Travelling to Yunnan, China

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To stroll around, and not just pass through; to explore and discover, and not just sightsee. An adventure is what every traveler is in search of. Yunnan, where the average daily temperature is around 20 degrees, provides an escape for those who are looking for something special. It is a magical paradise with great natural beauty and over 26 ethnic minority groups with their own unique characteristics, making it a unique and diverse place to visit. Whether it be the ancient towns and cities or the well-preserved minority villages, historical relics and remnants of past dynasties, it remains that the visitor can always feel the mystique of days of old. The splendor of natural beauty can be found in the tropical rainforests, rivers, valleys, and mountains which make up some 94 percent of Yunnan’s total area. All this makes it a land of myth and mystery set amidst a powerful and intoxicating setting. Yunnan is exotic with an air of mystery and has risen to become one of China’s leading travel destinations. Possibly the greatest reason of all to visit Yunnan is for travel and adventure. There is so much to see and do whether it be mountaineering or just general sightseeing, Yunnan has it all. Although the province has only recently opened its borders to the outside world, it has existed for thousands of years and is steeped in culture and history. Rich in historical and cultural relics, the colorful local folklore, the various traditions, and the unique cultural life all make for a great deal of cultural interest. Trekking into minority villages and around this stunning scenery is a major highlight for many foreign visitors. The local markets and villages offer a vast cultural diversity and the people are very friendly and welcoming. With the natural beauty, cultural diversity, and the opportunity for real travel and adventure, it is no wonder that there has been a large increase in people coming to visit Yunnan in recent years.

Overview of Yunnan

Yunnan is a province in the southwest of China located at a latitude of 21°8’N – 29°15’N and a longitude of 97°31’E – 106°11’E. Yunnan is the most southwest province of China and borders Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. The province is situated on a plateau, with high mountain ranges surrounding the central part. It has an average elevation of 2000 meters. This provides for a very temperate climate with little change between winter and summer. Temperatures in the capital, Kunming, which is also the provincial capital, are around 15 °C in the winter and 24 °C in the summer. This manages to make Kunming a city with one of the mildest and most pleasant climates in China. In the southern half of the province, the weather is constantly spring-like. Passing through a great area of the province is the Jinsha River, a very deep river which is a part of the upper Yangtze River. There are also a number of other rivers which make Yunnan a very watery place with many beautiful lake regions. The far south of the province is very near to tropical and this greatly affects the quality and variety of produce available in Yunnan. Yunnan is well known for its tobacco, flowers, which are grown all year round, and its very high-quality tea. This is due to the fact that it is a suitable climate for so many various types of produce. The diversity of climate also greatly affects the diversity of minority ethnic groups in Yunnan. As with a change in area, there comes a change in culture and language, Yunnan has an incredibly rich and varied tapestry of cultures and is said to be home to half of China’s minority groups. This is what really makes Yunnan a fascinating place to be.

Why Visit Yunnan

In comparison with the quintessential China – huge cities, masses of people and few traces of antiquity and nature – Yunnan is a breath of fresh air. The province is filled with quaint towns and villages, like Dali and Lijiang, well-preserved remnants of a time long gone in the rest of China. The old town of Lijiang, situated in a river valley under the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Despite the fact that around 1.5 million tourists visit each year, it has retained a charm that’s often hard to find in China. The same goes for Dali, a backpacker haven. Both towns are home to a number of ethnic minorities and are great places to see traditional Chinese life and culture. Then there’s Shangri-La, the famous fictional paradise, made a reality in the town of Zhondian. Though the real Shangri-La was supposed to be in Tibet, the Chinese government has generously offered to relocate it in Yunnan’s northernmost region. There’s still a bit of controversy as to whether or not Zhondian had any right to change its name to Shangri-La and declare itself a tourist destination, but it’s still an interesting place to visit. Further to the east is Xishuangbanna, a region of tropical rainforests on the border of Laos and Burma. This area is home to another one of China’s minorities, the Dai people, and is a great place to escape the Chinese climate and culture while still being in China. These are just a few examples of Yunnan’s rich cultural side; there are many more places to explore and learn about.

Yunnan is one of the most beautiful places in all of China. It is known for its cultural diversity, friendly people, unique food, and tropical climate. And it’s easy to understand why so many people travel to Yunnan. In fact, it has long been a popular destination for tourists all around the world, including famous people such as Bill Clinton and Harry S. Truman.

