Kunming to Lhasa Overland Explorer
All content by World Expeditions
An epic journey that takes us overland through breathtaking landscapes from Yunnan to Tibet
This epic journey takes us overland through what is arguably, the most breathtaking landscapes in all of China to the Tibetan cultures of Lhasa. From its beginnings in Yunnan Province we follow the historic Tea Trading Route from the quaint cobble stoned alleys of Dali to the undiscovered town of ancient Shaxi. From here we take time out to view one of the deepest gorges in the world -Tiger Leaping George - before relaxing in the World Heritage town of Lijiang with its back drop of the Jade Dragon Snow mountain. We experience our first taste of Tibetan hospitality and culture as we venture north to Zhongdian and Deqin. Traveling overland we embark on a rugged journey to discover remote monasteries, sacred mountain peaks, hot springs and glaciers through jaw dropping scenery that would inspire the most seasoned traveller. Our final destination is Lhasa, the spiritual centre of Tibetan culture. This is not just a journey; it is an extraordinary life experience not to be missed!
- Explore Lijiang ancient town and surrounding minority villages
- Journey along the Tibetan border and breathtaking pilgrimage routes
- Walk along Tiger Leaping Gorge and Yangtze Gorge
- Journey at Shangrila(Zhongdian) with its imposing Ganden Sumtsanling Monastery
- See Meili Snow Mountain and the sacred Ming Yong glacier
- Travel by 4WD from Zhongdian to Lhasa through what is arguably China's most breathtaking scenery
- Explore Lhasa, including the Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama
Day 1 Arrive Kunming
If arriving on day 1 of the trip, you will be met at the airport and transferred to the group hotel. Depending on your arrival time this afternoon will be spent taking a sightseeing tour of Yuanthong Temple. The Temple is a well-restored, thousand year old Buddhist Temple dating back to the eighth century when Yunnan was an independent Kingdom from China. Following the Temple visit we will have an opportunity to take a walk around Green Lake or visit the flower market. One of the great pleasures of visiting Green Lake is to take some tea in one of the many teahouses along its shores. Our welcome dinner will take in one of Kunming's speciality restaurants.
Day 2 Kunming, overnight train to Dali
This morning we visit the Bamboo temple built during the Tang Dynasty and restored in the 19th century, when a master craftsman from Sechuan was employed to sculpt the 500 Buddhist 'erhats' or 'lohans'. These brilliant life size erhats line the ground and walls and stretch all over the large temple in a lifelike and yet surrealist atmosphere. Legend and local belief has it that you will be drawn to one particular erhat, the one who most represents your inner self. We have lunch at a local restaurant then the afternoon is free to wander before we board our comfortable, air-conditioned sleeper train to Dali.
Day 3 Arrive Dali
Dali is well known for its colourful people, its embroidery, rich agriculture, famous marble and excellent breed of horses. Dali town resides in a long valley on the plains between the Cangshan Mountains and Erhai Lake. This stunning, historic home of the Bai people, is the capital of the region. The old town stands at 1900m above sea level. The valley is dominated by 19 peaks of the Cangshan Mountains averaging 4000m. Dali was the capital of the Nanzhao kingdom during the 8th and 9th centuries and at its height conquered much of Burma, parts of Vietnam and Thailand and parts of Sichuan province. Later Kublai Khan conquered the stone city of Pagodas. Following breakfast we take a drive along the southeastern shores of Erhai Lake and visit Putao temple(if the waterline makes it possible) and view fishing boats and villages on the way. Alternatively we may take a cable car ride up to the shoulder of the Cangshan mountain for a leisurely walk through the temperate region for a birds eye view of the whole of Dali valley and lake.In the evening we take a pleasant walk in the walled city soaking up the ancient history and the unique architecture of Dali.
Day 4 In Dali
Today we will drive south east to Wenshan, a charming small town on the Bonnan tea route. In ancient times Wenshan was a stopping point for large caravans of horses loaded with Yunnan Tea and other products. These caravans would stop en route to Sichuan and northern regions of the plateau. Here life remains pretty much like old times with family shops of basket weavers, tofu makers, cobblers, old horse gear sellers abound. A raised gate in the center square has, in some form, existed since Nanzhou times. The ancient architecture of the gates of the previously walled town still remain.
