Yunnan (云南) is a province of the People’s Republic of China, located in the far southwest of the country spanning approximately 394,000 square kilometers (152,000 square miles). The capital of the province is Kunming (昆明) . The province borders Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Vietnam.
Yunnan is situated in a mountainous area, with high elevations in the northwest and low elevations in the southeast. Most of the population lives in the eastern part of the province. In the west, the relative height from mountain peaks to river valleys can be as much as 3,000 m.
It has the highest number of ethnic groups among all provinces and autonomous regions in China. Among the country’s fifty-six recognised ethnic groups, twenty-five are found in Yunnan. Some 38% of the province’s population are members of minorities, including the Yi (彝), Bai (白), Hani (哈尼), Tai (泰), Dai (傣), Miao (苗), Lisu (傈僳), Hui (回), Lahu (拉祜), Va (佤), Naxi (纳西), Yao (瑶), Tibetan, Jingpo (景頗), Blang (布朗), Pumi (普米), Nu (怒), Achang (阿昌, Jinuo (基诺), Mongolian, Derung (独龙), Manchu (满族), Shui (水), and Buyei (布依). Ethnic groups are widely distributed in the province.
Speaking about Yunnan, there are a couple of things that will automatically flash in my mind: the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain ( 玉龙雪山) , natural caves and rock formations, Lijiang Impression performance by five hundred local farmers and workers, ancient cities of Lijiang (丽江) and Dali (大理) , and naturally gifted singers performing their folk songs about their lives.
We arrived at Yunnan through its capital city, Kunming. The weather was just nice for us. Kunming is reputed as a “spring city” as it has spring like weather throughout the year. Kunming is the political, economic, communications and cultural center of Yunnan, and is the capital of the provincial government. It was important during World War II as a Chinese military center, American air base, and transport terminus for the Burma Road. It is the leading transportation hub (air, road, rail) in South West China, with a rail connection to Vietnam and road links to Burma and Laos.
Nevertheless, the city did not leave much impression in my mind as it seemed to another typical Chinese cities after Beijing. Modern buildings were everywhere. The traffics were as chaotic as any cities. The air was polluted and dusty. Having said that, the Kunming authority has put in a lot of efforts to transform the city into an Eco-town. It could be evidence by the solar energy usage in the city. Almost every building in the city was equipped with solar panels.
The area around Kunming is the territory for the Yi (彝) people. Traditionally, women of the Yi people work in the fields to support the family. The men enjoy good leisure lives playing music, playing chess, reading books and making painting. It seems bizarre in our modern society, which emphasize on women’s rights. However, it has been the way of life for the people here, even until these days.
Nearby the city, there were magnificent natural attractions, such as the Western Mountain Dragon Gate (Longmen), Jiuxiang Scenic Area (昆明九乡风景区) and the amazing rock formations in Stone Forest (石林 Shilin).
The Western Mountain Dragon Gate is situated on the west bank of the Dianchi Lake. It was built on the steep rock hills, the carved stone Dragon Gate consists of the major part, which was cut in the years from 178l. Each of the statues and temples were painstakingly carved onto the rock at high altitude. Jiuxiang is known as the museum of karst caves, which boasts its caves as the largest in scale and number (there are about a hundred karst caves) and has the most wonderful in-cave scenes in China. Stone Forest is a UNESCO listed site of remarkable Karst geography. The impressive rock formations around the area have made it a tourist attraction for people around the world.
From Kunming, we took a four hours coach tour to the ancient city of Dali. The scenery during the journey was not less impressive than the Dali City itself. Along the journey, steep mountainous terrains, folk houses, farms and cone fields were sceneries that kept visitors from getting bored in the long journey. One could imagine how difficult the people in the past who need to travel from one city to another without modern vehicles and road facilities, which could take days and months for them to arrive at their destination.
City of Dali was unique in its own way. The city is located on a fertile plateau between the Cangshan mountains to the west and Erhai lake to the east. It was traditionally settled by the Bai minorities (白族). Dali is the ancient capital of both the Bai kingdom Nanzhao, which flourished in the area during the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Kingdom of Dali, which reigned from 937-1253.
Probably the most famous landscapes in Dali are the three Buddhist Pagoda build during the Tang Dynasty. The pagodas were believed to be able to suppress natural disasters, especially earthquake and flood. The Pagodas are current located into the Chong Seng Temple, which was built at the later date. Chong Seng Temple consists of main temples located at the top of a hill behind the pagodas, and a huge Chinese garden surrounding the three pagodas. The compound is so huge that shuttle services need to be prepared for visitors intended to visit the main temples at the hilltop.
