This two-week tour focuses mainly on western China and covers some of the most off-the-beaten-path locales in Sichuan province and the Tibetan Plateau. It's an itinerary packed with outdoor adventure as you'll visit high-altitude villages, ancient Buddhist temples, and unspoiled national parks. Excursions to the mountain paradise of Shangri-La, the biological reserve of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and the peaks of Mount Siguniang are just a few of the many highlights of this unforgettable trip.

Highlights

  • Travel to Lijiang and visit Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
  • Tour the monasteries of Shangri-La, a city on the Tibetan Plateau
  • Walk the historic streets of Dali, which date to the 8th century
  • Hike the mountains and valleys of the Yading Nature Reserve
  • Visit Mount Siguniang, the "queen of Sichuan's mountains"

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Beijing - Optional Street-Market Tour Beijing
Day 2 Fly from Beijing to Lijiang Lijiang
Day 3 Shangri-La Day Tour Shangri-La
Day 4 Yunnan Full-Day Tour - Transfer to Dali Dali
Day 5 Tour Dali & Erhai Lake - Transfer to Kunming Kunming
Day 6 Stone Forest Tour - Fly from Kunming to Chengdu Chengdu
Day 7 Chengdu to Xinduqiao Xinduqiao
Day 8 Xinduqiao to Yading Nature Reserve yading
Day 9 Yading Nature Reserve Full Day Tour yading
Day 10 Riwa to Xinduqiao - Tour Daocheng County Xinduqiao
Day 11 Xinduqiao to Danba - Tour Tagong Danba
Day 12 Danba to Mount Siguniang - Tour Zhonglu Village Siguniang Mountain
Day 13 Mount Siguniang Tour - Transfer to Chengdu Chengdu
Day 14 Fly from Chengdu to Beijing - Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Beijing - Optional Street-Market Tour

The Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, Beijing

Welcome to China!

With a population of over 21 million people, Beijing is the most densely populated capital city in the world. As one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, this metropolis has been the seat of power in the country for eight centuries. It's home to expansive historic landmarks like the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, which date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Also here is the Summer Palace, a lakeside royal retreat and imperial garden during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911).

However, Beijing is also a shining example of modernity. Some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world exist here. Also, new developments, high-rise apartments, and shopping malls all but engulf historic hutong alleyways and ancient courtyard houses. This city is a megalopolis hurtling towards the future while keeping one foot firmly in the past.

Upon arrival at Beijing Capital International Airport, you'll meet your private guide at the arrival hall and transfer to your hotel in downtown Beijing. After check-in, you'll have the remainder of the day free to head out and explore. Or, if you're a bit jet-lagged, you can stay in, relax, and enjoy the hotel amenities.

Time and energy permitting, in the evening you can take a guided tour of Wangfujing Street, an eclectic shopping area where you'll find famous night markets and incredible street food.

Day 2: Fly from Beijing to Lijiang

Black Dragon Pool
Black Dragon Pool

In the morning, you'll transfer to the airport for the four-hour flight southwest to Lijiang. located near the border with Tibet in China's mountainous Yunnan province, the populace of Lijiang is mostly comprised of ethnic minority cultures of the Himalayan foothills like the Bai, Yi, and Naxi people. This has been the case throughout the city's history, which is a long one. During the 1300s, in fact, Lijiang was one of China's major commercial centers. 

Upon arrival in Lijiang, a guide/driver will meet you at the airport and transfer you to your hotel for check-in. Afterward, you'll head out and explore the city on a tour. You'll see evidence of this city's historic legacy walking around the neighborhood of Dyan, which is Lijiang's old town.

This historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the rich culture of the Naxi people. It's a heritage that goes back 1,000 years to when Dyan was a stop on the ancient Tea Horse Road trading route. Even today this neighborhood is filled with Naxi homes built the traditional way out of timber and mud bricks.

One of Lijiang's natural highlights is Heilongtan Park (Black Dragon Pool). This 99-acre (40-hectare) public space is located north of the old town at the foot of Elephant Hill. Beyond the park's namesake glassy pond, there are historic landmarks like Deyue Pavilion (built in 1601), an impressive example of Tibetan, Bai, and Han architectural styles. Then there's the arched Suocui Bridge and Longshen Temple, which was built in 1737 and was the site of sacrifice rituals to the gods.

Your guide will also take you to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, located about 9 miles (15 km) outside of Lijiang. Consisting of 13 craggy peaks, the highest of these, Shanzidou, tops out at 18,360 feet (‎5,596 meters). As seen from Lijiang's old town, these peaks, often appearing above the mist, resemble a dragon resting in the clouds. 

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is also a biological reserve. The area is home to 400 types of trees and 30 kinds of animals, all of which are protected. You'll see this glory of nature firsthand on a scenic cable car ride to the mountain plateau and spruce woodland area of Yunshanping.

