08/25/2011 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Travel Prescription: Adventures In Yunnan

Marissa from The Nomad Lab contacted us at Wanderfly and asked if we could help her plan a cheap trip to Asia. She wanted adventure and she wanted to see something exotic.

We got to work and, after a great deal of research, wrote her the following travel prescription:


Asia is full of potential adventures, from motorcycling in Vietnam to scuba-diving in Malaysia. Since I spent a year living and traveling around China, I'm slightly biased towards the Middle Kingdom. Fortunately, China has tons of adventures to offer.

To get the finest China experience, ditch the heavily trafficked areas of Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian (though, they are all worthy of a visit) and head southwest to Yunnan, China's most engaging and interesting province, for some awesome hiking and wildlife.

Budget: You can easily get by in Yunnan for 20 dollars a day
Good For: Adventure, Food, and Culture

Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge

Yunnan in itself can be a lot more than two-week vacation (I spent a month there myself and still had plenty more to see), but you can hit some of the best highlights in that time. If adventure is what you're looking for, head north to Lijiang and Shangri-La (the book-reference town formerly known as Zhongdian) and get to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

As one of the deepest gorges in Asia, Tiger Leaping Gorge is an impressive hike with dizzying drops and awesome switchbacks. Pack your real hiking shoes, as the upper trail (really the only one worth taking unless you plan to motor along in a bus with hordes of tourists) is mostly dirt and rock paths and offers some steep climbs.

The main part of the trail should take you two days, with a stop at the Halfway Guesthouse. Here you'll be sure to meet a large collection of hikers from all over the world, where you can enjoy good food and baijiu. After you complete the second day of the hike, don't be too eager to return to the starting point and motor on. Instead, stick around for another day and spend the third day hiking down into the canyon. From atop the Upper Trail, it's hard to see just how powerful and menacing the Yangtze is as it cascades and roars from the Tibetan plateau, but you'll feel the power as you climb down into the gorge. Climbing out is pee-in-your-pants silly, as you'll have to clamber up 60 foot ladders and teeter over cliff-faces.

Experience the Tropical Wildlife of Xishuangbanna

If you're more in the mood for tropical weather and wildlife, head to southern Yunnan to Xishuangbanna - where the area is as awesome and succulent as its name. Jinghong will be your introduction to the region, and if you like to bike during your travels, you'll fit right in. As one of the most vibrantly alive regions in China, Jinghong has a beautiful botanic garden that shouldn't be missed.

North of Jinghong is Wild Elephant Valley, a valley that is full of, erm, elephants. Full of literalism, this park is a haven for the few remaining wild elephants in China along with a collection of monkeys, birds, and various wildlife. Hike the trails and catwalks in hopes of catching a view of the wild elephants or increase your chances by staying in one of the small huts that hang over their favorite morning watering-hole. Or really increase your chances by going to the elephant show, where sad-looking elephants are dressed up to play tug-o-war, kick soccer balls, and knock over logs. The wild ones are much more fun to watch.

Hang around Xishuangbanna in April for the Water Splashing Festival, a Dai tradition that is exactly what it sounds like. Arm yourself with a Super Soaker, a bucket full of water, a bag full of water balloon grenades, or go classic with a green hose, and then soak anything that crosses your path. As pretty much the opposite of Tomatina in cleanliness, the Water Splashing Festival is an uplifting tradition, where the sprinkling of water upon your neighbor is to wish luck on them and their household. No matter how you celebrate it, there are few things more fun than dousing a random passerby with water and get away with it.