all with their own customs and beliefs. We will meet some of these people and learn of their traditions and culture.

This trip is also planned to visit and photograph some of China’s beauty spots that are seldom seen by Western tourists. These are located in mountainous areas "off the beaten path." In order to reach these areas, we will have a few longer driving days. In some cases accommodations will be modest but will be the best available in the area.

Our journey begins and ends in Shanghai. After enjoying many of the sights of this cosmopolitan city, we will fly to the charming town of Lijiang in northwestern Yunnan, home to the Naxi people. We’ll view the Yangtze River leaping through one of the world’s deepest gorges before proceeding to the town of Shangri-La (Zhongdian) on the Tibetan Plateau, where many traits of Tibetan culture are evident. After a flight to Kunming, we’ll drive to a place known in China for its beauty called Dongchuan "Red Land." This is an area of stunning color and vistas, a delight for photographers.

As we drive into the mountains south of Kunming, we’ll explore traditional towns, a cultural heritage city, and fascinating markets filled with traders and people of minority nationalities such as the Hani, Yi, and Miao. We’ll visit an area known for its rice terraces carved into mountainsides over thousands of years -- a visual spectacle. We’ll hike through Hani and Yi villages, observe the harvesting of crops, enjoy autumn colors, and meet the people of the area. We’ll have an overnight stop at the famous Stone Forest renowned for its pinnacles and spires before returning to Kunming.


Day 1: Day of arrival in Shanghai. Your transfer from the airport to the designated hotel will be on your own. The trip leader will provide you with transfer options. We will meet together at the hotel before proceeding for dinner at a local restaurant. This will be the first meal of the trip.

Day 2: This morning we will visit the extraordinary Shanghai Museum. After lunch, we'll do a backstreet behind-the-scene walking tour, which will get us up close and personal with the Shanghai people; cruise on the Huangpu River; and stroll on the Bund, the city’s classic colonial riverfront. An acrobatic show will round out the evening.

Day 3: A morning flight will take us to Lijiang in northwestern Yunnan Province. Lijiang is the capital of the old Naxi Kingdom. We will have time to stroll the winding lanes and rustic stone bridges built over clear streams that run through the town, and to explore traditional wooden shops. We’ll visit the Dongba Museum of Naxi culture and Black Dragon Pool Park with Jade Dragon Mountain as a backdrop. Two nights will be spent at a comfortable hotel near the Old Town.

Day 4: Today we visit Yufeng Monastery to see a typical lama temple. We’ll also go to Baisha Village to see its famous murals. Our explorations will take us to a Naxi village and to Joseph Rock’s former residence before returning to the old town for lunch. In the afternoon there will be time to explore further and visit the Nature Conservancy’s Visitor Center in Lijiang. In the evening, we will attend a performance of the Naxi Orchestra. Overnight in Lijiang.

Day 5: We will drive from Lijiang to the town of Shangri-La (also known as Zhongdian) with a side trip to Leaping Tiger Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world. We can hike down into the gorge to view the Yangtze River as it dramatically churns through the narrow pass. We will spend two nights in the town of Shangri-La (elevation 11,000 feet). At this point in the journey we are approximately 75 miles from both Tibet and Myanmar (Burma), an area of strong Tibetan influence. Overnight in Shangri-La.

Day 6: This morning we visit Songzanling monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in southwest China, which resembles the Potala Palace in Llasa. Currently over 600 monks reside here. We will also walk the old town of Shangri-La. An afternoon visit to a Tibetan village and school as well as Potatso National Park will round out the day. Potatso was the first area to be preserved as a national park in mainland China. It is an area of lakes, forest, marshland, and alpine meadows. All major spots are connected by plank walkways, which make for easy exploration and walking. Overnight in Shangri-La.

Day 7: A morning flight will take us to Kunming. Once there, we will drive 156 km (97 miles) on paved road to Dongchuan "Red Land," a stunning area of color, terraced fields, and dazzling sunrises and sunsets. It is a photographer’s dream. The land is red because of its iron oxide content. There is always something plowed while other areas are planted with colorful crops. At this time of year, the leaves of trees will turn golden and red, adding to the vivid color scheme. There will be ample time to visit various scenic areas and enjoy the spectacular views. We will stay at a local hostel, which is the best accommodation available in this area.

Day 8: We continue our photo tour of Dongshuan “Red Land” this morning, beginning with the sunrise. After lunch we will drive back to Kunming. There will be time to also visit some of Kunming’s sights in the afternoon. Overnight at a fine city hotel.

Day 9: We embark on another phase of our adventure, driving south into mountainous areas peopled by several minority nationalities. We will visit the traditional town of Tonghai, which has the most interesting market in Yunnan province. A highlight will be a stop at Ximeng, a Mongolian village where residents adhere to the culture and dress of Mongolia. The people are offspring of Khublai Khan from the Yuan Dynasty.

A short drive will take us to Jianshui, one of the four cultural heritage cities in Yunnan known for traditional architecture. We will visit the second largest Confucius temple in China as well as Zhang Garden and a “stinky tofu” mill to see how one of the most famous local foods (tofu) is processed. On this day we will travel a total of 204 km (126 miles), interspersed with various stops and visits. Overnight at the best available hotel in Jianshui.

Day 10: Our destination on this day is an area known as Yuanyang situated in the southeast of the province at an altitude of 4,500 feet. The main residents are Hani, Yi, Miao, and Han people. The area is renowned for its rice terraces, which have been carved into the mountainsides over a period of centuries. The drive from Jianshui to Yuanyang is 211 km (131 miles). We will stop at several towns, including Majie Village along the Red River. This town has one of the most colorful markets in Yuanyang, with various minority people coming to trade from far and near. Two nights will be spent at a local guesthouse in Yuanyang.