In the evening, you're in a for a real treat when you sit down to watch Impression Lijian, a cultural performance that has the distinction of being the highest-altitude show in the world (it takes place at 10,170 feet/3,100 meters). Featuring more than 500 performers set against the backdrop of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, this outdoor show celebrates the cultures of the Naxi, Bai, and Yi ethnic minorities of the region through dance and song.

Day 3: Shangri-La Day Tour

Shangri-La
Shangri-La

In the morning, you'll transfer about two hours north to a small city once known as Zhongdian. Today it's called Shangri-La, after the mythical valley and utopia at the center of James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon. The peaceful paradise described in that book was located high in the Himalaya, and Zhongdian, with its mountain setting in a fertile valley, was so reminiscent of the fictional locale that it officially changed its name to Xianggelila (which translates to "Shangri-La") in 2001.

On a full-day tour, you'll visit Shangri-La and witness an interesting mix of cultures. While it's officially a part of China, it is also the largest city of the Tibetan prefecture of Diqing. Shangri-La sits on the doorstep to Tibet and thus its culture is majority Tibetan, as evidenced by its impressive Buddhist monastery, Songzanlin, which was built in 1679.

Besides touring Songzanlin, you'll also stroll the well-preserved historic center of Shangri-La. It's filled with traditional, whitewashed Tibetan homes featuring hand-carved roof tiles. You'll even venture into the nearby countryside and Pudacuo National Park, a  500-sq-mile (1,300-sq-km) protected area home to the beautiful Shudu Lake, a glassy body of water that sits on a scenic mountain plateau at an elevation of 12,155 feet (3,705 meters).

Day 4: Yunnan Full-Day Tour - Transfer to Dali

Tiger Leaping Gorge
Tiger Leaping Gorge

Today you'll travel south from Shangri-La on a full-day tour of Yunnan Province's stunning countryside. This includes visits to the gorges around the Yangtze River.

First, you'll stop at Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This massive canyon is located just north of Linjiang on the Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze. At a staggering 12,434 feet (3,790 meters) from peak to river, this is one of the deepest gorges in the world. Needless to say, the mountain views in the area are stunning, and there are many scenic hiking trails here. 

Next you'll travel further south to the outskirts of Lijiang and a locale known as The First Bend of the Yangtze River. Naturally, this isn't the very first bend in the famous river, but it is the most pronounced. It's at this point that the river takes a dramatic 90° turn from south to east, curving around a pyramid-shaped mountain.

There's great hiking in the area affording spectacular views, and the area is also rich in history. The town at the bend is a longstanding trading route with Tibet, and everyone from the Red Army in 1936 to Kublai Khan's forces 800 years ago forded the river at this location on their march to battle. 

After The First Bend of the Yangtze River, you'll travel to the historic city of Dali, where you'll overnight. Dali sits on the shores of Erhai Lake and has a rich history, as it was once the capital of the Bai kingdom of Nanzhao all the way back in the 8th century.

Day 5: Tour Dali & Erhai Lake - Transfer to Kunming

Old Town Dali
Old Town Dali

Today you'll head out on a tour of Dali's Old Town. This time-capsule of an enclave is situated between the Cang Mountains and Erhai Lake, and it's one of the real gems of Yunnan province. There's a long historical legacy here, which you'll feel as you stroll its tranquil pedestrian streets and see in its historic architecture.

Not only was Dali's historic Old Town the capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom from the 8th to the 9th centuries, but it was also the capital of the Kingdom of Dali until the mid-13th century. Then, after the Mongolian conquest of China and the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty, much of Dali was destroyed. However, after the Ming Dynasty defeated the Yuan forces in 1368, the city was rebuilt. This is why most of the well-preserved buildings you'll see in Dali's Old Town date to the 14th century. 

And there are some stunning architectural landmarks here. One of the city's most iconic examples is the Three Pagodas. This impressive temple complex has survived over 1,000 years completely intact. Moreover, the highest of the pagodas in the complex tops out at 229 feet (70 meters), making it the largest Chinese pagoda leftover from the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 ACE). 

Afterward, take a boat ride on Erhai Lake, which is dotted with islets and surrounded by towering mountain peaks. It's also a food source for the ethnic-minority Bai people, who reside in Dali. Over centuries they've developed a unique fishing method that involves using flocks of trained cormorants. Rings are placed around the birds' necks to prevent them from swallowing the catch, and once they scoop up a fish in the lake, they bring it back to the boat. 

Then, in the afternoon, transfer to the railway station for the two-hour ride east on a bullet train from Dali to Kunming. This will be an interesting change of pace because whereas Dali is known for its ancient history and tranquil pace of life, Kunming is the opposite. It's a modern metropolis and major transport hub in China. Upon arrival at the train stqtion, a driver will meet you and transfer you to your hotel.