We stayed right in the heart of ancient city, which has been converted into shopping streets with countless shops, restaurants and pubs. Because of the presence of the western pubs and restaurants, that features western-style food, music, and English-speaking business owners, the main street is named as the ”Westerners’ Street” Influx of tourists in the recent years has brought about new lives to the old city. New working opportunities in tourism and retails were created, attracting locals and outsiders to move into the city.
Dali is predominantly occupied by the Bai people (白族). They have unique building design preference. Majority of the walls of the bulidings are in white colour, with considerations been made on the direction of sunlight, and effects of wind to the occupants. Our hotel was a typical Bai architecture, with garden, walking paths and lotus ponds. Although we were only there for one night, it was my favourite hotel during our stay in Yunnan.
From Dali, we continue our journey to our last destination Lijiang city (丽江市), where a well-known UNESCO heritage town lies.
Lijiang city is very much a typical modern city with large department stores, complexes, shops, banks, offices and restaurants. However, it has a very unique heritage old town in the city. The town has a history going back more than 800 years and was once a confluence for trade along the old tea horse road. The Lijiang old town is famous for its orderly system of waterways and bridges. The old town of Lijiang differs from other ancient Chinese cities in architecture, history and the culture of its traditional residents the Nakhi ( 纳西) people.
Lijiang old town, rebuilt after devastating earthquake in 1996, was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in December 4, 1997. Since then, the local government has taken more responsibility for the development and protection of the old city. Lijiang’s tourism also boomed, and travelers from around the world flooded in. Although many locals fear that due to much of the development, the old town of Lijiang will lose its appeal. Nevertheless, despite the invasion of external cultures, credits must be given to the local authority for making such an excellent job in preserving the original buildings and roads of the ancient city.
Lijiang is largely occupied by the Nakhi ( 纳西). They are thought to have come from Tibet, and traditionally maintained overland trading links with Lhasa and India. They have the same tradition as the Yi people, where married women will work most of the days except during Chinese New Year, while the men will have all the time to enjoy themselves.. Of course this tradition will slowly change as the new generations start to adopt the new values and cultures, when Lijiang opens it’s door to the outside world.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5596m) near Lijiang was one of the main reasons I joint the tour to Yunnan. Having been to Jungfrau (4158m) and Mount Kinabalu ( 4095m), Jade Dragon Snow Mountain would be the highest altitude challenge for me. The cable cars took us to 4506m above sea level, and the visitors were allowed to walk on the wooden path leading to 4650m point. Although we did not climb the mountain by foot, the fact that I could walk at the highest ground above the sea level provided me with personal satisfaction. It was an early autumn, hence there was no snow except at the peak. The sky was clear and the views were really magnificent. Nevertheless, rugged rocky terrains, strong wind and the lack of oxygen up there reminded us about the harsh condition, and that Mother Nature was not to be taken lightly.
After descended from the snow mountain, there was another highlight in Lijiang waiting for us. A massive performance knows as the “Lijiang Impression?(印象丽江) was simply amazing. The show was choreographed by the legendary Chinese director, Zhang Yimou (张艺谋). The use of Jade Dragon Mountain as the backdrop was an excellent idea. Instead of hiring professional performers, local people who were farmers and workers were trained to carry out regular performances to the visiting tourists. It has shown that there are so many hidden talents in this big country, and one would wonder what surprises the Chinese are to bring us next.
Lijiang is also home to the Jade Water Village and Dongba cultural centre. These are other attractions not to be missed while visiting Lijiang.
After Lijiang, we headed back to Kunming, before taking an international flight home. Our journey in Yunnan was brief. There are still many places and things in Yunnan that we have not seen. Nevertheless, the passion of the people in defending their original ways of life left a deep impression in me.
There are locals who have lived in this land for lives, who have never been to the outside world. However, they seemed to be happy. Life has not changed much since hundreds of years ago, while the outside world strives for fast progress. Ironically, the Yunnan culture is considered “new” and “unique” to the outsiders just because it managed to avoid the so call “progress”. Perhaps we should re-examine what we are looking for in the name of progress. While creating innovations and new ways of live, we need to be careful not to forget our roots. Traditions need to be preserved so that people have even more choices, more variety in life, and create more colours to our world.
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Date visited: October 2009