Day 11: This day is devoted to visiting Yuanyang and its wonderful rice terraces, which may be filled with water at the time of our visit, creating a stunning visual image. Part of this day will be spent hiking over a mountain through Hani and Yi villages, situated near the terraces. The highest point will be 5,400 feet and the hike will take approximately three hours. Our vehicle will be waiting for us when we complete the hike. Those who do not wish to hike may ride in the vehicle. 

Day 12: Beginning our drive back to Kunming, we will stop at the famed Stone Forest for an overnight stay at a hotel. This is one of Yunnan’s most visited tourist sites. The Stone Forest is a large formation of tightly packed limestone pillars in various shapes -- some as tall as 100 feet. It resembles a petrified forest through which there are winding pathways, lookout points, and water features. It is 83 km (51 miles) southeast of Kunming and will be a pleasant break in our journey.

Day 13: We will explore the Stone Forest this morning. The Sami people, dressed in their native costumes, work as tour guides and dancers in the area. After lunch we will make the short drive back to Kunming, check into our comfortable hotel, and have time for relaxation and exploration.

Day 14: Our sightseeing of Kunming today will include the Western Hills, the Bamboo Temple, and the Minority People’s Museum. An afternoon flight will return us to Shanghai, where we will check into our hotel for an overnight stay and enjoy a festive farewell dinner in the evening.

Day 15: The trip ends after breakfast. Transfer to the airport is not included, but the arrangements can be made readily to go by taxi or bus.



Getting There

As a practical matter, trip participants must depart the west coast of the U.S. no later than two days before the start of the trip as a day will be lost crossing the international dateline. Participants are responsible for travel from home to the designated hotel in Shanghai. The transfer to the airport after the trip is also not included. There are several airlines that fly to Shanghai from the U.S. The trip leader will provide various options for transportation in Shanghai to and from the hotel.

Accommodations and Food

All accommodations will be the best available in the more remote towns or regions that we will be visiting. Several will be comfortable hotels catering to Western tourists. Other accommodations will be more modest. The trip price is based on two people sharing a room; roommates will be assigned as applicable. Single-room accommodations are available for an extra charge. Most breakfasts will be modified Western or Chinese, while lunches and dinners will feature a varied assortment of Chinese dishes traditional to each region of our travel. Chopsticks are the preferred utensils for eating. Please be aware that we will be served Chinese food at all meals (except for the occasional breakfast) so do not expect or ask for food to be as you have it at home. It may be a good idea to bring some food bars if you think you will need a break from Chinese food.

Vegetarians can be accommodated. Check with the trip leader about other dietary needs.

Trip Difficulty

This trip can be described as moderately strenuous since we will be traveling moderately long distances by vehicle on some days in order to visit a variety of extraordinary locales. It is suitable for adults of any age who are in good health and are comfortable walking and climbing stairs and being in altitude up to 11,000 feet (Shangri-La, two days). Please check with the trip leader if you have any concerns about altitude.

Most of our travels will be by small bus. There will be three commercial flights on this trip (Shanghai to Lijiang, Shangri-la to Kunming, Kunming to Shanghai). Much of our time will be spent on our feet at cultural sites, markets, museums, and in the countryside. Temples, villages, and street markets can only be seen on foot.

Equipment and Clothing

The trip leader will provide all trip members with a list of suggested clothing and equipment. In general, nothing special is required for this trip, except sturdy walking shoes, and it is better to travel lighter rather than heavier. Several of our lodgings will not have elevators or porters so you may need to carry your own bags to your rooms. A collapsible walking stick may be helpful. Trip members are expected to bring any medicine, including prescription drugs that they may need during the trip.


  • Pomfret, John, Chinese Lessons: Five Students and the Story of New China.
  • Hessler, Peter, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present.
  • Economy, Elizabeth, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future.
  • Harper, Damien, National Geographic Traveler: China 2nd Edition.


Due to its immense population and rapid economic development, China is environmentally challenged on many fronts. We will travel through areas of great scenic beauty, but also see examples of severe environmental degradation. In the past 30 years, 30 percent of China’s agricultural land has been lost to pollution, erosion, and building on cultivated land. Desert areas, already very large in China, have increased by 25,000 square miles. Many of China’s cities suffer from air pollution, a growing problem due to the increased use of motorized vehicles and coal burning for electric power generation. On this trip we will be in the countryside and in smaller towns for much of the time, so air pollution should not be a large problem. However, Kunming and Shanghai are very large cities, so air pollution will be evident.

Despite a government riddled by corruption, out of control globalization impacts, and dramatic philosophy swings, authorities have begun to act, at least in some areas. For example, recognizing the link between past logging practices and recent devastating floods, China has banned the cutting of trees in key watersheds. We will visit the Nature Conservancy office in Lijiang to learn about their work in China and compare China’s environmental situation with our own society.



Marti Greason has over a decade of experience leading Sierra Club trips to various destinations in the United States as well as abroad, introducing participants to various landscapes, exotic cultures, and fascinating creatures (elephants and octopi, anyone?). She has traveled extensively in Europe, trekked through the Serengeti, visited the Orient, and explored the Holy Land. She has also scuba dived in the Caribbean, zip-lined in the Costa Rican jungle, and followed Darwin's footsteps in the Galapagos. She currently resides in Tucson, Arizona, where she is a docent at Tohono Chul Park, introducing visitors to the basics of desert flora and fauna.

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