Yunnan has always stood apart from the rest of China, set high on the empire’s barbarous southwestern frontiers, and shielded from the rest of the nation by the unruly, mountainous neighbours of Sichuan and Guizhou. Within this single province, and dwelling among a 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 tourism 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 is improved resources geared to their needs, including backpacker cafés and companies offering cycling and trekking trips, ensuring that Yunnan is one of the easiest regions to explore in China.
The 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 – including the brilliant green, near-vertically terraced valleys at Yuanyang – extends southeast from the city towards the border with Vietnam. Northwest of Kunming, the Yunnan plateau rises to serrated, snowbound peaks, extending to Tibet and surrounding the ancient historic towns of Dali and Lijiang; there’s one of China’s great hikes here too, through Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Far West, laid out along the ghost of old trade routes, has less of specific interest but allows gentle probing along the Burmese border. 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.
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.
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 all 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 Yunnan’s fortunes. Blockaded into southwestern China, the Guomindang government initiated great programmes of rail-and-road building through the region, though 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.
Southwest of Xiaguan, Yunnan’s far west bumps up against the Burmese border, an increasingly tropical area of mountain forests and broad valleys planted with rice and sugar cane, all cut by the deep watershed gorges of Southeast Asia’s mighty Mekong and Salween rivers (in Chinese, the Lancang Jiang and Nu Jiang, respectively). Settlements have large populations of ethnic minorities, and mainstream China has never had a great presence in the region; indeed, at times it’s still often unclear whether rules and regulations originate in Beijing or with the nearest officer in charge.
The far west’s main artery, the underused G56 Expressway, roughly follows the route of the old Burma Road, built during World War II as a supply line between British-held Burma and Kunming, from where goods were shipped to China’s wartime capital, Chongqing. Something of the road’s original purpose survives today, with towns along the way, especially Ruili, right on the Burmese frontier, still clearly benefiting from the cross-border traffic. With the exception of geologically unsettled Tengchong, however, sights are few and – unless you’re heading into Burma – the main point of visiting is simply to experience a fairly untouristed, if not actually remote, corner of the country, not least along the upper reaches of the Nu Jiang Valley.
Transport through the far west is by bus, though you can also fly to Tengchong and the district capital Mangshi, just a couple of hours by road from Ruili. Some minor scuffles along the Burmese border in recent years, plus the area’s perennial drug-trafficking problems, mean you’ll encounter military checkpoints in the region, where you have to show passports and wait while vehicles are checked for contraband. The weather is subtropically humid, especially during the wet season between May and October, when landslides frequently cut smaller roads.
Tourism to the Nu Jiang Valley is in its infancy, with regional agencies offering guided treks – currently the best way to explore the area. While tours organized from Dali and Lijiang are likely to access the river valley via Xiaguan, agencies in Shangri-La may be able to organize a trek west towards the far north of the area, depending on the time of year. Be wary trekking in winter and spring, however, when high rainfall makes landslides common.
From Dimaluo it’s possible to trek to neighbouring valleys and avoid having to catch the bus all the way back down to Liuku. You’ll need a guide, though: expect to pay around ¥250 per day, including very basic food and accommodation.
One popular option begins with a stiff, two-day hike across the Nushan range to Cizhong (茨中, cízhōng), a village with another stone church in the parallel Lancang River valley; the locals even make their own red wine for Communion, though Christianity has been laid on top of much older, animist beliefs. There is an irregular, fair-weather bus service south from Cizhong to Weixi (维西, wéixī; 6–10hr), from where you can catch a bus to Lijiang via Shigu.
The region southeast of Kunming is a nicely unpackaged corner of the province, and there are good reasons, besides the Vietnamese border crossing at Hekou, to head down this way. Amiable, old-fashioned Jianshui boasts a complement of Qing architecture, and an unusual attraction in nearby caves, while Yuanyang is the base for exploring the cultures and impressive terraced landscapes of the Hong He Valley. Jianshui and Yuanyang can be tied together in a trip to the border, or each are directly accessible by bus from Kunming.
The access point for viewing the rice terraces is Yuanyang, a district 80km south of Jianshui and 300km from Kunming. The name covers two settlements: the riverside township of Nansha (元阳南沙, yuányáng nánshā), terminus for Jianshui buses; and, where you actually want to base yourself, XINJIE (元阳新街镇, yuányáng xīnjiēzhèn), 30km uphill at the top of a high ridge. Xinjie is a small, untidy brick-and-concrete town which becomes a hive of activity on market days (every five days), when brightly dresssed Hani, Miao, Yi and Yao women pour in from surrounding villages.
Yunnanese food splits broadly into three cooking styles. In the north, the cold, pastoral lifestyle produces dried meats and – very unusually for China – dairy products, fused with a Muslim cuisine, a vestige of the thirteenth-century Mongolian invasion. Typical dishes include wind-cured ham (火腿, huŏtuĭ), sweetened, steamed and served with slices of bread; dried cheese or yoghurt wafers (乳扇, rŭshān or 乳饼, rŭbǐng); the local version of crisp-skinned duck (烧鸭, shāoyā), flavoured with Sichuan peppercorns – you’ll see drum-shaped duck ovens outside many restaurants – and a tasty fish claypot (沙锅鱼, shāguō yú).
Eastern Yunnan produces the most recognizably “Chinese” food. From here comes chicken flavoured with medicinal herbs and stewed inside a specially shaped earthenware steamer (气锅鸡, qìguōjī), and perhaps the province’s most celebrated dish, crossing-the-bridge noodles (过桥米线, guòqiáo mǐxiàn), a sort of individualized hotpot eaten as a cheap snack; you pay by the size of the bowl. The curious name comes from a tale of a Qing scholar who retired every day to a lakeside pavilion to compose poetry. His wife, an understanding soul, used to cook him lunch, but the food always cooled as she carried it from their home over the bridge to where he studied – until she hit on the idea of keeping the heat in with a layer of oil on top of his soup.
Not surprisingly, Yunnan’s south is strongly influenced by Burmese, Lao and Thai cooking methods, particularly in the use of such un-Chinese ingredients as lime juice, coconut, palm sugar, cloves and turmeric. Here you’ll find a vast range of soups and stews, roughly recognizable as curries, displayed in aluminium pots outside fast-turnover restaurants, and oddities such as purple rice-flour pancakes sold at street markets. The south is also famous in China for producing good coffee and red pu’er, Yunnan’s best tea.