The remote agriculture Yunnan Province lies deep in China’s southwest. With its beautiful eastern Himalayan scenery, its ancient trading town, and the vibrant cultures of many ethnic minorities (members of almost half of China’s ethnic groups live here), it is one of China’s most unique destinations.
Northern Yunnan was once part of the powerful 8th-and 9th-century Nanzhao, or Southern Kingdom. Its ancient capital Dali is perfectly situated between lovely Lake Erhai and the towering Cang Mountains; some of its city gates and pagodas date back over 1,000 years. Wooden houses are still built in traditional style, with gables and painted eaves, and the town’s Bai minority wear bright costumes and bonnets in pink and scarlet. Twelve miles along the lake, the small town of Xizhou has been trading horses and tea since the Tang Dynasty and is the location of the Lindon Centre – an inn and culture retreat of sorts, offering paintings, photography, and writing programs. From here, visit Shaxi, with its Old Town of beautiful Bai architecture and a Friday market that harks back to the days of caravans on the trade route to Tibet.
Somme 90 miles northwest, 2,000-year-old Lijiang was once the end of Tibet’s trading route between India and China. The delightful market village is the culture center for the ancient Naxi people, a matriarchal tribe whose women run the markets and inherit all personal property while the men raise the children. At the center of a strikingly beautiful area, the canals and cobbled lanes of ancient Lijiang have become a charming home base from which to explore Yunnan’s ethnic and cultural diversity, especially if you can score a room at the newly inaugurated Banyan Tree Resort, the region’s most stylish eco-friendly lodge. Outside town, black Dragon Pool Park boasts a lakeside tea pavilion, just the spot for viewing the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains.
Beyond Lijiang, the Yangtze River turns sharply to form the 18-mile-long Tiger Leaping Gorge – one of the deepest in the world – offering a challenging trek and extraordinary scenery. Beyond, the newly anointed Shangri La Country (formerly Zhongdian Country) is believed to have been the inspiration for James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Sunlight gleams on golden temple rooftop at GandenSumtselingGompa monastery, snow-capped mountains loom, and a sense of ageless tranquillity greets visitors.
Many visitors to Yunnan start at the provincial capital, Kunming, nicknamed the “City of Spring.” It’s a laid-back town with pleasant weather and is known for its popular day trip to Stone Forest, a dramatic landscape of limestone rocks sculpted by wind and rain. Xishuangbanna, tucked between Myanmar and Laos in southwest Yunnan. It is home to another two dozen ethnic minorities and is a tropical holiday destination often compared to northern Thailand. It is characterized by forested hills dotted with Buddhist temples and is home to China’s last remaining elephants and tigers.
WHERE : Kunming is 744 miles/1.200 km northwest of Hong Kong: Dali is 874 miles/1,407 km northwest of Kunming.
BEST TIME : Climate is mild year-round; rainy season Jul – Apr; Jul for Gyalthang Horse Festival in Shangri-La.