Getting to Yunnan

There are a few different ways of getting to Yunnan, depending on your point of origin. Note that during the lunar new year festival, transportation options can be limited, as many Chinese people use this holiday for traveling. Flights to Yunnan are probably the most common means of getting there. Yunnan has international airports in Kunming and Dali, which have flights to and from various cities in the region. This is definitely the easiest way to get to Yunnan, but if you are coming from another region of China, it’s worth it to look into the price on international flights to major Southeast Asian hubs such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. Sometimes you can get a better deal on a flight to one of these cities that includes a connecting flight to Yunnan, rather than paying the high price on a direct international flight to Kunming. Check with local travel agencies for more information on international flights to Yunnan.

Top Attractions

Tiger Leaping Gorge Located 60 km north of Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge is with a total length of 15 kilometers and a drop of 3600 meters, which is one of the deepest and most marvelous gorges in the world. Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 meters wide), hence the name. Trekking is the most popular way to enjoy the gorge, which is a hiker’s paradise. The path following the Yangtze River passes through quiet and picturesque Naxi villages, offering magnificent views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and crossing different terrain from temperate rainforest to high, arid cliff. Many travelers proclaim this trek to be among the best that can be found in China.―(

Stone Forest The Stone Forest is in Lunan Yi Nationality Autonomous County, which is about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Kunming and requires only a 2-hour drive. It covers an area of 400 square kilometers (96,000 acres) and includes both large and small stone forests, as well as many other scenic spots. An old local saying says that ‘If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time.’ Truly, the site is one of the most important attractions of Yunnan.―(

Old Town of Lijiang The Old Town was once the center of the Naxi Kingdom, and what remains of the town today is the concentration of traditional Naxi culture. Located in the northwestern portion of Yunnan, Old Town of Lijiang was enlisted as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. The town, being a perfect combination of the natural landscape and the cultural landscape, is a well-preserved old city first built in the Song Dynasty. The people of Naxi have largely retained their traditional way of life in this town, and it is not uncommon to see the people dressed in the traditional Naxi costume. The town itself was built in a systematic way so that there is a stream or a spring at every street with a tree at every stream and a roof above every tree. The architecture of the buildings is also noteworthy, and the whole town has a simple and unsophisticated appearance. Due to its unique historical and cultural landscape, the town has attracted many notable people from all over the world to come and live here, and it is home to people such as the American rock singer Joseph Wwman and the Japanese pianist Maki Ishi. With the increase in tourism, the modernization of the old town has become more widespread, but it is still easy to take a stroll through the “Waterwheel on the Ten-Jetty Stream,” “Sauntering in the Suhe Compound,” or “Exploring the Shuhe Ancient Town”.―(

Old Town of Lijiang

By going to Lion Hill, one can have an entire look of the old town. Wandering about in the town, visitors will find that the entire old town is built in such a way that there is a never-ending chain of twisting and turning alleys and streets. The most well-known of these places are the four main scenic features, the most well-known being the bridges and the water wheels. It is the combination of these features that make the old town of Lijiang a place well worth visiting.

将军巷 is a main street and it is also known to be the Mu family residence. Mu is the family name of the ruler of Naxi people and an important figure to the Naxi. The residence has been developed into a local museum. A combination of the past and the present, Dongba Palace is where Dongba shaman is said to be living and in the middle of the Wanguang building one can learn about the Naxi dongba culture through dongba pictographs and text recording. These two places will give visitors a better understanding of the Dongba culture as well as the life of the Naxi people.

In December 1986, the State Council designated its old town as a national historical and cultural city. The town has a history going back more than 800 years and was once a confluence for trade along the old tea horse road. The old town has kept its traditional architecture and Naxi customs. Over the years, the local government has made efforts to preserve and develop the town so that it is a place for Naxi people to live and a place for visitors to learn about the minority culture.

Stone Forest

Vast yields of rock formations were caused by centuries of rainfall and erosion. Stone Forest has been known as the First Wonder of the World in view of a local saying, “It is a waste of time without visiting the Stone Forest when you are visiting Kunming.” An old local saying has it that “If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time.” It is a classic landform of karst terrain; the stone takes the shape of stalagmites, animals, plants, and even humans. These formations are a sight to behold: the grotesque, towering, myriad variety of shapes and formations have evoked the imagination of people, with the most infamous being the Ashima rock. The Yi people inhabitants have many old, interesting, and mystical folklores; some have been woven into tales in relation to the Ashima rock. One such folklore is the story of Ashima, an exceedingly beautiful Yi girl who lived in the village but was kidnapped by the son of the King of the Monsoons to be his wife. However, Ashima was a strong-willed lass who refused to betray her sweetheart, Ahei. In a bid to reunite with Ahei, Ashima jumped into a river while singing a song and turned into a stone in the river. The Ashima rock and Sino-foreign Ashima love have now become a symbol of eternal love and a tragic love and parting. Influences from Yi culture can be spotted during visits to the site, where stone formations, dressed in colorful costumes, would be inviting you to take a photo with them – at a cost. This has something to do with the Ashima folklore; it was a stunt to preserve a decaying culture due to globalization and provide income for the Yi people.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

