China: The Tea Horse Road and Shangri-La

  • Activity Rating: Moderate

Trip Details


Tucked into China’s southwestern corner and pushed up against the Tibetan plateau, Yunnan province was once crisscrossed by the Tea Horse Road, an ancient trade route that brought Yunnan’s valuable tea to Tibet, and Tibet’s sturdy horses to China. Traces of the road remain, passing through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. Set out to explore the road in Three Parallel Rivers National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site split by the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween Rivers and dominated by the soaring peaks of the Hengduan. Discover the cultures of China’s Naxi, Lisu, and Kham Tibetan as we hike among lush valleys and wildflower-strewn slopes on the way to Shangri-La.

Trip Highlights

    • 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 — Lijiang/Tacheng

Fly to Lijiang and continue overland to Shigu, where the Yangtze River does a remarkable about-face, twisting nearly 180 degrees. See this geological marvel where the Red Army and Kublai Khan made historic crossings, and visit the village of Shigu. Drive to our lodge in Tacheng and set out on an afternoon hike through vineyards and waves of terraced fields dotted with black-roofed houses. Arrive in a traditional Naxi village and get acquainted with 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. Visit Tacheng Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkey National Park and meet with a researcher to observe 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'). Stroll through the village and talk to students in the school about their everyday life. This afternoon, 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,L,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, explore Benzilan or pick vegetables for dinner in our lodge’s organic garden. Tonight, watch 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

At the 17th century Dongzhulin Monastery, originally built in the 17th century, venture into beautifully restored prayer halls and meet with monks to learn about their daily rituals. Drive to Meili, arriving in time for a late lunch. Meet local families and stop for tea in one of their homes. Take in a magnificent sunset over the Meili Mountains, including the claw-like peak of sacred Mount Kawagebo. Each year, some 20,000 pilgrims make the trek to Mount Kawagebo, one of the holiest peaks in Tibetan Buddhism and the highest summit in Yunnan. The next day, we’ll follow their footsteps on a hike along a pilgrimage route 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

Catch 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 in the artisan villages of Nixi, known for its black pottery, and Gonjo, where artisans craft lacquer bowls and boxes. Attend a lacquer workshop, and see the 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.
Songtsam Shangri-la (B,L,D)

Days 9 & 10 — Shangri-La

Begin the next day with a Tibetan meditation session. Then visit 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. Explore the site and enjoy a special audience with a high lama in his residence to discuss monastic life. Later, in the Old Town, learn about thangka painting from a local master at a cultural preservation association. Tonight, gather for a hotpot dinner and a traditional dancing and singing performance. On our final day, hike to the Kham village of Zini, where a local family welcomes us for lunch. After free time in Shangri-La, we’ll celebrate our 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.

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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.


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Activity Level


We will be hiking 2 to 8 hours per day (2 to 10 miles), on moderate to steep grades. We will stay ten nights in ideally located hotels that reflect the local character.

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