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Yunnan's Ancient Tea Horse Trail

from £2979
Explore the Chinese Province of Yunnan on foot and discover its traditions, culture and breathtaking natural scenery.

First a little history. The name Tea Horse Trail refers to the trade route that took tea down from the hills in Yunnan to markets and ports in China and south East Asia. There was also trade in Tibetan ponies which were used to move the tea and were also valuable to the Chinese as sturdy war horses for the army. The tea was carried by pony and by porters up until relative recently. The trail compared with the Silk Roads to Europe in importance during its heyday. Several of the cities we visit owe their prosperity and heritage to the trade.

We start our holiday in Kunming better known as “the City of Eternal Spring” and capital of Yunnan Province. From there we visit the Western Hills and the most important attraction the Stone Forest, a karst landscape. A Chinese proverb has it that to visit Yunnan and not see the Stone Forest is a wasted journey. We would not want that! We continue south to the rice terraces of Yuangyang covering mountainsides as far as the eye can see. It is a memorable site to see the sun setting across the terraces. We will also take a walk to a local farmers market to immerse ourselves in local culture.

A high-speed train ride takes us to Dali, where we have a guided tour of the ancient centre. Next stop is Cangshan mountain which is full of beautiful landscapes and amazing scenic sites. After a stopover in Shaxi we reach one of the highlights of our journey, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, framed by 5,000m mountains. A memorable walk in one of the deepest gorges in the world is a wonderful way to take in its awesome beauty. Our last stop is the Pudacuo National Park, the first in China, before we finish our trip in Kunming.

Holiday Highlights

  • Visit Shilin Stone Forest known as the “First Wonder of the World”.
  • Explore the cascading Yuangyang rice terraces.
  • Enjoy sensational birds-eye views from Mount Cangshan.
  • Venture further off the tourist circuit at Shaxi.
  • Walk one of the deepest gorges in the world - Leaping Tiger. 
The holiday inclusions and exclusions at a glance
What's included in this holiday Items that are covered in the cost of holiday price.

      Return flights from Heathrow to Kunming via Beijing (Air China) 
      Airport transfers 
      Comfortable accommodation 
      All meals
      All entrance fees 
      English speaking local guide throughout 
      All local transport costs.
Whats not included in this holiday Items that are not covered in the cost of holiday price.

  • Entrance fees to some museums and historic buildings (unless otherwise specified)
  • Personal expenses (such as your bar bill)
  • Discretionary tips
  • Optional excursions
  • Insurance
Please select Departure Date to view:

Please see Holiday Information Sheet for this holidays individual departures itinerary (located under View Departures & Book tab)

Whilst every effort will be made to adhere to the outlined itinerary and advertised programme, local conditions can change due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances. This may mean that routes and timings need to be amended or the order of days may change, sometimes at short notice.

This departure: Grade 5/SS

  1. Day 1

    We depart the UK on our overnight flight to Kunming via Beijing.

  2. Day 2

    We arrive late in the evening in Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring. We will transfer to the hotel to enjoy some well earned rest.

  3. Day 3

    After a leisurely start we will explore Kunming on foot. In the afternoon we travel out to the western hills (about 1hr driving) to walk in the countryside. We plan to walk from Gaiqiao to Longmen. We might cover 5km over the ground at a leisurely pace.

  4. Day 4

    Today, we visit the Shilin Stone Forest, about 60 miles from Kunming, a spectacular set of distinctive karst rock formations. The pillars rise from the ground like stalagmites making them look something like trees to the people who originally named the area. Known since the Ming Dynasty (1300’s) in China as the 'First Wonder of the World', the area is perhaps the most important attraction in Yunnan. A local proverb has it that visiting Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest is a wasted journey. We explore the area on foot with a myriad of paths to choose from.
    Time 2hrs
    Distance 5km
    Ascent/Descent 100m

  5. Day 5

    This morning, we drive south to the famed Yuangyang rice terraces. The terraces are a masterpiece of the ingenuity of the Hani people. You may well recognise the scene even if you have not heard the name before. Yuangyang is famous for its beautiful rice terraces, idyllic rural scenery and unique ethnic minority culture. We should arrive early afternoon. After checking into the hotel we can walk to a viewpoint to enjoy stunning views across the terraces that stretch down the sides of the hills for as far as the eye can see. Hopefully we can enjoy the sunset if the weather permits.

  6. Day 6

    Those who would like can get up to see the sun rise across the terraces. Well worth the early start! After breakfast in the hotel we will explore more of the terraces and local culture with our local guide to explain something of what we see. The walking will be at a leisurely pace winding passed paddies and through villages. Hopefully we will come across a local market. These always offer insight into local culture.
    Time: 4-5hrs
    Distance: 7km
    Ascent/Descent 400m

  7. Day 7

    We have some free time this morning to explore the local area before transferring back to Kunming. We should arrive early afternoon giving us some time to further explore the city.

  8. Day 8

    Today we travel north from Kunming by train. We will use the recently built high speed line from Kunming to Dali. The journey takes about 2hours. On arrival in Dali we transfer to our hotel. This afternoon we have a guided walking tour of this beautifully preserved city. You will have free time here to stock up on local souvenirs as you prefer.

