Yunnan Province in the People’s Republic of China is a province steeped in a rich history, as well as myth and legend. Among the Han Chinese, Yunnan has a reputation of being a wild, untamed region full of ‘uncivilized’ tribes. The name Yunnan, has been in use since the thirteenth century when China was under Mongol rule and it roughly translates as, “South of the Clouds,” which refers to it’s position relative to the Yun mountain range.
Geographically, it is a land that varies from high mountains and deep valleys in the northwest, to tropical jungles in the south. The highest peaks tower above 21,000 ft and the average elevation is around 6,000 ft. The southern part of the province feels more like Southeast Asia than China, with year round hot temperatures and palm trees aplenty. The capital city, Kunming, sits at over 6,300 ft and is known throughout China for it’s favorable and moderate climate.
Yunnan is bordered by Vietnam, Laos and Burma in the south and internally is surrounded by the Provinces of Tibet, Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou and Guangxi. The population of this region of China, is around 48 million people, making it larger than many prominent nations in the world.
Yunnan is labeled as, China’s Most diverse Province, primarily for the 51 ethnic minority groups who call the region home but also for the diversity in wildlife and landscapes. There are more than 18,000 different plant species to be found here, along with animals like the Asian Elephant and the illusive Yunnan Snub Nosed Monkey. Per capita, Yunnan may showcase the largest variety of landscapes, animals, plantlife and people in the world!
Notable minority ethnic groups
Hui– The Hui are Chinese muslims who emigrated to China over 700 years ago from Persia and other parts of Central Asia. They have intermingled consistently with The Han Chinese and their appearance has changed to match the native populations. They can be found in the smaller towns throughout Yunnan but also increasingly more so, in the larger cities. Hui cuisine is known for its spiciness.
Yi– The largest minority group in Yunnan, the Yi speak a language that belongs to the Tibetan-Burmese linguistic family. This group has a proud warrior tradition and typically practices subsistence farming in hill country
Bai– The Bai are the second largest minority group and inhabit northwest Yunnan. They have had a strong presence in and around the city of Dali for over 1,500 years. They practice a religion that combines elements from Buddhism and spirit veneration.
Wa– The Wa live in small villages in the south of the province near the Burmese border. Historically, they were known as headhunters and European explorers and Han Chinese alike, associated the group with barbarous practices. The population of this group is estimated to be around 350,000.
Naxi– Inhabiting the foothills of the Himalaya in Northwest Yunnan, the Naxi have a long history in China. The Naxi have two indigenous writing systems; the Dongba a very old script that uses some Chinese characters and Geba, a syllabic script. They are known for their elaborate dresses and garments that are made with leather from castle and sheep.
Dai– The Dai are a lowland river people who are primarily located in Xishuangbanna prefecture. They practice Theravada Buddhism and their spirituality is very central to their identity. Genetically and Linguistically, they are very much related to the people’s of Southeast Asia.
Kunming the capital city, with around 7 million people, is a bustling metropolis but perhaps one that doesn’t move quite as fast as the other large cities in China. The city serves as a great staging point for further travel throughout the province and has excellent accommodation options like the Sofitel Hotel, Cloudland hostel and The Upland Hostel. The Flying Tiger restaurant is a completely unique and must see restaurant with WWII memorabilia and commemorates the American fighter pilots who helped China fight off the Japanese.
Lijiang sits on the footsteps of the Himalaya and is the cultural home of the Naxi people. It is a tourist city and many attractions lean more towards the superficial than the authentic side. The setting however is stunning and is near Jade Snow Dragon Mountain and many small ethnic minority villages. The city is also the point in which one can coordinate a trek into The Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is the deepest river canyon in the world. The mountains in this valley, strut seemingly straight into the sky and feels like a land from myth and legend.
Dali is a backpacker’s haven. Not to far from the center of town, there are the three Buddhist Pagodas that date back to the ninth century. They scale over 200 ft in height and have been able to withstand a lot of turmoil and change that has occurred in China within the last 1000 years. Dali has an attractive old town full of shops, bars and unmodernized buildings, and is a popular place to spend a few days exploring. Renting a motorbike and riding around Erhai lake is also an alluring activity in this area.
Jinghong is the largest city in the Xishuangbanna prefecture and strongly feels like a Southeast Asia city rather than a Chinese one. Surrounded by Jungles and rolling mountains, there are opportunities to go on treks, see waterfalls, elephants and there is even a botanical garden near the city. Xishuangbanna is characterized by its strong Dai heritage. The Dai are the largest minority group here and have been building their villages by the Mekong river for centuries. They practice a form of Theravada Buddhism that is influenced by animism and shamanistic practices. If one arrives in April, there is the opportunity to experience The Water Splashing Festival which is a Dai religious festival that symbolizes cleansing and purifying. In another sense, it is essentially the world’s largest water fight and celebrates the Dai New Year. Locals and visitors alike, engage in a dousing of each other in buckets of water while in the evening fill the Mekong river with river lanterns. The Dai attend to their local Buddhist Temples for festival specific rituals and sermons to be given by the senior monks.
Important info for western visitors
English fluency in this region is notoriously low, so some knowledge of Mandarin prior to visiting goes a long way. Yunnan is not as developed nor as well traveled as other parts of China so be prepared to feel like a bit of an outsider here. In small villages especially, locals may want to take your picture and will usually do so without prior consent.
Yunnan is a storied region of China and an explorer’s haven. Not only is traveling here a true treat, it is a region that will be worth watching in the coming decades as China continues to modernize and develop itself as a world power.