Days 5-6 To Xizhou and onto Shaxi
We get off to an early start driving along the Erhai lake for Shaxi. We will stop at a small lake side village reminiscent of an ancient Nanzhou era trading town. Here we wander though the village courtyard and stretch our legs. We enjoy the beauty of the Bai stone architecture of Xizhou village to see one of the famous Mansions belonging to ancient prosperous tea merchants. Drive on to Shaxi through winding roads and pine forests. This small and quiet town actually dates back 2400 years. As early as 400BC Shaxi was a copper mining region with expertise in smelting bronze. Later in the Tang and Song Dynasty, it became an important stopover in the Ancient Tea Trading route. The caravan route from Puer to Dali stretched through Shaxi on to Tibet and Burma. The most impressive is the Sideng market square, the heart and soul of Shaxi. The complex consists of a temple, a theater, shops and stables all around a red sandstone paved square with ancient trees and numerous side streets. The next two days we will explore the small towns toll gates, the quiet side streets, south gates with custom houses, guard posts and ancient bridges and you will actually be able to imagine huge tea laden caravans coming into town and the excitement of the arrival of these traders.
Day 7 To Lijiang via Shebaoshan
Leaving Shaxi we continue on north to the fascinating site of Shebaoshan. Here, amidst lovely pine forests, we climb to Nanzhou area grottos and temples, depicting some excellent carvings of local life and the visits of teachers and missionaries from afar. At various times of year the flowers should be in bloom and the hills ablaze with color. Leaving Shebaoshan, we drive north east to Lijang through lovely countryside and villages with rice fields. As we travel on, farmers and traditionally dressed Bai and Naxi people frame our view. On arrival into Lijiang we stay in the Ancient Town. This is a fascinating area with it's old tiled roofs and many fish filled canals. Lijiang is situated at 2400m above sea level so we spend the afternoon relaxing before undertaking a gentle walk through the streets of the ancient town.
Day 8 In Lijiang
The morning will be spent exploring Lijiang, the cultural center and capital of the Naxi people. Lijiang has existed for 800 years and was once at the end of a very popular ancient Tibetan trading route. It is now a World Heritage listed site. The city is populated by mainly Naxi people with their vibrant blue traditional dress. Lisu, Pomi and Han Chinese people also populate the city along with a small number of Tibetan people. The town has a thriving arts community and its own traditional music. Musical instruments can be heard whilst walking along the narrow cobbled streets. We walk to the Dongba Cultural Center, the Naxi Museum and the stunning Black Dragon Pool. All the while the snow capped peak of Jade Dragon Mountain command our attention.Time permitting we visit the village of Baisha to see the remaining Buddhist frescoes and visit the village of Dr Joseph Rock, the famous Austro American botanist who wrote extensively about the regions botany, culture and people.
Day 9 Transfer to Zhongdian
Straight after breakfast we head out and follow the Yangtze River north for our drive to Zhongdian, also known as Gyalthang. We will stop along he way and view the first bend of the Yangtze and see the historical village of Shegu. The scenery here is spectacular as we travel along huge gorges dotted with small villages. We stop at the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge and view this breathtaking sight. The gorge is situated in between two large mountains, Jade Dragon Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain. At one point its sheer walls drop three kilometers to the river below making Tiger Leaping Gorge one of the deepest gorge in the world and one of China's most spectacular natural attractions! The drive to Zhongdian from Tiger Leaping Gorge(approximately 3 hours) is very pleasant through pretty Naxi countryside and farmlands growing rice, sorghum, beans, corn and other crops like tobacco, apple and pear. As we rise in altitude we pass Rhododendron and Azalea forests and to the higher country of pine before reaching the lush 'middle plateau' of Zhongdian (3300M). On arrival we rest in order to help us acclimatize.
Day 10 In Zhongdian
In 2002 the Chinese government changed Zhongdian's name to Shangri La as it is rumored that James Hilton's novel 'Last Horizon' was written in the area. Zhongdian is also known as Gyalthang in Tibetan and translates to 'Royal Ground' referring to the rich and fertile pastures surrounding the city. This area is rated in the top 5 places in the world for high plant biodiversity and is famous as a favourite research area for botanist, Joseph Rock. Perched on a hill overlooking the town of Zhongdian is the imposing Ganden Sumtsanling Monastery. The Monastery is 5 stories high and houses over 700 practicing Buddhist monks. It is like stepping back to a peaceful age with its huge red pillars rising from the main assembly hall. Built in the 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama, the monastery with its numerous chapels, woodcarving and paintings is like a living museum of Tibetan culture and many believe to be the most significant Tibetan Monastery outside of Lhasa. Parts of the monastery are being reconstructed and within its walls there is a great regeneration of the religious spirit. After exploration of the monasteray we return to Zhongdian for lunch before visiting the colourful vegetable market and the Old Town center. The Old Center was once a thriving trading center and the starting point of many caravans to the high grasslands onto Lhasa in Central Tibet.
