Cormorant fishing

A cormorant holding a fish perches on the end of a net, handled by fisherman Yang Yi Zhu. Fishermen on Erhai Lake use these trained birds to catch fish, a tradition passed from generation to generation. (Phil Zimmerman)

DALI, China — "I'm sorry," my travel agent's email said, "but Tibet is closed."

Closed? How could it just shut down? This wasn't Space Mountain we were talking about.

A quick Google search confirmed the news. In "celebration" of the anniversary of communist rule, all foreigners were barred from entering the Chinese-controlled region. And now I was in a bind. It was three weeks before my 17-day trip.

"Have you ever been to Yunnan?" travel agent Jane Lee asked.

Been to Yunnan? I'd never even heard of Yunnan.

Yunnan province, in southwest China, is thriving with Tibetans and 24 other distinct ethnic groups. Although it may not be the first choice for first-time visitors to China, Yunnan has plenty to see and do. Looking to escape the hordes of fanny packs at the Great Wall outside Beijing or the ancient terra-cotta warriors near Xian? Yunnan could be the respite.

Getting here is fairly easy, and you'll certainly get to catch up on plenty of in-flight movies. After nearly 21 hours of flying time from Los Angeles, with stops in Shanghai and Beijing, I eventually arrived in Kunming, the capital and largest city of Yunnan.

Here are three cultural experiences I enjoyed, worthwhile whether Tibet is open or not.

Thousand Lion Mountain

My stomach got a cramp just looking at the worn marble steps climbing the nearly 9,120-foot mountain that disappeared into a fluffy gray cloud.

"I've never made it to the top," said Pu Xiao Hong, my 34-year-old guide who has lived her entire life in the nearby town of Dali in western Yunnan. "The last time I was here, I came with a French couple who made it to that spot," she said, pointing to about the 20th step.

"Let's do this," I said, throwing two energy bars and a bottle of water in my backpack. I think I've been more prepared for a day trip to Malibu.

Thousand Lion Mountain, between Dali and Lijiang to the north, is a popular weekend spot for Chinese families from the surrounding areas. Depending on the trail, 800 to 1,000 stairs lead to the mountain peak past 2,500 stone-carved lions dating to the Song (906-1279) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Along the way, we huffed and puffed, saying nothing until we reached the first landing. "Lion carvings are an important tradition in China. The Chinese believe that lions are great protectors," she explained. "Today, you'll see them guarding holy sites and entrances to towns."

A pair of lions stood above us on a pedestal. "The one on the right is the male," she said. "It has a ball."

She pointed to the lion with its paw on top of an orb. "The ball symbolizes unity. The other statue has a lion cub underneath its paw, which is traditionally the female and represents thriving offspring."

We ascended the next set of stairs. "52 … 53 … 54...." Hong counted, gasping between each step.

"It's OK, I can make it the rest of the way," I said, partly as a kind gesture but mostly because I wasn't sure I could handle hearing stairs 55 through 1,000 called aloud.

Hong turned back and I continued. After three hours, the trail leveled off, and I followed it through a haze of herbal smoke to the Manxianlin monastery, a sacred spot for local Buddhists. A crowd of elderly men and women genuflected in my direction.

"Don't mind me. I'm just hiking through," I said, getting nothing but blank stares in return. I tried to act out hiking, although, guessing from their faces, I probably looked as though I were reenacting a scene from "Riverdance."