Yunnan province in southwest China is a cultural corridor unique to the country: half of China’s ethnic minorities call the province home. Yunnan is also a reservoir of biodiversity, with landscapes ranging from high-mountains in the north to remnants of rain forest in the south. An increasing number of tourists have begun frequenting the area due to these unique features, traveling between the numerous small villages and larger towns that fall within the province’s borders.
Should you decide to make Yunnan, China a destination of yours in the future, consider the guide below, authored by ethnographer Gaetan Green, which may help to frame your visit.
North and Northwest Yunnan:
Nested on a plateau overlooking the Mekong valley and surrounded by steeped mountains, the village of Cizhong is home to a well-preserved Catholic church. The structure was re-built by French missionaries in 1911 following anti-Christian violence and was transformed into a school during the Cultural Revolution, thus spared from destruction. Cizhong locals – Tibetan-speaking Lisu people – will always welcome you in their guesthouses with open arms (and will offer you their home-brewed red wine in the evenings!).
Shaxi is an ancient trading post on the old Tea and Horse road that linked Yunnan to Tibet and South-East Asia. The heart of the town was recently restored, and a walk through the cobblestone streets around the market place feels like a warp in time.
Most visitors travel to Shaxi on a day trip from Lijiang, though it’s definitely worth staying overnight in one of the multiple guesthouses. Doing so will give you an opportunity to see the town without hoards of tourists around. Try to time your visit for the end of the week as well; the Friday market is a must-see.
Before it became an important stop on the Tea and Horse road, Weishan was the capital of the Kingdom of Nanzhao. While commercialization and tourism have increased tremendously, the historical core of the town still has an incredibly old and authentic feel, with ancient buildings and cobblestone streets.
A walk from the Gongcheng Gate (built in 1380) through the Xingcheng tower and to the vestiges of the south gate will allow you to marvel at traditional Chinese architecture. You’ll also have an opportunity to see and enjoy the many food stalls that line the street, most of which display their freshly cut noodles hanging to dry.
Yet another important stop on the ancient Tea and Horse road, Yunnanyi is now home to Yunnan’s most well-preserved inns, some of which were overnight stops for old caravan leaders. During WWII, the fields south of the village were transformed into a military airfield and a local museum tells the story of the US soldiers who flew there from British India in order to supply the Chinese armies with materials for their counter-attack against the Japanese. Today, Yunnanyi is relatively untouched by tourism, making it a wonderful and unique place to visit.
In the heart of the busy town of Jianshui lies an unsuspected and remarkably well-preserved old town. Walking through it, you’ll have a chance to see numerous water wells still in use today. Other highlights include the Zhu Family Garden (a maze of courtyards and beautiful gardens in the heart of the city), the Confucius temple (one of the largest in China), and the Chaoyang Gate.
Four-hundred years ago, a Chinese merchant fell in love with the village of Tuanshan, nestled in the middle of sprawling green hills and surrounded by fertile red soil. He settled there and other Chinese families joined him, developing quite a wealthy community. Today, the cobblestone streets are still lined with old mansions and lush gardens, and though it does cost to enter the village (40 RMB), a visit is absolutely worthwhile; in Tuanshan, you glean a unique glimpse into history.
Heshun was once a stop on the Jade and Tea and Horse roads, which linked Yunnan to Burma and other Southeast Asian countries. Many Heshun natives left the village on these trade routes and the area is now known as the ‘Hometown of Overseas Chinese’ as it primarily attracts Chinese tourists from abroad. Though quite rural in landscape, Hushun hosts a large library unique in structure, demonstrating the importance paid to education in both the past and present. Walking through the streets, you will find adobe mansions which appear to defy time and homeowners are known to open their courtyard to tourists.
Of all the aforementioned villages, Lushi is probably the most off-the-beaten-path. Built on a gentle slope and surrounded by mountains, the cobblestone streets that crisscross the village have been polished by the passage of horse caravans. In between the adobe and wood houses, some of which are more than 300 years old, there is an impressive view of the mountains and the scaffolding of tiled-gabled roofs.
This village was a particularly important post on the former Tea and Horse road. Tea that was once grown locally was transported to Dali, where it was transformed into the famous Tuo Cha to be redistributed throughout Yunnan and Tibet.