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View of the Black Dragon Lake and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

3 ancient cities in Yunnan that you have to visit

There are thousands of ancient cities and towns in China, and hundreds just in Yunnan. Your time is precious, but you cannot decide which ones to visit. Which ancient places are worth your time? Here are six ancient cities and towns in Yunnan that are relatively more interesting, of which three of them should definitely be on your bucket list. Let us start with the three ancient cities that you must go if you visit Yunnan:

1. Dali

This is the night view of the Southern Gate of Dali ancient city.

Of the three must-visit ancient cities and towns, Dali is the most touristic. However, it still retains its unique flavour and is able to resist excessive commercialisation. Unlike many another ancient cities, Dali has preserved its massive walls and gates, which makes it more complete. As you walk into Dali, you feel like you have been transported back in time to the era of the Dali Kingdom.

The view of one of the main streets in Dali ancient city.

You will find the usual tourist shops in the main streets of Dali. However, turn into the alleys and allow yourself to wander. You will begin to see the local life of the people living in the ancient city. There is a huge fresh produce market in the northern part of the ancient city, a bustling street food area near the eastern gate and plenty of dwellings along the city walls.

This is the mountain trail atop Cangshan Mountain in Dali, facing the Dali ancient city and the Erhai lake.

Head out of the ancient city and you will find even more things to do. Climb the majestic Cangshan mountain just west of the ancient city, or cycle along the beautiful Erhai lake to the east. Head north to visit the Bai ethnic minority villages and see how they live and work on the farms. The Bai ethnic minority is extremely proud of their heritage: you can still see women in their traditional costumes, find authentic Bai cuisine and even tour inside well-preserved homes of Bai architecture.

There are many buses to Dali from around Yunnan. You can also take a train or fly to Dali.

2. Shaxi

One of the cobbled streets at Shaxi ancient town.

A quaint little town up in the mountains near Jianchuan, Shaxi feels like a magic wonderland. After tackling about 25km of winding mountain roads, you enter a relatively flat plain surrounded by mountains. Shaxi is located in this basin, and you can imagine how isolated this ancient town was before it was connected by road.

If you were to simply walk through the ancient town, you would be done in 20 minutes. Yet, many stay here for days because of how peaceful and quiet it is. A beautiful stream passes through the ancient town, which was an important location for the ancient tea and horse caravan route. Every Friday, villagers from around the basin come to Shaxi to peddle their goods. The women would come dressed in traditional clothes while the men would come with their mules stocked with goods. This traditional began in the days of the ancient tea and horse caravan route and continues even till today.

View of the multi-coloured patchwork farmland at Shaxi ancient town

Take a bike and ride into the villages around Shaxi. There are many beautiful villages with well-preserved buildings and temples. Along the way between villages, you will pass through many farmlands of different sizes. I was there during the rice-planting season, and the fields were multi-coloured. On one plot, you could see the bright green rice seedlings, on another, the matured yellow wheat.

View of the cliffside temple that houses the stone carvings at the Baoshan Mountain (or Stone Treasure Mountain) in Shaxi ancient town.

If you have the energy, I suggest that you climb up the Stone Treasure Mountain (or Shibao mountain). There are many stone carvings around the mountain, some on the cliffs and others guarded by temples. From the mountain, you can also see the entire Shaxi basin, from the ancient town to the surrounding villages and the quilt-like fields. If climbing is not your thing, you can also take a bus up the mountain and walk down on the other side.

Currently, the only way to Shaxi is by bus from Jianchuan town. There are many buses from Dali or Lijiang that goes to Jianchuan.

3. Baisha

View of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at Baisha ancient town.

Located slightly north of Lijiang city, Baisha is the smallest ancient town of the three that I recommend. You can take a bus from Lijiang city to Baisha, although I strongly recommend that you ride a bicycle. Baisha is one of the most picturesque ancient towns in Yunnan. It is at the foot of the famous Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and is surrounded by towering mountains on its northern and western fronts.