The first day of trekking seems to be the most popular. A surprising number of people start out in the late morning, perhaps doing a day trip, but although this means there are lots of people on the track at the same time, most turn back in the afternoon and spend the night in Lijiang, on the fluorescent beast which is the Chinese tourist trail. You are saved from the busyness and the gorge is still and peaceful at night. Follow the road west out of Qiatou and after about 500 meters a small path winds off to the left, marked by a faded Tiger Leaping Gorge sign. You soon find yourself on a beautiful rugged path surrounded by fields of wheat and corn. After about 1-2 hours of easy walking you’ll come to a small village. Cross the stream and from this point the path becomes less clear. Ask around and someone will point you up the hill to the ‘high road’ which winds in-between farmhouses and fields, eventually going into the mountains. This ‘high road’ is well worth the extra hour of walking. The views are truly breathtaking and you are somewhere along this path, above a midsection of the gorge that is 3400 meters deep, making it one of the deepest gorges in the world. A particularly scenic rest spot is a waterfall and pool, frequented by local Lisu women washing clothes.

This magnificent and very popular trek, high in the mountains above the Yangtze River, lies some 60 km north of Lijiang. It is well worth taking the time to navigate the perilous mountain roads and infrequent transport to get there. You’ll need to set aside from one to three days depending on how rushed you are and how much walking you like to do.

Yuanyang Rice Terraces

Yuanyang Rice Terraces are located on the southern slopes of Ailao Mountain in Yuanyang County, located in the south of Yunnan Province and reputed as “God’s Palette”. Local Hani people, for generations, in order to survive and improve the better living environment, have ingeniously labored on the vast mountainous area to create the terraces. These rice terraces embody the harmony between man and nature. In recognition of this, the Ming Dynasty government conferred the title of “Skillful Sculpted Landscape” on the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces. The Hani people’s ancestors came to settle an area that was covered in primeval forest, where wild animals often attacked them. The Hani spent generations clearing the forest and setting up the 3700 terraces that make up the vast Honghe Hani Rice Terraces. These terraces, located in the southern Ailao mountains, are said to be built to reduce erosion and create flat land in an otherwise mountainous terrain. Each is still in use and has water running through it from the mountain springs or rainfall at the top. After the completion of a terrace, it is planted with rice or other crops. These masterpieces of ingenuity can be seen all around the area, the largest and most famous are located in Duoyishu Village, Bada Hani Village. Come during the right time, the sunrise and sunset on the terraces is a great photo opportunity for the keen photographer. Often in the morning when the terraces are still filled with mist, it creates a picturesque view.

Cultural Experiences

Previous visitors to China may have noticed that tea culture in Yunnan provinces differs greatly from other parts of China. This is due to a combination of factors such as climate, altitude, and the various ethnic groups. Tea is grown in many parts of Yunnan with the most famous tea area being Xishuangbanna in the south of the province. Here there are large areas of tea trees, some of which are very old and have been preserved for hundreds of years. Tea picking and the processing of tea leaves is an important part of life in many Yunnan villages. There are 16 different ethnic groups in Xishuangbanna and all have their own unique way of making tea. This has helped to establish a tea culture within the region that is different from other parts of China and has also made Xishuangbanna a popular spot for tourists on Yunnan tours.

Traditional festivals are an important way in which the various ethnic groups maintain their distinct cultural identity. Many of these festivals have religious significance and are often related to events in the regional agricultural calendar. Unfortunately, Yunnan’s rapid modernization has meant some of these festivals are under threat and are slowly dying out. However, in places such as Lijiang and Xishuangbanna efforts are being made to show tourists re-enactments of traditional festivals. For example, each April in Lijiang a re-enactment of the Naxi Shangrila festival is held at the base of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The most important aspect of this re-enactment is for younger members of the Naxi community to learn about traditional culture from older people and thus prevent it from dying out with the older generations.