Day 11 In Zhongdian
After a leisurely breakfast we drive to Ringha temple situated on Ringha Hill, a most sacred pilgrimage site for all Gyalthang people. Not only loved for its stunning views, it is also where people go to pray and leave their problems behind. We visit the Temple of the 5 Wisdom Buddhas set amidst tall pine trees. You can often see animals roaming the streets as locals set them free in order to accrue merit. We take the time to circumnavigate the sacred hill. We will have lunch back in the town. There is also the opportunity to visit the home of a Tibetan farmer. Upon our return to Zhongdian we will arrange for you to have a cooking class so you may learn some local dishes and then enjoy eating what you have cooked!
Day 12 Transfer to Upper Yangtze Gorge and onto Deqin
After breakfast we drive north along the valley of gorges towards the Tibetan border. This drive is spectacular as we descend down towards the Yangtze River, past the villages of Nishi to Punzera(Benzilan) situated at 2100m. This is a lush warm oasis valley where oranges, pomegranates and olives grow. We then follow the Yangtze River leaving behind the lush forests and drive into the rocky limestone spires of the Yangtze Mekong divide. We visit the remote and intricately decorated Dhondupling Monastery and see the change in architecture to the flat roof houses of Central Tibet. We see the spectacular Baima Mountains as we cross the Baima pass, covered in spectacular Rhododendrons. This afternoon we reach the wonderful town of Deqin nestled in a lush valley. Deqin is the last outpost before reaching the border of Tibet. We drive on to Namkhatashe, located only a short drive from Deqin, where we get our first view of the spectacular Meili Snow Mountains(sacred Mt. Kawakarpo). Tonight we stay in a guesthouse in the glacier village.
Day 13 Day walk to Minyong Glacier
This morning, weather permitting, we have incredible views of the stunning sacred peaks of Kawakarpo (6740m) the highest mountain in the Hengduan Shan range with the peaks of Gewaringha, Metsomo and 5-wisdom Buddha Mountain flanking it on either side. This is the second most important mountain for Tibetan pilgrims after Mt.Kailash in West Tibet and people have been making a pilgrimage here for centuries leaving prayer flags and spinning the prayer wheels on the high pass. We have the option to walk to the Minyong glacier at the base of Kawakarpo, the lowest glacier in all of Asia or take a horse ride to the glacier and back. Alternatively we take a gentle scenic walk and visit the Meyung school and visit the students and teach a little basic English. Tonight we stay in a simple lodge at the base of the glacier.
Day 14 Transfer to Dechen
After breakfast we jump into our comfortable vehicles and transfer to Dechen.
Day 15 Transfer to Yenching and Salt Mines
Today we embark on the great adventure across the Tibetan plateau. We drive north along the Mekong River and yet again see a unique full view of the peaks of Mt Kawakarpo. We may see pilgrims on their way to Lhasa stopping to pay homage and ask for blessings from Mt Kawakarpo, associated with the Buddha mind. The drive today is dramatic along precipitous roads where one can look deep into the Mekong gorge, past villages of the Tsakhalo region, to the hot springs and salt mines of Yenching. Here we see contrasting architecture to that of Gyalthang and Deqin. Yenching is famous for its black salt, much favoured by the local people for the consumption of their grazing animals. Here layers and layers of square pits are cut out for extracting salt. We have time to explore this interesting terrain, an ancient church and enjoy the hot springs of the region.
Day 16 Transfer to Markham and onto Dokha
We continue further north along dramatic mountain terrain, along the upper Mekong and onto Markham. Enroute we cross three passes, the highest being Huangla Pass at 4195m. Road conditions and time permitting we visit Para and Gongsar monasteries then drive past Gartok village, an important ancient caravan stop. The farm houses of Markham have attractive three storey stone buildings with ornate wooden lintels. We arrive in Markham and visit the 18 year old Markham Woser Monastery.
Day 17 Transfer to Pashoi through Zogang and Bamda
We drive further west to Zogang crossing Choepala pass (3840m) to arrive at La Gompa. Here a small new temple sits which houses five monks. Built in 1997, the original was destroyed. We see Mt Thugrikarpo range with the highest peak, 6090m high. We see the confluence of Yuchu and Gonda rivers and cross the Mekong as we travel west. Continuing north, we stop to see Sangakling Monastery, previously a Bon Monastery. Here we travel along the valley of the Salween river and its tributary, Yuchu. We cross several high passes and see the distinctive road side stupas of the Yuchu valley. We then travel westward through stunning scenery between Jobala pass (3908m) and Rongshoe (4100m). As we drive northwards we begin to rise higher and witness the nomadic grasslands bordering Central and Eastern Tibet, dotted with black tents.We drive towards Bamda(4084m), an important crossroads between Chamdo to the north, Yunnan to the south and Lhasa to the west and Litang to the east. The grasslands here are high and there is an airport at 4155m but the airport is mostly inoperative. Time permitting we will visit Dolmalakang Monastery and then continue on to Pashoi. We leave the Bamda (4084m) region, passing the high grasslands and travel south west descending along seventy two spectacular hairpin bends that bring us to Pashoi.
