Yunnan (云南, yúnnán) has always stood apart from the rest of China, set high on the southwestern frontiers of the empire, and shielded from the rest of the nation by the unruly, mountainous neighbours of Sichuan and Guizhou. Within this single province, unmatched in the complexity and scope of its history, landscape and peoples, you’ll find a mix of geography, climates and nationalities that elsewhere on Earth takes entire continents to express.
The fairly flat, productive northeast of the province is home to the attractive capital, Kunming, whose mild climate earned Yunnan its name, meaning literally “south of the Clouds”. A scattering of local sights extends southeast from the city towards the border with Vietnam.
Northwest of Kunming, the Yunnan plateau rises to serrated, snowbound peaks, extending north to Tibet and surrounding the ancient historic towns of Dali and Lijiang. The Far West, laid out along the ghost of old trade routes, has less of specific interest but allows gentle probing along the border with Burma. Yunnan’s deep south comprises a further isolated stretch of the same frontier, which reaches down to the tropical forests and paddy fields of Xishuangbanna, a botanical, zoological and ethnic cornucopia abutting Burma and Laos – about as far from Han China as it’s possible to be.
Dwelling in this stew of border markets, mountains, jungles, lakes, temples, modern political intrigue and remains of vanished kingdoms are 28 recognized ethnic groups, the greatest number in any province. Providing almost half the population and a prime reason to visit Yunnan in themselves, the indigenous list includes Dai and Bai, Wa, Lahu, Hani, Jingpo, Nu, Naxi and Lisu plus a host shared with other provinces (such as the Yi) or adjoining nations. Each minority has its own spoken language, cuisine, distinctive form of dress for women, festivals and belief system, and with enough time you should be able to flesh out the superficial image of these groups laid on for the tourist industry. In recent years this has boomed out of all proportion to Yunnan’s remote image, bringing batallions of tour buses, souvenir stalls and loudspeaker-toting guides from far and near; the upside for foreigners is an increasing number of resources geared to their needs, including backpacker cafés and companies offering cycling and trekking trips, ensuring that Yunnan is one of the easiest places to explore in China.
There are international flights into Kunming from Bangkok, Rangoon, Singapore and Vientiane, and to Jinghong – near the border with Burma and Laos – from Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Getting around can be time-consuming, thanks to Yunnan’s sheer scale, but the state of country buses and roads is often surprisingly good; new expressways are springing up at a regular rate and it’s an undeniable achievement that some of the lesser routes exist at all. Yunnan’s fairly limited rail network is due for expansion too, with recently completed services to Dali and Lijiang making these popular destinations more accessible than ever.
The weather is generally moderate throughout the year, though northern Yunnan has cold winters and heavy snow up around the Tibetan border, while the south is always warm, with a torrential wet season in summer.
Roads in the more remote areas are regularly closed during the rainy season, usually because of landslides and bad weather, but sometimes thanks to the army looking for illegal cross-border traffic in cars, timber, gems and opiates. Much of Asia’s illegal drug production originates in Burma and is funnelled through China to overseas markets. Officially, the Yunnanese government is tough on the drugs trade, executing traffickers and forcibly rehabilitating addicts. All this means that there are military checkpoints on many rural roads, where you’ll have to show passports.
According to the Han historian Sima Qian, the Chinese warrior prince Zhuang Qiao founded the pastoral Dian Kingdom in eastern Yunnan during the third century BC. The Dian were a slave society, who vividly recorded their daily life and ceremonies involving human sacrifice in sometimes gruesome bronze models, which have been unearthed from their tombs. In 109 AD the kingdom was acknowledged by China: the emperor Wu, hoping to control the Southern Silk Road through to India, sent its ruler military aid and a golden seal. However, the collapse of the Han empire in 204 AD was followed by the dissolution of Dian into private statelets.
In the eighth century, an aspiring Yunnanese prince named Piluoge, favouring Dali for its location near trade routes beteen central and southeastern Asia, invited his rivals to dinner in the town, then set fire to the tent with them inside. Subsequently he established the Nanzhao Kingdom in Dali, which later expanded to include much of modern Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. In 937, the Bai warlord Duan Siping toppled the Nanzhao and set up a smaller Dali Kingdom, which survived until Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes descended in 1252. Directly controlled by China for the first time, Yunnan served for a while as a remote dumping ground for political troublemakers, thereby escaping the population explosions, wars and migrations that plagued central China. However, the Mongol invasion had introduced a large Muslim population to the province, who, angered by their deteriorating status under the Chinese, staged the Muslim Uprising in 1856. Under the warlord Du Wenxiu, the rebellion laid waste to Kunming and founded an Islamic state in Dali before the Qing armies ended it with the wholesale massacre of Yunnan’s Muslims in 1873, leaving a wasted Yunnan to local bandits and private armies for the following half-century.
Strangely, it was the Japanese invasion of China during the 1930s that sparked a resurgence of the province’s fortunes. Blockaded into southwestern China, the Guomindang government initiated great programmes of rail-and-road building through the region, though they never really controlled Yunnan. The Communists didn’t bring much joy either, and it’s only recently that Yunnan has finally benefited from its forced association with the rest of the country. Never agriculturally rich – only a tenth of the land is considered arable – the province looks to mineral resources, tourism and its potential as a future conduit between China and the much discussed, but as yet unformed, trading bloc of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma. Should these countries ever form an unrestricted economic alliance, the amount of trade passing through Yunnan would be immense, and highways, rail and air services have already been planned for the day the borders open freely.