Yunnan is famous for its rich ethnic diversity. The minority ethnic groups in the province have sustained a traditional way of life in village communities, often in hilly or mountainous regions. Visitors to the province trekking in remote areas get the opportunity to see these ethnic groups going about their everyday work and also have the chance to buy some of the traditional artifacts which these people produce. Some examples of ethnic villages that are easily accessed by tourists are Lijiang (a Naxi Dongba village), Tengchong (a Dai village), and Zhongdian (a Tibetan village).

Minority Ethnic Groups

At any rate, nearly all the minority groups in Yunnan have their very own language, culture, and history, which is unique and has left a mark on the province that is unmistakable in comparison to the majority Han culture. Some of these groups, which are included in the 26 minority groups, are actually part of a minority in one region of China but are listed as a separate entity when speaking of Yunnan. An example of this would be the Zhuang people, who are classified as a minority group in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Yunnan is the most culturally diverse province in all of China. The provincial government has listed 26 different minority groups in Yunnan, but in reality, there are more than 35 minority groups. Most of them dwell in the higher elevations and mountainous regions. Examples include the Dai, Bulang, and Wa who live in the southern part of the province; the Yi, Bai, Naxi, Lisu, Pumi, and Tibetan who inhabit the higher elevations around a few of the great rivers that run through Yunnan; and the Hani, who are known to be cultivators of some unique strains of rice in terraced paddies and tend to live in the higher elevations as well.

Traditional Festivals

One of the most unique festivals in Yunnan is the “less city” festival. When rural people have had a fruitful harvest and things are slow in the fields, and there are a few days to relax, families from several neighboring households will pool their money to host a festival. During the festival, it is strictly forbidden to speak the official language and people are not even allowed to enter the village if they are wearing an official coat. A mock official is selected and is given a very dummy-looking scroll and hat and is told to announce to the people when anything official needs to be done. After making a decision on a certain issue, this official must invite a spirit man to drive away bad influences while using a chicken to scrawl a picture in the dirt to symbolize current affairs. The festival lasts for several days with singing, dancing, and horse races but it is a rare occasion now.

Experiencing traditional festivals is one of the main reasons to explore the cultures and customs of the dozen or so minority ethnic groups in Yunnan. The festivals are determined each year by the lunar calendar and are fantastic, colorful, exhilarating events that usually involve several villages. Festivals are a time when people can forget their hard work and enjoy music and dance and have a good time. It also serves as a chance for young men and women to meet and find their life partners.

Tea Culture

The best known teas of Yunnan are Pu’er and XiaGuan Tuocha. The most famous tea producing area is XiShuangBanna, home to the Pu’erh variety of tea. The leaves are picked from the large tea trees that are native to XiShuangBanna. The old trees are highly valued and are only harvested every few years. The methods of cultivation and production have not changed for centuries, and the teas of this region have been highly prized commodities for generations. Any and all purchases made in XiShuangBanna should be accompanied by a “SanPing” or three gun salute. This custom has a history dating back to the tea and horse trading caravans of the ancient tea trail. The settled price negotiation would be confirmed with three white bullets or three drinks to the head of the other party. This custom continues in the tea markets where quality Pu’erh is still highly prized. Yunnan tea is the most highly regarded of all Chinese teas in Tibet. This is reflected in old Tibetan Chaguan, or tea house. These quaint establishments are adorned with intricate wood carvings and paintings of tea producing mountains of Yunnan. In the chaguan, Tibetans and Han Chinese alike drink tea from small earthenware bowls and large mugs of yak butter tea.

Practical Information

Possible rainfall should also be taken into account as it will affect the enjoyment of your visit. Rainy season lasts between June and October with half the province’s annual precipitation falling in June. It is recommended to avoid the wettest months of June and July, as heavy rains can cause floods and landslides, cutting off transportation and spoiling trekking possibilities. If you plan to visit Xishuangbanna you may want to avoid the period between April 13 and 15 when thousands of Chinese and foreigners visit for the water splashing festival, an event to celebrate the Dai new year.

Now that we’ve discussed the wonders and attractions that Yunnan has to offer, it would be beneficial to know when is the best time to visit. Due to Yunnan’s location away from the coast and high general elevation, the province enjoys a temperate climate year-round with mild temperatures. In the capital city Kunming, which is also known as the “city of eternal spring”, temperatures range between 15 and 24 degrees Celsius every month. The hottest time of the year is in July with an average temperature of 18-21 degrees Celsius. If you are planning to visit Yunnan, it is recommended to visit during the spring and autumn as temperatures range between 16 and 21 degrees Celsius. This is the time when the wildflowers bloom and the countryside is at its best.

