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.