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Shangri-la, Dali, Li Jiang & Kunming. Plan a "COMFORTABLE" Holiday To China Under $31

"A holiday in China? Seriously? It doesn't seem like a country you'd travel to;" (much less blog about) said a whole lot of people when we announced our upcoming trip to China.

And yes, China isn't at the top of our "to go" list; never was, and probably never will be.

I can already hear people saying, "China is so huge, there's so much to see, how could you visit (say Beijing) and this dismiss China as a to go place?"

First. This isn't our maiden trip to China.

Between The Girl and I, we've probably visited China 4 times, (This is our 5th) each time to a different region; we just didn't bother to blog about it. The reason for our trip this time? Our wedding photo-shoot in Lijiang. (will update in a later post) Still, we tried to visit as many "blog worthy" attractions around the Yunnan region as possible while maintaining our philosophy of "comfortable & realistic travel without breaking the bank OR living like a beggar.

Before we get into the post proper, here's a fun fact (or tidbit) for readers.

For Singaporean readers: Westerners/Caucasians view traveling to China as "exotic". It's actually a pretty cool thing for them to announce to their friends and say, "hey, i'm going to China!"

For International readers: Singaporeans (most) opinion of China is "FAR from exotic". Instead China is generally viewed as a holiday destination for the elderly. (in other words, really uncool)

Cities Visited:

1. Dali

2. Shangri-La

3. LiJiang

4. Kunming

Image Credit: (Had to grab this photo of the net to showcase the DongChuan Red Lands. It didn't look like this while we where there in the winter)

Accommodation: $11 (USD 8) (average per person/night)

Accommodation. Now THIS is a real deal breaker for Singaporeans. I'm referring to those pampered ones with the "herd mentality" strongly ingrained into their minds. (which is most of them) Did you (international readers) know, that (most) Singaporeans can't bear to stay in anything less than a 3 star hotel when on holiday? Preferably 5 star (even when they can't afford it) thank you very much. Oh, yes, privacy too. And a great toilet. That's most important. Experiencing the country comes next, or not at all.

To keep things "relatable" (singlish, no such word exists) for our local readers, we decided to pay more for privacy this time. Oh, and of course, for an attached bathroom as well.

The average cost of accommodation per person? 11 SGD a night. (or 8 USD)

Most Singaporeans shudder at the thought of hostels. They imagine cockroaches, rats and noisy backpackers. Yikes! No privacy! And dirty bathrooms! When I look back at our room; (above) the cheapest one in the Jade Emu Hostel, I wonder, is it really that bad?

The Jade Emu hostel is really cool. It's clean, has an English speaking reception and a great common area for meeting other travelers. Planning to chill out for the day? No worries! They've a pool table, movie room and bar too!

......And a roof top terrace for should you wish to practice Tai-Chi or Yoga with a beautiful view of snow mountains as your backdrop.

Uh-oh. This might be a deal breaker for Singaporeans. It's a night on a Chinese train.......

To be honest, we actually thought it was a pretty interesting experience. In fact, I would call it enjoyable. The living standard on a Chinese train is pretty much comparable to that of an Eastern European couchette (not sleeper) but more sardines-in-a-can-like. I'm pretty certain I counted between 50-60 beds in one carriage!

There are three levels of beds. The higher the bed (because of low head room and difficulty to access the toilet) the cheaper. The lower the more expensive. Should you find this beneath your "sleeping standards", you could always top up even more and opt for a "soft sleeper", which are pretty much the best beds on the train. (think European Sleeper class with 4 beds but still no personal toilet)

In between Lijiang and Shangri-La is the magnificent Tiger Leaping Gorge. (more on that later) We spent the night at "Middle Tiger" because we were too lazy to trek the entire gorge from start to end. Tibet Guest House was our choice of stay. Yes, a private room for us for 50 Yuan each. 10.5 SGD.

The room even comes with our own personal balcony offering breathtaking views of the gorge below. For 10.5 SGD, i'd take this over a hotel any day. Did I mention the fantastic Tibetan breakfast? Pity Singaporeans would rather gorge themselves silly at hotel breakfast buffets.

Tavern 47 in the old town of Shangri-La deserves special mention. Run by a Korean with his Chinese wife, they are among the most hospitable "guesthouse owners" we've ever come across. Great cozy common areas for making friends, and a sort of rustic feel I really loved.

Our beds even had heated blankets! Why, why why would anyone choose a hotel over this? Singaporeans are really rich!

Key Takeaway:

Accommodation in China is of a surprisingly high standard. A night in a dorm costs as low as $4.50 (USD 3.30), and a great private room in hostels with attached bathroom costs as low as $9 (USD 6.50) each. Even if you could get a hotel room for as low as $50, do you really need it? Well, you shouldn't need to, not unless you're a Singaporean.

Transport & Attractions: $19 (USD 14) (average per person/night)

(Please read our individual posts on the various cities for more details as this post is mainly a summary of our trip and we couldn't possibly blog in detail about exactly what we did and the order it was done)

Imagecredit: Stone Forest, Kunming

"China is an extremely affordable country to visit as a tourist". Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Alright, we aren't playing a game of 20 Questions; so here it is.

