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Soaring, ice-glazed mountains that slide into deep river gorges, high alpine villages where ethnic Tibetans live as they have for centuries, and mountain monasteries filled with red-robed monks: these are what make China’s Yunnan province a thrilling place for a photographer to explore. In the company of acclaimed photographer Michael Yamashita, set off along the ancient Tea Horse trade route, hiking to remote villages and sacred mountains on the way to Shangri-La. Photograph stupas against a backdrop of pointed peaks and colorfully dressed farmers at work in their terraced fields. Get to know the local people and document their timeless way of life as we make our way toward the Tibetan plateau.
Track endangered golden monkeys with a local expert in Tacheng Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkey National Park.
Meet with a high lama at the Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan.
Hike to Naxi and Kham villages and spend time getting to know the people and culture of some of China’s ethnic minorities.
Stay in spectacularly situated mountain lodges and enjoy meals created from their own organic gardens, rice fields, and orchards.
Itinerary - 11 Days
Day 1 — Kunming, China
Fly into Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, and transfer to our hotel. Tonight, gather for a welcome dinner. Green Lake Hotel (D)
Day 2 — Shangri-La/Tacheng
Fly to Shangri-La and continue overland to Shigu, where the Yangtze River does a remarkable about-face, twisting nearly 180 degrees. Document this geological marvel and the historic stone drum of Shigu before continuing to our lodge in Tacheng. Our first photo hike this afternoon takes us through an incredibly picturesque landscape: wave upon wave of terraced hillsides dotted with colorfully dressed farmers and black-roofed houses. Arrive in a traditional Naxi village and enjoy a rare chance to photograph this unique and ancient culture. (4 miles hiking, 2–3 hours) Songtsam Tacheng (B,L,D)
Day 3 — Tacheng
The primary forests of the Three Parallel Rivers region are home to the endangered Yunnan golden (or snub-nosed) monkey, of which fewer than 2,000 remain in the wild. Practice your wildlife photography skills on a visit to Tacheng Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkey National Park. Join a researcher to observe and photograph these rare creatures in their natural habitat. From here, catch a first glimpse of the Tea Horse Road, and take a walk along the ancient cobbled path. Later, make traditional Chinese mooncakes with the lodge’s chef. (3 miles walking, 2 hours) Songtsam Tacheng (B,L,D)
Day 4 — Tacheng/Benzilan
On a morning climb through thick forests and fields of wild rhododendron, leave the Naxi and Lisu communities of Tacheng far below and ascend to the remote Kham Tibetan village of Bazhu (10,800'). On a stroll through the village, work on portraits and capturing images of daily life against a magnificent mountain backdrop. This afternoon, we’ll make several photo stops as we follow the Yangtze as it curves between towering peaks on a spectacular drive to Benzilan. (8 miles hiking, 4 hours, 4,300' altitude gain) Songtsam Benzilan (B,D)
Day 5 — Benzilan
A spiritual center on the banks of the Upper Yangtze, Benzilan was once an important stop along the Tea Horse Road. Drive to a mountaintop village and set out on an easy path through old-growth forest and pastures blanketed with wildflowers on our way to two hidden Kham villages. This afternoon, walk around Benzilan with your camera in hand or pick vegetables for dinner in our lodge’s organic garden. Tonight, document a rare Guozhuang singing and dancing performance by the local Kham people. (4 miles hiking, 2–3 hours) Songtsam Benzilan (B,L,D)
Days 6 & 7 — Benzilan/Meili
Go on a morning shoot at the 17th century Dongzhulin Monastery, originally built in the 17th century and beautifully restored after the Cultural Revolution. Get close-ups of its fine architectural details as we stroll through its prayer halls and photograph monks as they go about their daily rituals. Drive to Meili, arriving in time for a late lunch. Meet local families on a photo walk in the village and stop for tea in one of their homes. Then find a good spot to shoot the sunset as it infuses the snowcaps of the Meili Mountains with dazzling shades of scarlet and gold. Train your lens on the claw-like peak of sacred Mount Kawagebo, one of the holiest peaks in Tibetan Buddhism and the highest summit in Yunnan. The next day, hike along a pilgrimage route to Kawagebo that winds through pristine forests and meadows sprinkled with wildflowers, mushrooms, and wild rhododendrons. (Day 6: 2–3 miles walking, 2 hours; Day 7: 9–10 miles hiking, 6–8 hours)
Songtsam Meili (B,L,D daily)
Day 8 — Meili/Shangri-La
Rise early to capture the sunrise over Mount Kawagebo. Then drive south to Zhongdian, recently renamed Shangri-La after the fabled town in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. On the way, stop to photograph artisans and their wares in the villages of Nixi, known for its black pottery, and Gonjo, where lacquer bowls and boxes are made. At a lacquer workshop, document this ancient craft and see bowls and cups that the caravans once carried on the Tea Horse Road. Arrive in Shangri-La, once a stop on the ancient trade route, and settle into our Tibetan-style lodge. If you wish, take a walk in the late afternoon light to photograph the village and the gorgeous mountain scenery. Songtsam Shangri-la (B,L,D)
Days 9 & 10 — Shangri-La
Begin the next day with a Tibetan meditation session. Then go on a photo shoot at the nearby Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. Built in the 17th century in the style of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, the monastery is home to more than 700 monks of the Gelukpa sect. Enjoy a special audience with a high lama in his residence to discuss monastic life. Later, in the Old Town, photograph thangka paintings as we learn about the art form from a local master. Tonight, gather for a hotpot dinner and catch dancers and musicians in motion at a traditional performance. On our final day, hike to the Kham village of Zini, where a local family welcomes us for lunch. Take advantage of a free afternoon to photograph Shangri-La’s Old Town and its stunning backdrop of ice-glazed peaks. We’ll celebrate our photo adventure at a farewell dinner. (Day 10: 6–7 miles hiking, 3 hours)
Songtsam Shangri-la (B,L,D daily)
Day 11 — Shangri-La/Kunming
After breakfast, fly to Kunming to catch your flight home. (B)
National Geographic Active Expeditions are unique, active itineraries for intrepid travelers that combine spectacular places, cultural interaction, and physical challenge. You'll explore fascinating, off-the-beaten-path places with top guides, and wherever possible, meet National Geographic experts in the field.
Michael Yamashita has been shooting for the National Geographic magazine for over 30 years, combining his dual passions of photography and travel. Michael is known for epic stories that retrace the paths of famous travelers, like Marco Polo, the Japanese poet Basho, and the Chinese explorer Zheng He. His feature documentary, The Ghost Fleet, inspired by his National Geographic story about the legendary 15th-century Chinese admiral, Zheng He, won the Best Historical Documentary prize at the New York International Independent Film Festival. His National Geographic Channel documentary, Marco Polo: The China Mystery Revealed, based on his three-part National Geographic story, received two Asian Television and Film Awards and was also included in the top twenty most popular NG Channel documentaries of the decade. A frequent corporate keynote speaker, as well as a lecturer at schools and workshops around the world, Michael has received numerous industry awards: including Pictures of the Year, Photo District News, the New York Art Directors Club, and the Asian-American Journalists Association. Michael recently returned to Yunnan to shoot an upcoming National Geographic Traveler article, and his latest book is called, Shangri-la [along the Tea Road to Lhasa].