Benzilan (奔子栏) is a small town in extreme northwestern Yunnan Province. It lies along a stretch of the Jinsha River (a major headwater stream of the Yangtze River) that forms the border with Sichuan Province, roughly halfway along the road from Zhongdian to Deqin.
The town, as seen out the window of a bus passing along the Zhongdian-Deqin route, might not seem different from many other small Chinese towns one merely passes through, but get off here and you will be well rewarded. For one, given that it lies on the bank of the Jinsha River, it is at the lowest altitude in the area and is considerably warmer than Deqin or Zhongdian in winter. Stray from the typical modern Chinese architecture of the main road and head down the hill to the river and you will pass many charming traditional houses, friendly locals and yapping guard dogs.
However, if you're coming from the south and felt the old towns of Shangri La, Lijiang and Dali were too commercial, Benzilan is heavily recommended.
All of the buses from Zhongdian to Deqin pass through the town. In fact the midpoint lunch stop is often taken a mere five minutes south of Benzilan. Tickets can be bought at Zhongdian bus station for ¥15. For some reason no tickets to Benzilan are sold in Deqin, though if you stand just outside the station and get on a bus headed to Zhongdian you should be able to get there for ¥30 or so.
The town is growing fast and parts of it are not marked on common maps. The main commercial road is located up the hill, going parallel to the highway.
- The town. The many different routes down to the river provide a pleasant walk among traditional houses, orchards, and cultivated fields. Getting to the bank of the river can be a bit tricky as there is a steep drop-off as you approach the bank, but if you persist you will come across one of the purpose-built staircases. It is no longer necessary to take a boat to get the other side of the river, as there is now a bridge. There is however not much to see on the other side.
- East Bamboo Forest Temple (东竹林寺; Dong Zhu Lin Si; Tibetan: Dhon-Drupling Gompa). A wonderful temple built on the side of the gorge around 15 km northwest along the main road to Deqin. The monastic village that surrounds it is also quite lovely. Dhon-Drupling Gompa was founded in 1667 by Kusho Dondrub and received its name by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1670. It has many beautifully intricate paintings inside and houses several precious statues. Getting there by hitch-hiking or hiring a mian bao che (microvan) presents no problems. ¥30.
- The first bend of the Jinsha River (金沙江第一湾; Jinsha Jiangdaguaiwan) (8 km northwest of Benzilan along the same road). There is a viewing platform along with the customary ticket office but it is not necessary to pay the fee to see the bend.
There are several shops along the main road selling the same silverware and materials that are found elsewhere in the region.
Most of the restaurants along the main commercial road serve good food. The dishes on offer are the same as can be found in most places in northwest Yunnan.
There are a whole bunch of hotels along the main road. A double en-suite should set you back ¥60-80.
Huan Ying Guan Lin has, as of November 2018, excellent double en-suite for ¥100 (during holidays, possible cheaper normally). Take the first road right after walking up from bus stop to get there. Big building with small vegetable field right in front of it. No English spoken.
There is a bus (though it might be a microvan) that leaves for Zhongdian at 7:30AM. If that does not take your fancy, stand by the side of the road and flag down any of the buses that pass from morning to mid-afternoon.