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Tucked into China’s southwestern corner and pushed up against the Tibetan plateau, the Yunnan province is home to breathtaking mountains and lakes, ancient temples and market towns, and more than 20 distinct ethnic groups—each with its own language, traditions, cuisine, and belief system. Set out from Shanghai and journey to Yunnan’s soaring Hengduan mountains to explore the time-locked towns of Dali, where Bai culture thrives, and Lijang, home of the ancient Naxi. Hike the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge en route to the lush valleys and wildflower-strewn slopes of fabled Shangri-La, and delve into Tibetan traditions in sky-high Lhasa.
Explore three UNESCO World Heritage sites with private guides: old town Lijiang, the Potala Palace, and the natural wonders of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan.
Ride a cable car to the glacier park of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and visit the high-altitude home of explorer and National Geographic contributor Joseph Rock.
Encounter myriad traditions thriving among the diverse ethnic groups of Yunnan, including tie-dying and weaving, pictograph script, and a mélange of boldly flavored foods.
Itinerary - 13 Days
Day 1 — Arrive Shanghai, China
Arrive in bustling Shanghai and transfer to your hotel in the downtown riverfront district known as the Bund. Enjoy the rest of the day to explore at your leisure. Consider a walk along the riverfront boardwalk, lined with colonial-style buildings—a stark contrast to the ultra-modern skyscrapers on the other side of the river. Browse the stunning bronze and ceramics on display at the Shanghai Museum; or head to Xintiandi, a trendy neighborhood filled with upscale boutiques and restaurants.
Shanghai Fairmont Peace Hotel
Day 2 — Dali
Fly to the Yunnan province and transfer to Dali, nestled between the foothills of the Cangshan mountain range and the shores of Erhai Lake. Visit the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, and then explore the stone streets of Dali’s old town, surrounded by ancient city walls and lined with historic Bai architecture. Continue to the agricultural town of Xizhou and settle into your authentic courtyard estate, a fine example of regional architecture that has been stunningly restored by local artisans.
Linden Centre (B)
Day 3 — Dali
Head to Erhai Lake and board a boat bound for Jinsuo Island. Wander the local fishing village, home to a Bai ethnic minority community, and explore the surrounding forests and fertile farming fields. Ride a cable car to the summit of Cangshan Mountain, and take in panoramic views of the range’s forested peaks. Return to your hotel for an afternoon at leisure. Consider a visit to Xizhou village, known for its ornate gateways dating back to the Qing Dynasty.
Linden Centre (B, L)
Day 4 — Dali
After breakfast, visit the Xizhou market with a local chef and select fresh produce for a cooking class. Whip up Yunnan specialties, characterized by a delicate balance of sour, spicy, and sweet flavors; then feast on your creations for lunch. Later, travel to Zhoucheng village and glimpse the ancient Bai tradition of tie-dyeing, which uses natural staining agents and materials like rocks and sticks to create intricately patterned cloths. Continue to a Benzhu temple to learn about Bai spiritual traditions.
Linden Centre (B, L)
Day 5 — Lijiang
Depart for charming Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visit the Museum of Naxi Dongba Culture to see artifacts displaying Dongba script, thought to be the world’s last remaining pictographic alphabet and still used by the Naxi culture today. Walk to the Black Dragon Pool Park for views of the towering Yulong—also known as the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain—and then enjoy the afternoon to explore Lijiang’s enchanting labyrinth of cobbled lanes, rippling canals, and ancient wooden homes at your own pace.
The Bivou (B, L)
Day 6 — Lijiang
Travel to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a holy peak for the local Naxi people and stage for an array of stunning natural features, from bucolic meadows and terraced waterfalls to dramatic canyons and glaciers. Soar above these landscapes as your cable car ascends to the glacier park. Visit the home of botanist Joseph Rock, who led expeditions in search of exotic plants and unknown cultures in the early 20th century and reported on his travels for National Geographic magazine. Next see the Baisha murals, dating back to the Ming Dynasty, and then return to your hotel to enjoy the rest of the day at leisure.
The Bivou (B, L)
Day 7 — Shangri-La
Journey to the village of the Stone Drum on the banks of the Yangtze River, named for the marble, drum-like tablet honoring the Sino-Naxi victory over the Tibetan army in the 16th century. Continue to breathtaking Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world. Explore the hiking trails of this natural wonder, which soars two-and-a-half miles up from the cerulean waters of the Jinsha River to the surrounding snowcapped peaks. Continue to Banyan Tree Ringha, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World nestled in a secluded valley near fabled Shangri-La. Settle into your restored Tibetan farmhouse and, if you wish, sit down to a traditional hot pot dinner in a cozy ger tent.
Banyan Tree Ringha (B, L)
Day 8 — Shangri-La
Set out for Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Yunnan province and home to more than 700 monks of the Gelupa sect. Continue to nearby Pudacuo National Park, home to nearly 100 endangered species, including the black-necked crane and several types of rare orchid. Return to the lodge to enjoy an experience exclusively for National Geographic travelers: Participate in a typical Tibetan ritual at the White Stupa, and then stop in at a family farmhouse to visit with weavers and sample local snacks. End the outing at the Dao Bo Si, known locally as Five Wisdom Buddha, which many consider the origin of Buddhist history in the region.
Banyan Tree Ringha (B, L)
Day 9 — Lhasa, Tibet
Fly over the Himalaya to Lhasa, and drive through the city’s charming Tibetan quarter en route to your hotel. Once a “forbidden city,” this center for Buddhist pilgrimage still retains a mystical atmosphere. Enjoy an afternoon to relax at your hotel, adjusting to the high elevation and taking in views of the spectacular Potala Palace that dominates the skyline.
St. Regis Lhasa Resort (B)
Day 10 — Lhasa
Venture up to the World Heritage-designated Potala Palace—seat of the Tibetan government for more than 300 years and home to the Dalai Lama until 1959. Explore the palace’s labyrinthine corridors to discover lavish rooms adorned with thangka paintings and frescoes. Later, visit Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest temple; and delve into the timeless atmosphere of old Tibet at Barkhor, Lhasa’s traditional market.
St. Regis Lhasa Resort (B, L)
Day 11 — Lhasa
Head to the outskirts of the city to visit Norbulingka, the one-time summer residence for the Dalai Lama. Wander the leafy parks and pavilions surrounding the palace, and witness monks animatedly debate Buddhist philosophy in the courtyard of the Sera Monastery. After lunch, get a firsthand look at Tibetan culture while spending time with a local family.
St. Regis Lhasa Resort (B, L)
Days 12 & 13 — Beijing, China/Depart
Bid farewell to Tibet and fly to Beijing, where you’ll enjoy a day at leisure. Depart for home the following morning.
Hilton Beijing Capital Airport Hotel (B; B)
About Private Expeditions
National Geographic Private Expeditions are specially crafted itineraries designed for independent travelers that combine guided excursions, fascinating insights into culture and wildlife, and top accommodations. Simply select a trip and decide whom you'd like to travel with and when you want to travel. We'll take care of the rest.
Prices are per person, double occupancy and are subject to availability. Single traveler prices are available upon request.
Internal Flights from Shanghai to Dali, Shangri-La to Lhasa, and from Lhasa to Beijing are an additional $1,255 per person (subject to change). International airfare from your home city to Shanghai and home from Beijing is not included in the expedition cost.
A holiday surcharge may apply to certain travel dates based upon international or local holidays, as well as local events and festivals.
Travelers should be in good health and comfortable walking or standing for extended periods of time. Daily activities may include city walking tours, visits to sites, game drives, or easy hikes, with options for more physical activities such as hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and biking.
Click here for a description of all activity levels.