YUNNAN, THE REGION
Yunnan has always stood apart from the rest of China, set high on the south-western frontiers of the empire and shielded from the rest of the nation by mountainous Sichuan and Guizhou.
Within this single province, you’ll find a mix of geography, climates and nationalities that elsewhere on Earth takes entire continents to express. These obvious charms have in recent year spurred something of a tourist boom. Though much of this is associated with the domestic market, foreigners too will find plenty of resources geared to their needs, from backpacker cafes to companies offering cycling and trekking trips, which ensure that Yunnan is one of the easiest places to travel in China.
The fairly flat, productive northeast of the province is home to the attractive capital, Kunming, a charming if high-tourist area, with enjoyable day trips to nearby scenic marvels, and easy access to the border with Vietnam. West of Kunming, the Yunnan plateau rises to serrated, snowbound peaks, extending north to Tibet and surrounding the ancient historic towns of Dali and Lijiang. Yunnan’s Deep South comprises a further isolated stretch of the same frontier, which reaches down to the tropical forests and paddy fields of Xishuangbanna, a botanical, zoological and ethnic cornucopia abutting Burma and Laos—about as far from Han China as it’s possible to be.
Dwelling in this stew of border markets, mountains, jungles, lakes and temples are 28 recognized ethnic groups, the greatest number in province. Indigenous tribes that call this province home include Dai and Bai, Wa, Lahu, Hani, Jingpo, Nu, Naxi and Lisu. Those in the south often have cultural ties with ethnic cousins in Laos, Burma and Vietnam, while the minorities in the north have strong links with Tibet. Each minority has its own spoken language, cuisine, distinctive form of dress for women, festivals and belief system. These cultures have survived decades of Han chauvinism. Today, a more enlightened attitude prevails and minority families are even allowed more children than their Han compatriots.