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Tucked into a corner of China bordered by Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos, Yunnan province is a scenic and enticing respite from the urban bustle of much of the country. Of all places to visit in China, Yunnan is one of the most criminally overlooked. Perhaps combine the serenity of the Yunnan countryside with the frenetic pace of one of the east coast megacities, for a tour of China’s myriad of cultural highlights?
However you decide to balance your trip, Yunnan province has some glorious destinations to make your China experience extra special. Here’s why you might consider Yunnan as part of your adventure.
Diversity is the watchword in Yunnan. The southeast of the region is characterised by the vivid green of the rice paddy terraces which step up the slopes of the valleys leading towards the Vietnamese border. Base yourself at Yuanyang and head out into the Hong He Valley for some spectacular rice-terrace scenery.
The landscape becomes ever more mountainous as you approach the border with Tibet, and the peaks here are the foothills of the Himalayan range. The land in this far northwestern edge of Yunnan province is buckled and Alpine, sprinkled with lakes reflecting snowbound summits, such as Lugu Lake.
The challenge of Tiger Leaping Gorge is one that many hikers will be unable to resist. The gorge itself has an incredible maximum depth of over 3.5 kilometres, and is around 15 kilometres long. The river flowing vigorously at the base of the gorge is the Jinsha, one of the tributaries to the Yangtze. The upper gorge has been made accessible by the addition of boardwalks from where you get a close up look at the roaring water and the majesty of the gorge, but to get the best out of the experience, take two days or so to complete the full trek. There are plenty of awe inspiring viewpoints and guest houses along the route.
A mellow place of beautiful old temples and classic Chinese scenery, Dali is just touristy enough. It’s a great place to soak in the dreamy vistas over the iconic Er Hai lake and the Cangshan mountains while enjoying the good variety of food, the minority Bai culture and the slightly bohemian feel of the town. Dali is popular with both domestic and international tourists but has retained a pretty and authentic charm among its cobbled streets and wooden gables.
Although picturesque Lijiang is most definitely on the tourist trail, it makes a lively base for some wonderful excursions into the delightful countryside in the area. The scenery is splendid around Lijiang, and there are several villages that make an easy trip by bike, allowing a close up and slow motion look at rural Yunnan life.
Known throughout China as the City of Eternal Spring, Kunming has a pleasant climate most of the year and enjoys cleaner air than most cities of its size further east. The moderate climate can be attributed to Kunming’s location at 2000 metres altitude, and the spring-like atmosphere is reinforced by the perpetually flowering parks and gardens and the serene Dian lake on the fringes of the city. This is a city where traditional markets and street life are still very much in evidence, though a more international flavour is creeping in.
One of the reasons Yunnan makes such a fascinating region for travel is that it is home to a huge variety of ethnic minorities, each with their own particular dress, language, architecture and customs. Yunnan boasts a mix of people so diverse that it is claimed that 28 different ethnicities live here. That’s more than half the total for the whole of China, and these groups account for around 35 per cent of the province’s population. Bai culture dominates in Dali, and Naxi in Lijiang.
Due to the proliferation of different cultures, Yunnan province hosts a wide range of festivals, and Dali in particular has a busy calendar of events throughout the year. The spring fair is a definite highlight which falls in April or May depending on the lunar calendar. It is a celebration of the arrival of spring involving five days of dancing, music, a horse market, and races. A great time to visit.
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