Best Time to Visit

Yunnan is renowned for its mild climate. Located in southwestern China, the province is situated in a mountainous region, which provides every city within it with a pleasant climate. Famed as being the “City of Eternal Spring”, it’s no wonder that spring is one of the most popular times to visit. The temperatures in March, April, and May are between 8-25 degrees Celsius. This is perfect for traveling, as visitors are free from the biting cold or oppressive heat that is mentioned above. The rainy season starts in June but this is also a good time to visit due to the Bai minority peoples’ celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival. Dali has its own unique customs for celebrating the festival and taking part in one is a great opportunity to familiarize oneself with local ways. Lijiang’s old town also holds some impressive celebrations. These two towns are renowned for their access to trekking routes up into the mountains and summer is the best season for this. By escaping into higher altitudes, it is possible to find some stunning areas, devoid of tourists, close to Tibet. The rains start to let up in September and it is at this time that another wave of tourists comes in. This is also the time when the temperatures begin to get warm in the countries of northern Europe and north Asia. The prices for flights and accommodation are usually lower during off-peak seasons and so it would be advisable to visit Yunnan in the autumn as there is less rain and great deals can be found.

Accommodation Options

For those on a tight budget or simply wishing to experience the social side of travel, all the main tourist destinations have at least one or two places which offer dorm beds. These vary considerably in quality and it is always worth having a look before committing to a stay. In general, standards of cleanliness and repair of dorm rooms in China are not always what many westerners might hope for but this often just adds to the richness of the travel experience!

In Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, and Zhongdian (Shangri-La) it is definitely worth arriving without a reservation and shopping around. Here, competition is fierce and the room you are shown for X price at one hotel will frequently be bettered by another for the same money or less. Those people arriving in a group, or who are staying for more than just a night or two will find that there is nearly always some room for a spot of negotiation on the price and this can frequently result in significant discounts. With the notable exception of Chinese New Year and the fortnight or so preceding and following it when prices can double, there is usually no problem just turning up and finding a place.

When it comes to staying in Yunnan, the choices can be pretty bewildering. This is a huge province and new hotels are opening all the time. Nevertheless, the vast majority of visitors confine themselves to just a few destinations and for each of these there are a number of tried and tested options.

Local Cuisine

The cuisine in Yunnan is the most diverse in China and visitors will be able to find almost anything to suit their tastes. Different climates and locally grown produce in different areas of Yunnan like Xishuangbanna, Pu’er and Dali, means different styles of cuisine. Rice is the most important staple in Yunnan, and is used in many different ways, for example the people from Xishuangbanna prefer glutinous rice. The most famous Yunnan dishes are the ‘crossing the bridge’ noodles from Kunming, and the barbequed bean curd from Dali. The noodles are eaten all over Yunnan but are referred to as ‘crossing the bridge’ noodles as this is the name of the dish that comes with a story served in a large chicken broth with many uncooked ingredients that you cook yourself and then add the raw egg to the top. The story is of a man who would daily cross the bridge to an island to cook lunch for his wife, this man would cook similar meals everyday and she soon got bored of it and the uncooked ingredients and egg are to represent his travel. The bean curd dish from Dali is famous all over China and is a barbequed tofu, served with a spicy dipping sauce. Another must in Yunnan is to try the local cured hams which are similar to the Italian prosciutto, and the sweet flower cakes from Dali made from roses grown in the area. Local dishes aside, Yunnan’s diverse environment and large mix of minority groups means that the cuisine can be incredibly varied, for example Xishuangbanna has a large number of dai people and the cuisine in this area may not resemble the other Yunnan dishes. The area also has many different styles of mushroom, as well as some exotic meats such as insects, snake, dog and yak. All in all it is very hard for a visitor to not find something they like, and if you find that local Yunnan dishes do not suit your palate you can rest assured that there are many Western and Chinese style restaurants around catering to tourists, and top quality imported food products which can be very difficult to find in other areas of China. Local food markets are another reason to visit Yunnan for some food enthusiasts, with some areas such as Dali and Kunming having large markets that sell local produce, meats and spices. These markets will give you an indication into what foods are in season and being eaten at the time, and can be very interesting for foreign visitors to see how local people shop for food. Visitors should be wary that these markets are no different to any other market in China and the sanitation can be questionable, it’s worth a look for those with an iron stomach and a strong sense of adventure!