One of the streets in Baisha Ancient Town.

Visit the Baisha Murals museum and you will be able to find many beautiful artwork depicting the traditions and cultures of the people in the past. The entire Lijiang area is mostly populated by the Naxi ethnic minority, as such many of the murals showcase the distinctly different Naxi culture. You can also visit the Naxi embroidery centre in the ancient town to have a taste of Naxi-style artwork.

View of the mountains in the background and the vast wheat fields in the foreground at Baisha ancient town in Lijiang.

If you are on a bicycle, keep riding north in the direction of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. You will pass by many other villages, mountains and vast farmland. The village houses here are of a distinct Naxi architecture, which is very different from the houses you will find in Dali or Shaxi. Another beautiful biking route is to ride to the Fuguo Monastery, which is west of Baisha ancient town.

Baisha is very close to Lijiang city, which is accessible by bus, train and airplane.

Other ancient towns you can consider

Dali, Shaxi and Baisha are the three ancient cities and towns you have to visit when you visit Yunnan. However, if you still have the appetite for more, you can consider these three other ancient cities. These are relatively more commercialised and do not offer an authentic ancient city experience. Despite this, they are great places to dine, shop and party!

1. Lijiang

This is one of the streets of Lijiang ancient town and a stream passes along it.

Also known as Dayan ancient city, this ancient city is usually very crowded with tourists. It is a huge area with many streets and alleyways, so do not be surprised if you cannot find your way out! You will find many restaurants, pubs, bars and clubs in the ancient city and the relatively shaded streets make it a great place to walk in summer.

This is the view of the crowded pub street at Lijiang ancient town.

In the evening, the pub street comes alive with pubs aggressively competing with one another for customers. Many places have live music, table-top dancers, DJs and dance floors. As most of the establishments have clear windows, you can see which place offers the right vibe for yourself before entering.

2. Shuhe

View of the stream that passes through Shuhe ancient city at night.

Again located in Lijiang city, Shuhe is north of Lijiang ancient city. Many consider Shuhe as a quieter alternative to Lijiang. Indeed, Shuhe is considerably more peaceful than Lijiang, yet it still offers a good variety of entertainment. You can have a fabulous dinner by the stream, grab a drink at a live music bar or go crazy at a dance club.

If you are not too keen to jostle with the crowds (it gets really crowded at Lijiang ancient city; I found it challenging to walk properly along the pub street in the evening), visit Shuhe instead. Both Shuhe and Lijiang ancient cities are in Lijiang city, which is easily accessible by bus, train and aeroplane.

3. Shangri-la

Set on top of a hill, this enormous prayer wheel is one of the main sights of the Dukezong ancient city in Shangri-la.

Unfortunately, a fire mostly destroyed Shangri-la’s ancient city a few years ago. It has since been fully rebuilt, but the vibe is never the same anymore. The ancient city is most famous for its Tibetan flavour, as well as its gigantic Tibetan Buddhism prayer wheel.

A large group of local Tibetans dancing in a circle in the Dukezong ancient city in Shangri-la.

Every evening, Tibetans in the city will meet in the central square of the ancient city to dance. You can easily find more than a hundred local Tibetans dancing in synchronisation. Once the music ends at around 8.30pm, the locals disperse immediately, as if they were part of some flash mob. It was quite an interesting sight!

There are currently no trains to Shangri-la. The only way there is by bus or by plane.

Where will you go?

This is one of the shops owned by a ethnic minority in Shaxi Ancient Town.

You now know about six ancient cities and towns in Yunnan. These are more than enough! Take your pick and go for it. Fortunately, all of these ancient cities and towns are along the highway that goes from Yunnan to Tibet. This makes it really easy to plan a route – just head down the highway and visit the ancient cities and towns along the way.

Are you inspired to visit any of the six ancient cities and towns? Share this article with your friends and drop me a comment below if you enjoyed this piece.

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