Yunnan tourist trail
The big attractions of this route are as follows:
The various places on the route feel quite different to the traveler:
What they all have in common are mountainous scenery, interesting architecture, ethnic minorities and lovely handicrafts — wood, silver and especially fabric items.
Getting to Kunming
Most travelers will reach Yunnan via the capital, Kunming. There are several ways to do this:
See Overland Kunming to Hong Kong for other routes.
The nearest SE Asian neighbour, Lao Cai, Vietnam allows you to walk over the border, to Hekou. Then plenty of buses (fares ranging from 85 to 120 Y) to Kunming.A very lively and hassle free overland crossing.
From Luang Prabang, night sleeper buses take you to Kunming for about 50 to 60 US withhout having to bear the misery of making it on your own to the border. Tickets available at Luang Prabang South Main Bus Station. There are, of course, plenty of minivans from tour agents all over Luang Prabang, that take you to the border, from where you find your way to Kunming.
This is five hours by bus, which makes a pleasant and comfortable trip.
There is also an overnight train, which is very popular with tourists. Unfortunately, it is also popular with thieves; watch your belongings. This is the only train on this route; beyond Dali it is all buses.
Unfortunately, the train and most buses (even ones that say "Dali") deliver you not to Dali Old Town but to Xiaguan, the nearby capital of Dali Prefecture. See the Dali article for information on the rest of the way.
In 2007 there were several day trains from Xiaguan to Kunming, taking 4 hours. Travel agents in Dali said they were sold out. The railway station in Xiaguan sold tickets a day ahead. I assume they also run Kunming-Dali, but ask at the station. Railway Kunming-Lijiang is under construction.
This route somewhat overlaps the Burma Road built during World War II and running from Kunming to Lashio in Burma. Not much of the old road is left, but bits of it and some milestones are still visible.
This is about four hours by bus.
Alternatively, there is a 2h30 train, usually departing in the morning from Dali.
There is also a comfortable 10-hour overnight bus direct from Dali to Zhongdian. Taking this on your way North may not be the best choice since you miss some great scenery by traveling at night, it bypasses Lijiang, and the rapid change from Dali's 2000 m to Zhongdian's 3200 m risks altitude sickness. However, it can save time and hotel costs on the way back.
This is about a five hour bus trip. The scenery is great. It includes mountains, terraced fields, picturesque villages and the upper reaches of the Yangtze river.
This is a bus trip through sensational mountain scenery; Zhongdian is at 3200 meters, Deqin 3500, and the passes higher yet. It is beautiful but somewhat scary. In winter, the road is sometimes closed and is not recommended even if it is open.
Alternate routes to Zhongdian
The above describes a route starting at Kunming. It is possible to do that route but travel on past Zhongdian, into either Sichuan or Tibet. You could also start the described route from Zhongdian after arriving from Sichuan or Tibet. For details see Overland to Tibet.
One possibility is to go from Chengdu to Zhongdian via the Southern Sichuan-Tibet Highway (see Overland to Tibet). To do so, don't follow this highway West from Litang to Batang, but instead go from Litang south to Daocheng (only 150km so even feasible by taxi, but you do pass well over 4500m). From Daocheng, you can take a day off to visit remote Yading Nature Reserve, which contains 3 holy 6000m peaks (115km to the south, almost on the Yunnan border). Inform about the status of Yading in Daocheng, as it has been reported to be closed but open but closed and correct information can only be obtained in Daocheng. Furthermore, no transportation is available off season. From Daocheng, a 300km (at least 12h) bus ride could take you to Zhongdian; however, it seems no public transportation operates (as of 2012); the alternative is to hire a taxi to Sangdui (10yuan per person), then a 3-hour bus to Xiangcheng (about 35yuan per person), then a 10-hour bus to Zhongdian (85yuan). Since part of the road is still un-tarmaced (in particular the highest part of the road from Xiangcheng to Zhongdian) and you pass over 4800m cols, best not to do this when weather is bad. Also beware of altitude sickness.