Public transport in China is ridiculously cheap. Buses cost as low as 1 Yuen! (0.2 Sgd) Yes, even for a 1 hour bus journey! A bed in an overnight train from Kunming to Dali costs as low as 22 SGD! Transport settled, one night's accommodation settled. Just for $22!

On the flip side, attractions in China are ridiculously expensive. Visiting the Stone Forest in Kunming (above picture) will cost you 36 SGD just for entrance fees alone! Planning on visiting Shangri-La's key attraction; the Pudacuo National Park? Thank you, that will be 60 SGD.

Tiger Leaping Gorge from above. Isn't it gorgeous?

A 2 hours bus ride away from either Lijiang or Shangri-La lies Tiger Leaping Gorge. The highlight of the trek is in "Middle Tiger" (the middle of the gorge). Being short of time, we made our way straight there to begin our trek instead of the start point. Basically, we cheated.

It takes about an hour of solid downward trekking before you come to the bottom. Climb over a whole lot of rocks (you'll need your hands to help you) and you're finally there. I'd recommend a good pair of hiking shoes. This is NO easy trek. (and i've survived Nepal; twice)

These are the kind of paths you'll be trekking. At some points, it got so narrow that tried to plaster myself as close as possible to the "safer side", mentally wishing I could become spider-man at least for the next few hours.

And of course, the main highlight of Tiger Leaping Gorge, "Heaven's Ladder"; a rusty, narrow ladder towering up to the heavens. Before attempting it, I gave it a few hard shakes to assure myself "Heaven's Ladder wouldn't fall apart!

Oh, forget about a safety harness. China and safety don't go together, you're better off with a prayer.

Want to experience the "Tibetan way of life" but no visa for Tibet? No worries, catch a bus to Shangri-La, one of the closest cities to the Tibetan border. The Tibetan culture is so prevalent here, you'll probably forget you're in China!

Tibetan Yak. One of their friends ended up as part of my Yak Burger Set.

A failed jump shot in the snow covered "grasslands" of Shangri-La

The Songzanlin Monastery is one of the highlights of Shangri-La. While it isn't as impressive as Tibet's Potala Palace, it's close enough. The entrance fee is 105 Yuan each though! (21 SGD) If I were absolutely honest though, i'd say it isn't worth the money. Still, not going to this Tibetan Monastery is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Unthinkable for a Singaporean!

Cold, wet, and heavy snowing. Not the best time of the year to visit.

The view you get for your $21. Alright, but could be better.

Erhai Lake in Dali is probably the most overrated attraction I've visited. Perhaps it was the cloudy weather but I can't remember the last time as felt as disappointed as I did upon seeing an attraction i'd googled beforehand. It was closer to Seletar Reservoir than what I envisioned after viewing google images.

My advice? Skip this.

Guys, if your idea of clubbing is "grinding" beautiful women on a dark and crowded dance floor, you'll be disappointed. Most of the clubs we visited in China (this is in Dali) had the most brightly light dance floors we'd ever seen. I guess it was kind of cool though, in a gaudy, Chinese light-show kind of way with deafening techno giving your ear drums a pummeling.

Old town of Dali in the day.

Old town of Dali in the night

Of the 4 cities we visited, Lijiang is probably the most touristy. Want to find out more about Lijiang? Don't read our blog, just ask your parents, or grandparents; there's a high probability they've checked out Lijiang way before we did. It's especially popular among the elderly in Singapore. (and couples looking for cheap wedding pictures like us)

And it's no wonder why.

One of the key attractions in Lijiang, the beautiful Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is easily accessible to most tourists of varying fitness levels. Yes, even for you, the guy who spends his entire day on a couch with a burger in hand.

A cable car will take you up straight to around 4600m. That's not too far off from the altitude of Everest Base Camp! If you're feeling up to it, just follow the wooden platform right up to the summit at 5600m. We Singaporean's are mostly a kiasu (scared to lose) bunch of people, just wanting to get as high as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Thankfully, the cable car is made in Germany (I think?) Had it been made in China I probably wouldn't have set foot on it. Afraid of heights? The other way up is on foot. (path covered by snow) Which would you pick?

Also, the UNESCO World Heritage listed old town of Lijiang is arguably the most famous/well preserved "town" you can experience in China. (more pictures in our wedding photos in a later post) Visiting the old town is akin to stepping into an ancient movie set; you'll find yourself transported right into a Condor Hero's Trilogy drama. (and probably get ripped off drinking tea in ancient "tea house) Picture of the "old town is the 3rd picture from the top.

Would we recommend visiting Lijiang? Yes, if scenery is your kind of thing. No, if you're against paying for overpriced "attraction fees". Though beautiful scenery is the hallmark of Lijiang, it comes at a cost unfortunately. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain will cost you almost 300 Yuan with the cable car added in.

Well, we'd also recommend it for A) people who are broke but still want a "scenic holiday", B) wannabe trekkers, and C) Senior Citizens.

