Yunnan, with a population similar to Spain at 46 million, is the most southwestern province of China, bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. It is relatively isolated at the fringe of China’s Southwestern border. In terms of geographical diversity, it has tropical rainforests in the south and snow capped plateaus in the north.
The average elevation of Yunnan is 1,980 metres (6,500 ft.). This rich geographical variation and remoteness lead to one of the highest concentrations of plant species and ethnic diversity in China. Many cultural enclaves are shielded from the dominant Han culture.
Almost half of the Mainland China’s 56 recognized minority groups can be found in Yunnan’s spectacular landscapes, making it the second most ethnically diverse province after Xinjiang. Major ethnic groups include the Yi, Bai, Hani, Zhuang, Dai, and Miao. Together, they account for over 34 percent of Yunnan’s population.
Their presence are marked with clear visual distinctions, from the way they speak, dress, to the dwelling they maintain. This cultural diversity coupled with its complex terrain makes Yunnan a favorite subject among Chinese traditional literature and folklore.
The beauty of this Dali kingdom, as described by Jin Yong, blends fantasy with snippets of historical facts into a world rivalling Garden of Eden and Skuhavati in purity and spirituality.
One such story that captured the hearts of many is about China’s greatest strategist and statesman, Zhuge Liang, and the Yunnan Conquest he led in 225 AD to pacify Yunnan’s tribes led by Meng Huo. This expedition, as detailed in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, begins with descriptions of Yunnan as a faraway place with dangerous terrain, exotic customs, and unpredictable weather patterns.
Upon entering the region, Liang’s army begin to suffer from diseases and raids from tribal guerillas. Strange sights and unusual landscapes induced fear among the army and challenged their morale. Eventually, through Liang’s military prowess and knowledge of the nature, he navigated successfully through the hostile territory and led his army to victory. He prevailed and won the loyalty of the tribal leader Meng Huo by capturing and releasing him seven times in a row.
Other works include fictions by one of the greatest wuxia (“martial arts and chivalry”) novelists in modern Chinese history – Jin Yong. His works, regarded as the gold standard of the genre, makes famous the ethnic tribes of Yunnan and their witchcraft. The exotic herbs of the Miao tribe, in particular, are to be feared owing to their ability to manipulate the minds of even the most powerful protagonists.
One work in particular, the Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, tells a story about a prince of the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan region. The beauty of this Dali kingdom, as described by Jin Yong, blends fantasy with snippets of historical facts into a world rivalling Garden of Eden and Skuhavati in its purity and spirituality. Jin Yong’s ability to blur imagination and reality greatly expanded Yunnan’s mystical allure to generations of readers ever since his first publication in the 1950s.
With a history going back more than 1,000 years, Lijiang Old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once a central hub for trade routes in the southwestern part of China.
Dali and its nearby Erhai Lake can be reached along the G56 highway northbound from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city. This route passes through arid highlands, rolling hills, and lush pine forests. Aside from the amazingly diverse sceneries, the route also passes through several small and medium villages each with its own characteristics.
One such village situate in a valley in the Hengduan mountain range flanked by magnificent rice terrace and narrow dirt roads. It features irrigation system inhabited by a type of ray-finned fish referred by the locals as Nukian. A small restaurant is located in one of the wooden houses beside the terrace. On that particular day, they served Nukian fish, wild vegetables, and herbs harvested earlier in the morning; all of it is deceivingly simple and incredibly fresh.
Moving further north, we reach Lijiang and the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. In the part of the Old Town of Lijiang, the narrow and hilly streets are paved with cobblestones and lined with canals and traditional residences. With a history going back more than 1,000 years, this old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once a central hub for trade routes in the southwestern part of China.
Like many other historically significant landmarks in China, Lijiang Old Town is witnessing an influx of tourists. The growth of a tourism industry in recent years have displaced a portion of its original inhabitants. Nonetheless, many of the Nakhi people, the primary ethnic group in the region, still resides in the areas of Old Town secluded and protected from the busier streets of commercial establishments.
Enriched by a rich history celebrating the beauty of the region, Yunnan is fast becoming one of the trendiest tourist destinations witnessing double-digit growth rates in its tourism sector.
Yunnan, translated literally as “southern clouds”, is a fitting name for its geography. Enriched by rich history celebrating the beauty of the region, Yunnan is fast becoming one of the trendiest tourist destinations witnessing double-digit growth rates in its tourism sector.
With the Chinese tourism sector gradually opening its door to investments by foreign tour operators, it is likely to see more infrastructures dedicated to the support of foreign travellers who wishes to visit Yunnan in the near future.
As increasing amount of money and tourists flow into the region, it is inevitable that local dynamics will change to adapt to the new economic reality. Interactions may take on a more rehearsed and stereotyped flavour while local experiences may be more carefully scripted into a travel package.
Accompanying this increased commercialization, however, comes increased accessibility. With effort and patience, one should find it not difficult to cut through the facade to build meaningful experiences.