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The 'forgotten kingdom' of Yunnan gives Audley China specialist, Graham Usher a taste of authentic, traditional South China.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Black Dragon Pond, Lijiang
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Black Dragon Pond, Lijiang

Nestled in China's vast southwest, Yunnan is one of my favourite areas of the country. Part of the ancient silk and tea routes, it's a beautiful and diverse region. The dramatic mountain scenery, grasslands and charming old towns combined with the largest minority population in China make exploring it an absolute pleasure.

Parts of Yunnan have been referred to by travel author Peter Goullart as the 'forgotten kingdom', which sums up the area perfectly. Yunnan has managed to escape the rapid modernisation of the rest of China; here you will still find dialects spoken nowhere else and lifestyles still reminiscent of bygone eras.

Yunnan is high above sea level and the climate remains temperate all year round.

Days 1-7: Traditional culture — temples, old towns and markets

The Three Pagodas, DaliAfter arriving at Kunming (1) I make my way to the hotel and spend the afternoon exploring the area’s bustling markets. The following morning I drive to the beautiful city of Dali (2). As I enter the city, I immediately see the striking 1,600-year-old pagodas. Having somehow survived centuries of earthquakes and other natural disasters, they're still standing strong to this day.

A short drive from the city I check into the fascinating Linden Centre, run by US expats Brian and Jeanee Linden.

The Centre is a guesthouse but also a project dedicated to preserving the local village heritage. I would recommend taking part in one of the cookery classes held there, as you get to experience how the locals prepare their food using home-grown ingredients.

After a three hour drive through local villages and rice paddies I reach Shaxi (3) the last remaining market town on the ancient tea route. I arrive on a Friday so I’m able to witness the Bai and the Yi minorities coming together to trade local goods from their villages at the market. I rest up for the night in the Laomadian Guesthouse with its simple welcoming charm.

Lijiang, ChinaNow onto my favourite city in China — Lijiang (4). Lijiang is a two hour drive from Shaxi through some picturesque scenery with a stop at the Shibaoshan temple on the way.

The old town is based around the Naxi style of architecture with cobbled streets and fresh mountain streams flowing through the town like a lifeblood. Locally grown fruit and food stalls are everywhere and there is the smell of spice in the air. As the sun goes down red lanterns light up around the city casting a soft red glow tranquillity of this place. The Blossom Hill Boutique Hotel awaits me with its vast baths and airy rooms based around a traditional courtyard, it could not be more relaxing.

Map showing Yunnan and China

Days 8-9: The matriarchs

The next place on my list to visit is Lugu Lake (5). After a six hour drive along fairly rugged roads and terrain I am rewarded with one of the most beautiful scenes in China; the lake itself. Lugu is also home to one of the last remaining matriarchal societies in the world; the Mosuo people. Here it is the women that run the households and make the business decisions.

Days 10-12: A taste of Tibet

Back to Lijiang. Staying at the beautiful Zen Garden Guesthouse I get to take part in a local tea ceremony. With over 80 different kinds of tea at our disposal, I am amazed by the dedication to the art and how every aspect of the ceremony has such depth of meaning. The next day I continue north, toward the base of the Tibetan Plateau. On the way I stop off at the Tiger Leaping Gorge (6). Raging torrents flow through this gorge, which then lead on to become one of the main tributaries of the larger Yangtze River.

Shangri-la, ChinaDriving through the immense landscape at 11,000 feet I reach Shangri-La (7), which is also known as Shangri-La (paradise on Earth). It reminds me of Scandinavia but with Tibetan architecture. I check into the Songtsam Hotel for a good rest after the journey; the hotel is styled in an authentic manner and has great service to boot.

Visiting Shangri-La and the surrounding Ringha Valley is the best way to experience the Tibetan lifestyle without travelling to Tibet itself. After visiting the huge Songzanlin Monastery, I have been invited in to a local household for some Yak Butter Tea.

Days 13-14: Journey's end

I fly back to Kunming and then on to Hong Kong or Bangkok for the flight back to the UK, having explored one of the most interesting and scenic spots in all of China.

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