Day 18 Transfer Pashoi and onto Rawu
We take the south road and drive further south to Rawu (3850m) located on the northern shore of the blue Lake Ngari Tso.
Day 19 Transfer to the Great Glacier and back via Rawu and onto Pome
In the morning we explore the shores of a lovely lake, 2km wide and 26km long and surrounded by alpine forests, glaciers and hot springs. Time and road condition permiting, we may drive along the road to Zayu to Sumzong to see the glacier and the regions famed alpine scenery before returning to Pome.
Day 20 Through Serkhyimla Pass to Bayi
From Pome we drive north along the Parlung Tsangpo through virgin forests with scenery reminiscent of Switzerland. We continue along the Parlung Tsangpo river to Tangme. Here we cross the high Serkhyimla pass (4515m) before passing the Nyngtri descend south to Lunang. Here the Parlung tsangpo disappears between the eastern Himalayan peaks of Mt Gyalapheri(7150m) and Mt. Namchebarwa (7756m) and the fabled Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo which plunges into Indian territory. On a clear day we may even have a great view of Mt. Bonri to the south. From Lunang we drive on to Bayi.
Day 21 Transfer to Basongtso Lake
From Bayi this morning we will drive to Buchu and the ridge of Norburi Hill and Lamaling Monastery (the seat of the late Dudjom Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingmapa school). The original temple was destroyed in 1930. We will then return for lunch to Bayi and drive along the Sechuan Tibet road north of the Tibeto Monpa tribal region through Kongpo. We then drive west to beautiful Basongtso Lake where we stay overnight.
Day 22 Transfer to Rutok
In the morning we relax and explore the Basong Tso Lake, the shape of an elongated heart or a Dragon, located in the lap of Mt. Ama Chomo (5963m). This beautiful lake is also an important pilgrimage site. We may be able to visit Tsosum Gompa and the island on the lake. In the afternoon we depart for Rutok.
Day 23 Transfer to Lhasa
After a leisurely morning to enjoy the hot springs, we drive on to Metzogonkar and then Lhasa. After checking into our hotel and freshening up, we have the option to set out for dinner in the Barkhor, the central square and heart of Lhasa.
Day 24 In Lhasa
In the morning we drive up to see the ancient cave residence and meditation center of King Songtsen Gampo and a small temple where the first written letters are housed. From here we take a leisurely walk to Sera Monastery established in 1419 by a disciple of Tsong Khapa. Sera once had nearly 5000 monks. We may be able to see monks at debate. Time permitting we visit Drepung Monastery which once housed over 10000 monks. This was a great monastic university which had quarters for monks from Sichuan, Qinghai, Chamdo, Siberia, Ladakh and Mongolia. Four colleges taught different aspects of Buddhism. Ganden Potang, built by the 2nd Dalai Lama was used as residence for the subsequent Dalai Lamas.
Day 25 In Lhasa
In the morning we wander around Barkhor and see Jokhang temple, the jewelled Jowo. This precious statue was brought by Princess Wenchen from Changan (Xian) on her way to Tibet to marry the great Tibetan God king, Songtsen Gampo. In the afternoon we visit the Potala. Barkhor and the Jokhang are the spiritual center of Tibet and destination for millions of Tibetan Pilgrims. Later in the day we can visit the Lukhang set in the middle of a lake. The temple is one of the gems of Lhasa, and contains artwork related to Tibetan medical practices. Tonight we will have a delicious local farewell dinner.
Day 26 Lhasa, trip concludes
Following breakfast the trip concludes. Those on the group flight will be transferred to the airport for their international flight home.
- 25 breakfasts, 11 lunches and 6 dinners
- Expert bilingual guide
- Medical kit
- Comfortable accommodation on a twin share basis
- Sightseeing and entry fees as listed in itinerary
- National park entry fees
- Hard sleeper train between Kunming/Dali
- Private air-conditioned vehicles/private 4WD vehicles
- 26 day trip
- 21 nights hotel
- 3 nights guesthouse/lodge
- 1 night train
Trip Main Activities
- Adventure Touring
- Day Walking
Group Size Min
Group Size Max
Specialist gear required include walking boots/shoes and day pack (a comprehensive gear list is provided in the pre-departure information provided on booking).
What You Carry
In your day pack you will need to carry extra warm clothing (depending on the altitude, location and weather), a rainjacket, water bottle, film and camera gear, valuables and personal items such as sunscreen, lip-eze etc.