Key Takeaway:

There is little you can do about the attraction costs, and don't even think of trying to sneak in. Security actually checks your passport at most major attractions. You won't be allowed in without your passport, so good luck trying to pull of anything else.

The best thing you can do is to stay at a hostel and hope they have subsidized tour costs. (you might get entrance tickets cheaper at some hostels) With some luck, other travelers might be going to the same attractions as you are, further reducing your transport costs. As far as possible, try getting by on China's extremely cheap transportation. It's way better than I expected; in fact, I wouldn't think it very much inferior to that in Singapore.

Food, Drink & "Happy Spending" $12 (USD 9) (average per person/night)

Having a Zi-Char dinner in Lijiang. Evenings are cold, so our "hot meal" didn't stay hot that long.

People who know me know i'm not picky about food. But oh my, most food in China is horrendous. (And i'm Singaporean who loves Chinese food) Food is extremely oily. And by oily, I mean you can see "puddles" of oil in your soup, your noodles, and even all over your vegetables! Oh, and salt is another ingredient used in abundance when a mainland Chinese has control of the kitchen.

For international readers, be prepared to dine on noodles for most of your meals because I highly doubt you'll find "authentic" Chinese cuisine a treat for your taste buds. For Singaporeans? Well, it's manageable, but i'd think you'd prefer a meal of Zi-Char in a kopitiam over China-Chinese food anytime.

Woman preparing our breakfast for us in Lijiang. If you'd like reasonably delicious food at really cheap prices, dine at roadside stalls. Hygiene is manageable and we didn't get a tummy ache on our entire trip.

Egg and vegetable wrap. Cost: 4 Yuen. Great if you love eggs like I do. Unfortunately it's like a sponge soaked in oil. Enough oil in it to make sure you won't be hungry till lunch.

The Chinese are really big on noodles. A common breakfast in China is noodles in hot soup. (mian-xian) While we were in Dali though, the locals suggested we try their "traditional" noodle specialty. (above) If I were to describe it's exact taste, it would be Rojiak (sorry international readers, I can't describe this to you) blended with chill, (not oil for the first time) mixed with rice noodles and placed in the fridge.

Really unique and i'd go as far to say this was one of the more enjoyable local dishes. A big thumbs up for this!

Lunch in Shangri-La with Daniel, our new friend from the USA.

I've always been puzzled as to why Singaporeans are such anti-social human beings, insisting to stay only in hotels. Not only do you get to meet new friends in hostels, having meals together is also a plus. You'll get to try a wider variety of food at reduced prices.

Here's another example of a roadside stall in China.. Anytime you're hungry, stop for a snack. @ Erhai Lake, Dali

Watching the locals prepare our snack.... The Chinese are big on potatoes too.

The end product. Sour & Spicy friend potatoes. 5 Yuen!

Fried prawns, potatoes, mushrooms and god knows what. The combination was heavenly though!

Expensive version of street food. This cost us 15-20 Yuan for a stick of meat.

Are any of you tea lovers? Pu'er is the most famous in the Yunnan region of China. Unfortunately, if your thinking of sampling an authentic Pu'er in China, you might want prepare your wallet in advance, prices are pretty steep. There are several grades of Pu'er, the cheapest we came across was 60 Yuan, which is really expensive for a pot of tea!


The tea shops in China are mostly scams. They will first lure you in with a good quality expensive tea. After you have agreed to the purchase and paid, they will pack cheap, low grade tea leaves into the "expensive looking packaging" of the good quality tea you drank and agreed to buy.

Fortunately, the owner of Tavern 47 happens to appreciate tea. He gave us a complimentary tea appreciation session; I drank so much tea I swear I must have visited the washroom 10 times for the rest of the evening!

Key Takeaway:

Chinese food in China is oily, salty and in most cases, unappetizing. (compared to back home) Nonetheless it is extremely cheap and you can get by under $12 (9 USD) a day even when dining in restaurants/cafes. Street food is a decent alternative to save even more. Try to hangout with other travelers in hostels; the result is a wider variety of food tasting experiences at the same cost!

Ending Off......

Erhai Lake, Dali

The keyword here is "COMFORTABLE". It's obviously possible to travel china under $20 a day as those "shallow travelers" who like to compete for the rights of "who could do it cheaper" would like to claim. Well i'm sure you could. Sneak your way into attractions with out paying? Leech on your couch-surfing host in the hope he has some way to "offset" costs for you? Probably yes.

But to travel "REALISTICALLY" and "COMFORTABLY", this (our budget) is pretty much pushing it. China is cheap yes, but not as a whole. Accommodation is cheap and great. Food is cheap and "borderline". Scenery while beautiful comes at prices which can be staggeringly expensive.

Nonetheless, while attractions in China aren't at the top of our bucket list, it certainly is worth visiting. When you're here though, i'd suggest undergoing a Yoga/mediation course to build up your inner patience. You'll need it when it comes to dealing with the constant queue cutting, shoving, loud voiced Chinese people (most) who often build up an urge in you to just give them a punch in the face.

Have a lot of patience and deeper pockets than the average backpacker in South East Asia? China is for you. You'll love it.

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