Why You Should Visit China’s Yunnan Province

October 4, 2013 by

Asia, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

When planning a trip to China, many think about the large cities and imposing sites of destinations like Beijing, Xi’an, and Hong Kong. However, fewer consider traveling to China’s most beautiful and diverse province: Yunnan.

The unfortunate thing about Yunnan Province is how few travelers reach China’s most southwestern province. In fact, of the 56 million international tourists who visited China in 2010, less than three million made it as far west as Yunnan.

However, while Yunnan Province may time consuming to reach, travelers who take the time to visit are rewarded with one of China’s most amazing regions.

Still need more convincing? Here are five reasons why you should visit China’s Yunnan Province.

Jaw-Dropping Scenery

Blue Water and Yaks in Jade Snow Dragon Mountain

Blue Water and Yaks in Jade Snow Dragon Mountain

Yunnan Province is to China what Switzerland is to Europe or the Grand Canyon is to America. With deep gorges, towering karst mountains, and the foothills of the Himalayas, you’ll be reaching for your camera at nearly every turn.

The scenery is especially impressive in the northwestern corner of the province. Near the town of Lijiang lies Jade Snow Dragon Mountain. A collection of mountains under one name, the mountain has 13 peaks that are more than 13,000 feet, all of which are covered with snow year-round. Visitors to the mountain can take cable cars to various scenic points, including a glacier overlook located at a blustery 15,000 feet above sea level.

The lakes surrounding the mountain seem so blue that you might think God got a little crazy on Photoshop, and there are several amazing hikes throughout the area that allow you to soak up the crisp mountain air along the Himalayan foothills.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

One such hike is on the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Located an hour drive from Lijiang, the 12-mile trek through the gorge is one of the most beautiful and peaceful ways to spend two days in China. The trail clings to the mountainside of one of the world’s deepest gorges winding its way through quaint villages, flooded rice paddies, and windswept lookouts. All the while, snow-capped mountain peaks reach thousands of feet above you, while rushing river waters swirl equally far below you.

Stone Forest

Stone Forest

If it’s unusual scenery you’re after, you’ll be amazed by the Stone Forest in Shilin. Covering an area of 140-square miles, the Shilin Stone Forest features thousands of natural stone pillars that tower to heights of nearly 100 feet. Following the paths through the stone towers it’s easy to understand why they call it a stone forest.

Minority Cultures

Minority Cultures

Minority Cultures

In China, nearly 92% of the population is part of the Han ethnic group. However, within Yunnan Province, a third of the residents belong to one of China’s 56 recognized minority groups. With such a high percentage of minorities, Yunnan Province has a diverse array of cultures that can’t be found elsewhere in China.

Because Yunnan Province borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, many of the ethnic groups relate more closely to Southeast Asia than they do to China, making the region a great place to discover some of China’s lesser known history.

Of particular interest to many is the town of Shangri-La. While its name was changed from Zhongdian in 2001 in an attempt to attract tourists, the real draw of the town is its sizable Tibetan population. With Tibetan architecture, crafts, and food, Shangri-La is a great destination for those who don’t have the time or ability to visit Tibet.

Another common minority culture in the province is the Naxi. Primarily located in the tourist hubs of Lijiang and Dali, the Naxi language is the last in the world to use pictographs instead of letters. Artwork featuring these pictographs are popular souvenirs from the province.

Room to Breathe

Quiet Streets in Lijiang

Quiet Streets in Lijiang

As I mentioned above, only 5% of foreign visitors to China traveled to Yunnan Province in 2010. However, don’t expect the region to be tourist-free, as the Chinese have already discovered the beauty of the province.

In fact, it is estimated that in October 2012 nearly three million Chinese tourists visited Yunnan Province. Fortunately, though, with comparatively few western tourists, most of the region’s tourism infrastructure is geared toward domestic tourists, making the province free from many of the touts you frequently find in China’s tourism centers.

Even in major tourist destinations like Lijiang or Dali, the atmosphere is relaxed and it isn’t hard to find a quiet street.

Beautiful Weather

Sitting so close to the equator, you might think that Yunnan Province would have oppressively hot weather. However, despite being considered a tropical climate, the province’s high elevation helps mitigate temperatures.

Take for example, Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital and largest city. Despite sitting at a latitude similar to Miami, Florida or Karachi, Pakistan, its high elevation, over 6,000 feet above sea level, has earned Kunming the nickname “The City of Eternal Spring”.

While there are exceptions in the southern part of the province or in the highest elevations, expect temperatures in the province to be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter compared to the rest of China.

Ancient Cities

While places like Xi’an and Beijing may be more famous for their ancient structures, Yunnan Province has several destinations that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.

In Lijiang, meandering alleys lead to centuries-old stone bridges that cross over winding canals. Nearby, Naxi artisans ply their wares and small restaurants serve up light and fluffy baba, a traditional Naxi bread.

While the city may be crowded with Chinese tourists in the middle of the day, mornings and evenings are surprisingly peaceful, and it’s possible to get away from the tourist hordes by walking down one of the city’s many alleys. Walking through the backstreets will give you a more peaceful and authentic view of Lijiang.

Another great place to view ancient architecture is Dali. The old town of Dali was built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century and still retains much of its charm without the crushing crowds of Lijiang.

Three Pagodas - Dali

Three Pagodas in Dali

Located just outside of Dali are the Three Pagodas. Built in the 9th and 10th centuries, the pagodas rise to a height of 227 feet. Despite being made of bricks and mud, they have survived many large earthquakes that have devastated the area over the centuries. As three of the largest pagodas ever built in China, they are a must-see when visiting Yunnan Province.

Even the provincial capital of Kunming has several ancient temples tucked into the skyscrapers that dot the city’s landscape.

One such temple is Yuantong Temple. Walking into the temple grounds, you pass through the gate of Yuantong Shengjing. Roughly translated as “Wonderland”, the name seems fitting as passing through the gates takes you down the rabbit hole into a world far removed from the chaos on Kunming’s streets. Gone is the hustle and bustle of the city; instead replaced with the wafting smell of sweet incense and reverential worshippers paying little attention to the occasional tourist snapping photos.

The temple’s red-hue, turtle filled ponds, and imposing caves combine to create a temple that is as unique to the city as Yunnan Province is to the rest of China.

As you can see, Yunnan Province’s unique combination of minority cultures, ancient history, and fantastic natural beauty make it one of Asia’s most underrated destinations.

Start planning your trip to Yunnan Province before the world discovers China’s best kept secret!

Photos courtesy of Jim Cheney.

– Jim Cheney


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