  9. Day 9

    We are back on the walking trails today exploring the Cangshan Mountains. The highest peak here, Malong, rises to 4122m. We will walk in the mountains making use of local cable cars to make sure we get the best views. We plan to take a cable car and walk up to up to Zhonghe Temple (2600m). From here we walk along the mountain ridge on a relatively flat path to the evocatively names Seven Dragon Pool. The walk offers great views over Erhai Lake and Dali. We continue to Qingbi Brook at the top of the Gantong Cable car which will take us back down to the valley.
    Time: 5hrs
    Distance: 11km
    Ascent/Descent 300m

  10. Day 10

    Today we transfer by road to Shaxi. Much of the town's charm lies in the fact it has been restored rather than rebuilt. Being off the main highways it hasn't seen the rapid development of tourism that has taken place in Lijiang and Dali. Here you can still find the Yi and Bai ethnic minorities maintaining their traditions, farmhouses lining the country roads, and the original walled town gates and market square that prove Shaxi was once an important stop on the old Tea Horse Trail. You will stay in a local family-run guesthouse. The accommodation is very simple and bathroom facilities are basic and shared, but the warm hospitality makes for a memorable experience. In the afternoon we will take a stroll around the ancient town and visit the well-preserved historical sites of Sifang Street, Xingjiao Temple, Yuxi Bridge and Ancient Opera Stage.

  11. Day 11

    Today we drive out into the Shibao Shan Mountains. We will walk to Shadengqing Temple. And if time allows further to Shizhong temple for which you might need another hour. The paths are generally good underfoot. It is quite possible we will encounter troops of monkeys en route. Please be careful interacting with them as they can bite.
    Time: 5hrs
    Distance: 15km

  12. Day 12

    After breakfast we head out by private bus to Leaping Tiger Gorge. About 15 km in length, the gorge is named after a legendary tiger that leapt across the gorge to escape the clutches of a hunter. No mean feat considering the canyon’s narrowest point is still a staggering 25 metres wide! This explanation of the name could conceivably have been embellished over time. Part of the Yangzi River (known here as the Jinsha River) thunders through the gorge, which is in turn framed by 5000m high mountains. On arrival at the entrance of the gorge we will be met by minivans to take us to Naxi Guest House. From here we will hike straight to the Tea Horse Guest house where we overnight. Again facilities at the guest house will be simply with no en suite accommodation available.
    Time: 4hrs
    Ascent 800m/Descent 600m

  13. Day 13

    This morning, we have an early breakfast and start out at 07:30. We will walk from Tea Horse Guest House straight to Tina’s Guest House. Expect the path to be muddy and stony underfoot. We plan to arrive for lunch. Later we transfer by private bus to Shangrila (about 2.5hours), a reference to the mythic utopia from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. This charming Tibetan town lies around 3200m. On arrival we will take it easy to acclimatize. Later we will stroll on winding streets past prayer halls and pagodas in Dukezong Ancient Town. A fire tore through the area in 2014, destroying most of the town, but painstaking restoration work continues, and the town remains charming. It’s also home to a towering, gilded prayer wheel – the largest in the world.
    Time: 5hrs
    Distance: 10km
    Ascent 100m/Descent 500m

  14. Day 14

    After breakfast, we drive to Pudacuo National Park, the first National Park on the Chinese mainland, set up in 2007. There are three main scenic areas open to visitors: Bita Lake in the south, Shudu Lake in the north and Militang Alpine Pasture in the middle. We plan to hike from the park entrance to the Eco hiking way and continue to Shuimingdu. The path will be muddy underfoot but fairly level. 
    Time: 3hrs
    Distance: 8km
    Ascent/Descent 100m/200m

  15. Day 15

    This morning we explore Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan, before flying back to Kunming this afternoon.

  16. Day 16

    After breakfast we transfer back to Kunming Airport for our day flight back to the UK via Beijing.

Travel Details

  • Return flights from Heathrow to Kunming via Beijing (Air China) 
  • Airport transfers 
  • Upgrades are available on most flights. For scheduled flights Premium Economy, Business or First Class and most low-cost carriers have extra legroom seats. Please ask us for details and a competitive quote.
  • If direct regional flights are not available, we can often offer add-on flights to a London airport at a competitive rate. Please ask us for details and a competitive quote.
  • Visa is required.

Trip Map

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Our Accommodation on this holiday

Below is the accommodation featured on this holiday. If you are on a multi-centre holiday, these are highlights of the places where we stay. Please refer to your Holiday Information sheet (which can be found under View Departures & Book), for your departure date and for all your accommodation details.

Dali Landscape Hotel

Located in the heart of Dali, the Landscape Hotel has great access to the city. Yu’er Park and Foreigners Street are just a few steps away and the Erhai Lake is a 10-minute drive. The rooms are equipped with free WiFi, tea making facilities, a flat-screen TV and hairdryer.

Leaping Tiger Gorge Guest House

The Leaping Tiger Gorge guesthouse is set on the side of the gorge and offers great views over the gorge and surrounding mountains. The facilities are basic with no en suite rooms. However it offers a unique experience of enjoying such outstanding natural beauty close up. Make sure you are up for sunrise over the mountains.

Yunti Hotel

The Yunti Hotel in Yuangyang is a comfortable hotel with modern facilities. These include room service, free WiFi, teamaking facilities and a fitness centre. A buffet breakfast is available each morning and the front desk is manned 24 hours a day. The hotel is situated on the edge of Yuangyang town overlooking the rice terraces.