KUNMING: Land in Kunming in the morning and grab a taxi to Salvadore's Coffee House (76 Wen Lin Jie, Wen Hua Xiang) for a big breakfast or lunch. If you live in Kunming, I've been told that Salvadore's is your home away from home. This is a great place to try fresh Yunnan coffee and lounge around for hours with a book in one of the beanbag chairs. Salvadore's is American-owned and has an extensive Western menu. Then hop in a cab to the bus station to go to Dali. Buses to Dali leave often and a cab to the bus station takes about half an hour.
DALI: The bus trip to Dali takes about three hours. Dali Old Town is where you want to stay; don't be confused by what is sometimes called Dali City, Dali New Town or Xiaguan. For accommodation in Dali, there are a lot of inexpensive options. In low season, you can barter a bit. Located within the walled center of Dali Old Town, Lee's Guesthouse is a good choice. Run by a family from Inner Mongolia, this place has dorm rooms and double rooms that are cozy, clean and comfortable. A family dinner is served every night, and they also have laundry services and bike rentals. Lee speaks great English and runs a travel agency that can book bus, train and air tickets and give recommendations on where to go.
Yunnan food is famous for being hearty, delicious and appealing to Western tastes, from the potato and eggplant dishes to the goat cheese. We had dinner Mr. Li's Cafe on Renmin Lu (across the street from the Bad Monkey) and enjoyed trying the local Bai dishes. Mr. Li recommend the homemade plum wine. If you are looking for a great Western breakfast, fresh German bread, homemade jams, pastries, cakes and muffins, check out Bakery 88 on Bo Ai Lu, near Renmin Lu.
Nestled at the lower end of Renmin Lu towards the lake, James Bar is a Western-managed place in a delightful courtyard setting at 370 Renmin Lu. The place is all made of stone and great for chilling or reading. They also have a good selection of wines.
Bad Monkey (77 Renmin Lu) is open till the wee hours and the pizzas are said to be the best in town. The bartenders and owners are expats from the UK.
Besides eating, drinking and wandering around the charming cobblestone streets, if you feel adventurous, you can take a boat ride on Erhai Lake, ride the cable car up the mountain or visit the kung fu monastery where you can stay for a week or longer studying kung fu with monks. There is also a spa about 40 minutes out of town that has hot springs.
LIJIANG: Lijiang is generally more popular with Chinese tourists while Dali is more popular with Western tourists. Lijiang's Old Town is harder to navigate and busier, but it's really pretty. Get up early to walk around because that is when you see the real life, not just tourists.
For accommodations in Lijiang, a lot of travelers like to stay at Mama Naxi's Guesthouse because of the warm Naxi family atmosphere--watching Mama Naxi boss around Baba Naxi and the staff running around the place--and because it's a good place to meet other travelers. Family meals are served each night and are cheap and tasty. Mama Naxi can organize a minibus to take guests to Tiger Leaping Gorge, leaving your heavy bags at the guesthouse to pick up the next day or a few days later.
TIGER LEAPING GORGE: It takes two and a half hours to get from Lijiang to the start of the hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge. Wear good hiking shoes and bring a day pack with a rain jacket, an extra pair of socks and extra clothing in case it gets cold. You can take as long as you want hiking TLG, but staying one night along the way at one of the guesthouses is recommended. The minivan from Lijiang stops at a guesthouse called Jane's where you can drop your heavy bags, if you didn't leave them in Lijiang, and pick them up the next day. There are a couple of guesthouses to stop for lunch on the hike, but it's a good idea to take along some snacks like chocolate, fruit or nuts. The hike takes most of the day. It's not tough, except for a challenging section called the 28 Bends which is a steep track of loops that will have you gasping for breath after 40 minutes.
Photo Index: Salvadore's Coffee House from Salvadors.cn. The Lee Twins from Lee Guesthouse. Mr. Lee's Cafe, Bakery 88: The German Bakery in Dali, James Bar 370 Renmin Lu, The Streets of Lijiang, Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Halfway House on Tiger Leaping Gorge, Wild Weed at Tiger Leaping Gorge from Rebekah Pothaar. Bad Monkey, 77 Renmin Lu from Travelpod. Mama Naxi from Martin Callum.