There’s so much more to China than the Great Wall, Forbidden City and the Terracotta Army. One of our favourite places to explore is Yunnan province in the south-west of the country, which varies in landscape from tropical lowlands to Himalayan snows. With towering canyons, ethereal rock formations and cities that seem lost in time, there's plenty to capture the imagination – that's why we included it in our Rough Guide to 2019. Here's our must-see Yunnan top ten:
Named for an adventurous tiger who is said to have jumped the 25-metre gap across the gorge to escape a hunter, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the world’s deepest river canyons. The scenery is spectacular – snow-capped mountains rise 3,790 meters above sea level, soaring high above a rushing Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze. Hiking along the canyon is popular, with guesthouses along the way that are a good source of income for the Naxi people who carry on their traditional way of life here.
Lit up at night by red lanterns that reflect off its many waterways, Lijiang’s Unesco-listed Old Town is a picture postcard of China come to life. Cobbled streets, wooden bridges, hand-tiled houses and weathered trees add to the ancient feel of the place. The town is hugely popular with Chinese tourists and the bars and restaurants thrum with activity. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but a lively one with some lovely quiet corners to escape the crowds.
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Every region of China has its own cuisine and Yunnanese food tends to be spicier than you might expect. Barbecue is popular, with beef, lamb or fish skewered, grilled and served with herb-rich sauces. Fried cheese and stir-fried insects, such as silkworms and bamboo grubs, are more unusual local specialities. Slow-cooked soups of beef, chicken or pork, or all three, are also popular and wild Yunnan mushrooms are much sought after.
The former city of Zhongdian was renamed Shangri-La in 2001 to promote tourism in reference to the 1933 novel Lost Horizon – where stranded pilot Hugh Conway finds a hidden utopia high in the mountains of Tibet. The new Shangri-La sits near the border with Tibet at 3,000 metres above sea level. It's a great place to go to experience Tibetan culture, which still remains dominant here. Visit the picturesque Songzanlin Tibetan monastery, spin a prayer wheel or buy a yak wool sweater. Much of Shangri-La is not as authentic as it looks, but get out into the countryside, hiking or on horseback, and you'll find a way of life that is still authentic.
Home to the Dai people, whose language, costumes, culture and food link to their descendants in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, the prefecture of Xishuangbanna has a tropical feel. In the capital city Jinghong, daytime temperatures remain balmy even in winter and palm trees tower over Buddhist shrines and tropical gardens. It’s an interesting place to learn more about Dai culture and sample – or buy – Yunnan tea in one of the many photogenic old shops.
Yunnan tea – proper name pu’er tea – has a reputation as the world’s finest tea. It was once so valued that it was traded for Tibetan warhorses along the dizzying Tea Horse Road across the Himalayas. The beverage is made from fermented green tea leaves pressed into shapes known as 'tea cakes' that are aged for several months before being drunk.
The province’s black and green teas are equally interesting, sometimes harvested from ancient trees rather than the more familiar monoculture bushes of other areas. The richness of the moss, lichens and epiphytes on the trees add to the flavour of the finished product. Arrange a plantation tour to learn more about the process, and get a taste of the coveted brew.
Morning mist over a tea plantation, Yunnan © ArtWell/Shutterstock
Most visitors to Yunnan province fly in through the airport at Kunming, the capital. It’s was an important trading hub on the Silk Road for centuries, visited by Marco Polo. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, it’s Asia’s largest flower-growing centre. A visit to a flower market is a must, as is the World Horti-Expo grounds. Head to Green Lake Park for a spot of people watching as local residents exercise, play music or just enjoy the park.
About 350km south of Kunming, the multi-coloured ripples of the Yuanyang rice terraces have been tended by the Hani people for over 1,000 years. For the very best views, come between November and April, after the harvest, when the terraces have been flooded and reflect the evening or morning light. Recognised by Unesco in 2013, the sight of them might be familiar from countless photos but remain an awesome sight in person at any time of year.
Dali sits on the shores of Erhai Lake and you could do worse than walk, bike or boat around its blue waters, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The Cloud Pass hiking trail in the Cangshan Mountains, which rise to 4,000 metres, will give you a memorable overview of lake and town. Dali Old Town has long been a hippy hang out and remains so, with vintage clothes shops and plenty of busking musicians.
Yunnan province has a number of natural wonders but the UNESCO-listed limestone rocks at Shilin literally stand out. Like a Chinese painting come to life, they resemble a cave with the roof taken off – fingers of stone reaching for the sky. Some are said to look like animals or people, but the most impressive thing is the sheer number of towering rocks standing in formation.
Top image: Lijiang old town with the jade dragon snow mountains in the background © Thawatchai W/Shutterstock