Scores of travellers head to Yunnan every year in search of tranquil rolling hills and minority villages uncorrupted by the modern world. The reality that awaits them today in towns such as Dali and Lijiang is a commercial cut-and-paste tourist trap. To get a taste of the Yunnan in your mind’s eye and guidebook photo gallery, you’re better using these towns as jumping off points for what’s around them.
Near the pretty but spoilt Lijiang, the town of Shuhe is in the shadow of the great Yulong Xueshan, or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and has a much-celebrated status as a point on the ancient tea horse trading route connecting southern China with Tibet and beyond. Whilst central Shuhe has also morphed into the identikit Chinese tourist old town, its untouched fringes make it a charming place to spend a few nights.
Walk around the town and you’ll see plenty of horses, which you can ride, with a guide, up into the surrounding hills. Or if you fancy going a little further afield you can do what we did: rent some bikes and go on your own six-hour adventure towards Yulong Xueshan.
From the north car park of Shuhe, it’s a short cycle up to Baisha, a pleasantly authentic village known for two sights: the Baisha frescoes, a collection of underwhelming ancient murals, and Doctor Ho, the now 96-year-old expert herbalist whose celebrity attracts patients from around the world. His door, surrounded by newspaper and magazine cuttings about him, is always open for a chat in English or Chinese.
Back on the bike, cycle uphill on the main road towards the looming snow-covered mountain. You’ll pass Sanduo Temple and Dongba Kingdom before the tough incline is rewarded with a panoramic view of Lijiang valley. There’s a little more uphill until you reach the high point at Yufeng Monastery, where you can stop for a drink and peruse the animal furs on sale.
From here it’s downhill, but you’ll need to watch out for big tourist buses ferrying visitors to Jade Water Village and Dongba Pantheon Park. We recommend skipping these and heading on to Yuhu village, the closest settlement to the mountain and famous for its stone architecture and one notable past inhabitant – Joseph Rock, National Geographic’s man in Yunnan from 1922 to 1949. Freewheel down the road and turn left at the v-shaped junction next to a tall stone. Bear right at the fork and carry on up to reach Yuhu. Once you’ve looked around, follow the main road downhill following the signs for Baisha and onwards back to Shuhe.
You can rent bikes, get a full map of this route and find a collection of Joseph Rock articles at The Bivou (888 512 9449), a boutique hotel housed in beautifully restored farm buildings originally built by a Naxi tribe in Shuhe. The hotel has won all kinds of awards for its all-round quality and the dozens of ‘adventures’ on offer to guests, including trips to Yulong Xueshan and Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s a great place to stay and is worth going a little off the beaten track for.