Day 6: Stone Forest Tour - Fly from Kunming to Chengdu

Stone Forest
Stone Forest

In the morning, you'll leave the hustle and bustle of modern Kunming for more rural environs about 75 miles (120 km) east of the city. Here you'll find Stone Forest, an area of 150 square miles (388 square km) comprised of a series of limestone rock formations that jut into the air like giant fingers reaching for the sky. These incredible natural landmarks have been referred to by the Chinese as the "first wonder of the world" ever since the days of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 ACE). 

After returning from the Stone Forest, you'll transfer to the airport for the 1.5-hour flight north to Chengdu. This city is the capital of China's Sichuan province, an area famous for many things, not least of which is its namesake chili peppers and mouth-on-fire cuisine.

Upon arrival at the airport, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in. You'll then have the remainder of the day free. Perhaps head out for a stroll, because despite being a modern and sizeable metropolis, Chengdu is pleasantly walkable. There's a laid-back quality here you won't find in other major cities in China. This is evidenced by the proclivity of residents to while away the hours drinking tea and playing mahjong. 

If you really want to test your foodie bonafides and tolerance for piquant food, head to a local restaurant for some notoriously spicy hot pot. This dish is a communal cauldron of rich broth spiked with merciless amounts of five-alarm-fire chili peppers.

Day 7: Chengdu to Xinduqiao

The suspension bridge in Luding County
The suspension bridge in Luding County

After breakfast, you'll transfer about two hours west from Chengdu to Ya'an. Despite being located in Sichuan province, relatively close to Chengdu, you'll be leaving the Chinese lowlands and ascending ever higher to the Tibetan plateaus. Your next destination after arriving in Ya'an, in fact, is a couple hours further west: the eastern Tibetan prefecture of Luding County.

Passing through this mountainous area is the mighty Dadu River, which runs west-east from Tibet all the way to the Sichuan basin. In Luding County there is a famous suspension bridge that runs across the Dadu and spans 100 meters (330 feet). A historic landmark dating to the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 ACE), the bridge has long been a vital point on the route from Tibet into China. The impressive river and mountain scenery also make this a great place to stop and snap photos. 

After that, you'll continue the drive to nearby Mugecuo, a national park covering 115 square miles (300 square km) and home to alpine forests, fertile valleys, winding rivers, and natural hot springs. On this excursion, you'll visit Lake Kangding ("Savage Lake"), which, at 8,530 feet (2,600 meters) in elevation, holds the distinction of being the highest-altitude lake Sichuan.

Then, you'll head a few miles further west to Xinduqiao, a predominantly Tibetan town in western Sichuan. It's  spread out over a few miles on an expansive green plateau backed by snowcapped Himalayan peaks. Indeed, the area's rushing rivers and rolling green hills make it a paradise for photographers. Remember, though, to take it easy and acclimate to the altitude: the area of Xinduqiao sits at an average of 11,500 feet (3,500 meters).

Day 8: Xinduqiao to Yading Nature Reserve

Yading Nature Reserve
Yading Nature Reserve

In the morning you'll head west from Xinduqiao to the Yajiang, a drive that takes a little less than two hours. It's a scenic trip that travels over snowy mountain passes before descending about 3,280 feet (1,000 meters into the valley and Yajiang. This modern town is a major point on the Tibet-Sechuan Highway.

From here it's a couple of hours more to Litang, yet another Tibetan town in a green plateau valley. Beyond the surrounding natural beauty, Litang is home to the Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery, which literally translates to Happy Buddha Dharma. This expansive temple has quite the history, having been founded by the Third Dalai Lama in 1580. The sheer majesty of it is rivaled only by the biggest temples on the Tibetan Plateau, such as the fortress of Potala Palace in the capital of Lhasa

After Litang, you'll head due south and drive another four hours or so into Daocheng County, in southwest Sichuan. Your destination is Yading, a nature reserve and mountain sanctuary. There are three mountains here that are a famous pilgrimage site for Tibetans, as the fifth Dalai Lama blessed these peaks back in the 17th century. You'll arrive in the small town of Riwa (now also called Shangri-La) at the doorstep to Yading, where you'll overnight.

Day 9: Yading Nature Reserve Full Day Tour

Fall Colors at the Yading Nature Reserve
Fall Colors at the Yading Nature Reserve

Today you'll explore Yading Nature Reserve. This protected area encompasses 520 square miles (1346 square km) and is home to three snowcapped peaks sacred to Tibetans. They call the area Rigsum Gonpo, and each peak has its own name: Chenresig (which translates to "compassion"), Chana Dorje ("power"), and Jampelyang ("wisdom"). Tibetans routinely make pilgrimages to hike around these mountains, including the highest of all, Chenresig, which stands at an altitude of 19,790 feet (6032 meters).

