Daybreak in western Yunnan province. Clouds tinted pink by the sun rise over the hills fringing the eastern horizon. Below us, near the shore of Erhai Lake, Dali Old Town is awakening.

Yet we have no time to admire the scenery. I'm with Xi Zhinong, China's best-known wildlife photographer, and he's intent on finding spectacular game birds - Lady Amherst's pheasants - in woods just above his home.

Xi drives up a twisting dirt road, intently watching for movement. He sights a bird just ahead and stops the car. It's a splendid male, with a white belly, shining blue upperparts, a black and white shawl from head to shoulders and a billowing, 80cm-long silvery tail.

As I snap away, the pheasant strolls off, using skills a ninja would envy to merge with the forest. By breakfast, we've seen 12.

It's almost 30 years (wow, 30 years!) since I first came to Dali, and I'm intrigued to see how much has changed. A city of high-rises is growing south of the lake but the old town - the Dali that draws tourists - retains its charm.

With the remnants of defensive walls, gates and watchtowers on each of its four sides, the old town's design reflects the region's tumultuous past. For more than five centuries, from AD737, the Dali area was the hub of the Nanzhao and then the Dali kingdoms. Mongol forces invaded in 1253, destroying the capital and the palace, and it wasn't until the 1400s, during the Ming dynasty, that Dali city was rebuilt on the current site.

A laidback atmosphere pervades; even the traffic is subdued and, along pedestrian-only lanes separating two-storey buildings, mainland tourists soak up the culture, contemplate locally made souvenirs and listen to guitar-strumming street performers. Hong Kong tourism officials take note; there are no international brands in sight and, instead of swanky eateries, myriad small restaurants, barbecue stalls and a café offering "coffee, cake, fruit juice plus lots of things you absolutely want to have" feed the crowds.

Outside Dali, the village of Xizhou has a small car park beneath tall trees in which herons nest. A stroll away is a square ringed by restaurants and stalls selling ornamental cloth and clothing tie-dyed in traditional, kaleidoscopic patterns. Cormorants fish for the benefit of visitors nearby, but there's an entry fee of more than 100 yuan (HK$126) to see them: too much for another look at men using birds to bring in a catch from Erhai.

On my first visit, along with the cormorant fishing, I saw Dali's Three Pagodas, but for this, too, there is now a hefty entrance fee, and it is encircled by a huge new wall. Instead, we take a cable car part of the way up the Cangshan mountain range, which soars above Dali.

The cable car terminates in a verdant valley devoid of buildings other than the station, near a small gorge, where a spring feeds a crystal-clear pool. And there is an alternative for the return journey: a concrete path following the stream down through carpets of flowering shrubs, occasionally crossing the water over ornamental, upward curving bridges.

Transport has greatly improved since my first visit, and we take a six-hour bus ride north, to Shangri-La. The town's name used to be Zhongdian but officials changed it in a bid to attract tourists, luring them with the appeal of the fictional land described in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon and based on the writings of Joseph Rock, who explored the area early last century.

I came in 2002, soon after the renaming, and found there were indeed similarities: the area is home to deep gorges with warmer climes low down, a majestic monastery and mighty snowy peaks.

Although the monastery has become a tourist trap, Shangri-La still impresses. There's an old town here, too, with a warren of shops, restaurants and hostels below a temple on a small hill, and finishing work is underway on new houses with wooden facades in an area that was last year ravaged by fire.

China's penchant for cable cars extends to Shangri-La. As we near the summit of the 4,449-metre Shika Snow Mountain, a late spring blizzard is raging. The car sways alarmingly in the wind and the views are obscured by mist and cloud. It all seems to be a little too much for one of three women visiting from Kunming and, swaddled in arctic-worthy coats (which can be hired), she puffs away on an oxygen bottle. Snow is underfoot as we step out of the car, Ocean Park-style, at the upper most station and walk to a small canteen, where noodles are sold from steaming vats.

The blizzard makes exploring a challenge too far but photos show that, on fine days, there's good hiking to be had here: green alpine meadow by the middle station, with rhododendrons in flower; green vegetation on the steeper slopes and crags.

Near Shangri-La town is Napahai, an upland lake ringed by Himalayan peaks. Although 3,270 metres above sea level, it doesn't freeze in winter, when it attracts thousands of water birds. Helped by a forthright Tibetan who runs a guesthouse by the lake, we manage to find geese, ducks and globally endangered black-necked cranes - elegant birds about 1.3 metres tall with wild, bugling calls.

Bulkier Himalayan and black vultures are gathered near the lake the next morning, vigilant in case one of the grazing horses, yaks or cows falls ill.

The Balagezong area ("auspicious place" in Tibetan), in a 3,000-metre deep canyon between precipitous peaks, is national park land, through which our tour bus passes. At one point, a walkway of metal frame and wooden planks has been bolted to the vertical wall of a canyon, about 20 metres above a fast-flowing river. Having marvelled at that feat of engineering, passengers climb back aboard before the bus negotiates a startling set of hairpin bends, the vehicle making abrupt turns as it climbs to a spur topped by a Tibetan village.

Bala is a loose cluster of two- and three-storey buildings built of stone up a slope, a winding footpath serving as the village's "main street". Visitors are advised to walk clockwise three times around Bala's stupa and its prayer flags, for good fortune.

Leaving Shangri-La, we drop down from old Tibet, but are still amid mountains. At Tiger Leaping Gorge, busloads of tourists are admiring the Yangtze as it thunders over boulders beneath towering, snow-capped summits. The first bend is far more peaceful, though, with a handful of visitors gazing out from a roadside layby, 50 metres or so above the water, watching the mighty river turn from its southward course, to head east.

Close to the first bend is a roadside store, where people of the Naxi minority, wearing blue peaked caps, the women with stout capes slung over their backs, have gathered to play cards, rest and chat.

I found the old part of nearby Lijiang similarly imbued with community spirit during a visit in 1986 but, a decade later, the town was devastated by an earthquake. Although the World Heritage listed "old town" has been rebuilt, it is now as soulless as Lantau's Ngong Ping 360 village. Music blares from the brightly lit bars that line narrow central streets of flagstone paving, between two- and three-storey buildings with tiled roofs, wooden facades and large storefront and restaurant windows - but there is little evidence anyone actually lives here.

Northern Yunnan still has its charms, but judging by what's changed in the past 30 years, it's advisable to visit sooner rather than later.