Yunnan, meaning ‘south of the clouds’, is a vast southern province that shares a long land border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Populated by over nine minority groups, and with 25 minority languages spoken, the culture is diverse. If visiting southern China, one should not miss out on Yunnan. Attractions are numerous.
Biologically speaking, Yunnan is incredibly diverse and well-blessed. The province is said to contain up to 50% of China’s mammals and birdlife, even though it comprises less than 5% of the country’s landmass. The diversity of flora in the province is also impressive, owing to its unique location next to the Tibetan plateau, and that it contains both snow-capped mountains and tropical zones.
The UNESCO protected old town of Lijiang must be visited. Spend hours wandering around the ancient town, with the spectacular mountain scenery as the backdrop. Listen to traditional folk music, as locals dance merrily in the squares. Go hiking in the surrounding hills. One can easily spend a couple of days here before moving on, and the most logical place would be the town of Shangri-La.
You’ll find Shangri-La north of Lijiang. Formerly Zhongdian, Shangri-La is an old town that has much in common with the neighbouring Tibet Autonomous Region, with a large part of the population being ethnically Tibetan. Although some of the old town was lost in a fire a few years back, Shangri-La has not lost its soul and vibrancy, and its unique culture is still very much alive and there to be experienced. Shangri-La is a wonderful place to visit on the way to Tibet, or as an easier, much more accessible alternative.
Heading south, Dali is another old town in Yunnan worth spending a few days. Sitting on the shores of the huge Erhai Lake, the quaint town has been a draw for adventure travellers for many years. In more recent times, the town has expanded, but by Chinese standards remains small, and the old part of the town is packed full of charm and character. Base yourself here to soak up what Yunnan has to offer. Spend time trekking in the Cangshan mountains where you’ll find serenity and awesome scenery. Walk or cycle around the shores of Erhai Lake where you’ll find many small villages and be able to sample local foods and try your hand at bartering in the colourful local markets.
One of the world’s most impressively spectacular gorges lies in Yunnan province, and it goes by the name of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The legend goes that a tiger was escaping a hunter and managed to leap over the gorge at the narrowest point, a mere 25 metres! Visit Tiger Leaping Gorge and you’ll find bright green rice-paddy terraces flowing down to a deep blue river cutting though rock to create immense cliffs jutting up on either side as visitors cling to the edges on constructed walkways and viewing platforms. Truly a spectacular sight.
In the far south of the province, lies Pu’er, famous for its fragrant tea, and south of this is Jinghong, a perfect base to explore diverse border areas. It is also possible to continue onto Laos, if you wish to combine the two countries.
Kunming, the busy and sprawling capital of Yunnan province is well connected with the rest of China, whether by rail on the country’s superb rail network, or by plane from somewhere further afield. The best time of year to visit is April to May and September. At this time, the weather is kinder, and flora is at its best.
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