But you don't need to go on multi-day circuit treks to experience the majesty of the reserve's mountain peaks, glacial lakes, and fertile grasslands. There are plenty of great day hikes too. Most leave from Longtong Ba, a small settlement near the park entrance.

You can hike a couple of kilometers up to the 800-year-old Chonggu Monastery and from there head to the Luorong Grassland, which offers prime views of the three mountain peaks. Many of the routes pass by Yading's high-altitude lakes, such as the magnificent Five Color Lake, whose bright hues are a nice contrast to the snow-covered mountains that surround it. Be aware that much of Yading Nature Reserve sits at over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) altitude, so pace yourself during any excursions. 

After the day tour, you'll leave the park and return to the town of Riwa, where you'll overnight.

Day 10: Riwa to Xinduqiao - Tour Daocheng County

Tibetan flags in Daocheng
Tibetan flags in Daocheng

After breakfast, you'll drive about an hour and a half north of the Yading Nature Reserve to Daocheng County. Like in many other communities in China's far-west region of Sichuan province, the majority population of Daocheng is Tibetan. And because it's all part of one area, the gorgeous mountain scenery here is similar to that in Yading. There's no shortage of massive glaciers, snow-capped peaks, glassy lakes, natural hot springs, and ancient Buddhist temples.

After spending some time hiking around Daocheng, you'll continue another few hours by car northeast to Xinduqiao, where you'll overnight.

Day 11: Xinduqiao to Danba - Tour Tagong

The monastery in Tagong
The monastery in Tagong

After breakfast, you will transfer about 45 minutes by car north to Tagong. This town lies on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and was once known as the Kham region of eastern Tibet. Today it's part of the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

Life has changed little in this scenic high-altitude area. Indeed, the nomadic yak herders that comprise much of the population still live in stone houses during the winter. In summer, they travel around the countryside with their herd, who graze on the fertile grasslands.

Tagong is also an important site for practicing Buddhists and is home to many Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. Lhagang Monastery is the main temple here and was built way back in 652 ACE. You'll be able to see it on a tour. 

Afterward, you'll embark on a two-hour drive northeast to Danba. This town sits on a giant mountainous river gorge and makes a great embarking point to visit the traditional villages in the region.

Day 12: Danba to Mount Siguniang - Tour Zhonglu Village

The ancient fortresses of Zhonglu Village
The ancient fortresses of Zhonglu Village

Today you'll drive a few miles to one of the beautiful Tibetan villages found in this canyon region: Zhonglu. This mountainside town is a throwback to a bygone era, which you'll see in its ancient stone diaolou (watchtowers) and fortress buildings. The scenery and architecture here are so evocative that the Tibetan name "Zhonglu" actually translates to "a desirable place for humans and gods." 

After touring the town, you'll continue driving east a couple of hours to Mount Siguniang. At 20,510 feet (6,250 meters) this is the highest of the Qionglai Mountains in Western China. The area that encompasses this mountain, Mount Siguniang National Park, is so breathtaking in its own right that it has earned UNESCO World Heritage status. It's in this gorgeous region that you'll spend the night.

Day 13: Mount Siguniang Tour - Transfer to Chengdu

 Shuangqiao Valley
Shuangqiao Valley

You'll begin the day with a visit to Mount Siguniang, which is comprised of four towering peaks that are covered under a blanket of snow year-round. Siguniang is actually a Tibetan word that translates to "four sisters," or "four maidens." The name comes from early Tibetans who believed that the peaks were the four sisters of the mountain god. The peak of the fourth sister, Yaomei Feng, reigns tallest with a summit elevation of 20,505 feet (6,250 meters).

Siguniang is renowned in the area as the "queen of Sichuan'mountains," and the mountain range itself is known as the "Alps of the East." After viewing Siguniang from some great vantage points, you'll head to nearby Shuangqiao Valley. Hiking this spectacular locale, you'll pass crystalline rivers, alpine lakes, and fertile grasslands abounding with flowers—all of it backed by painted mountains and snow-capped peaks. 

After spending time in the Shuangqiao Valley snapping pictures and hiking around, you'll continue west on a five-hour drive to Chengdu.

Day 14: Fly from Chengdu to Beijing - Departure

Farewell, China
Farewell, China

In the morning you'll transfer to the airport and catch a flight from Chengdu to Beijing. Upon arrival in Beijing, you'll meet your connecting flight home. Until next time!

Map

Map of Discover China: Yunnan & Western Sichuan - 14 Days
Map of Discover China: Yunnan & Western Sichuan - 14 Days