Thursday, January 31, 2013

18 Reasons to Travel to Yunnan in China (Part 1)

"If you have time visit only one province in China, then it should be Yunnan," declares Lonely Planet in its travel guide to China published in 2011. That same year, racers from the eighteenth season of the widely popular around-the-world television series The Amazing Race passed through Yunnan in its first few episodes. In a few months, I would find my mouth gaping in amazement as I watched Michael Palin's BBC series Himalaya, an episode of which showed the landscapes, the people and their stories from Yunnan province. The scale was finally tipped when I got a copy of Palin's memoir of his Himalayan journey. With that, I was completely and utterly sold.

Still begs the question though. What exactly about Yunnan province drew me so powerfully towards it? Here, I provide the answers. In the tradition of the 18 Oddities of Yunnan province, sort of a campaign slogan to promote tourism in Yunnan, I give you the 18 reasons for which in the one month I was traveling through China I chose to travel ever so slowly and live it all in Yunnan. This is Part One of the list. Part Two is here. Here we go.

1. The Land below the Clouds

Green Lake Park, Kunming, Yunnan, China
"Winter? What winter?" say the two lovers. (Probably not)

In Mandarin, yún means clouds and nán means below. Yunnan is literally the "land below the clouds." Because of its subtropical latitude and a highland elevation, the better part of Yunnan enjoys pleasant climate throughout the year. When the rest of China is blanketed in snow or lashed by typhoons, Yunnan basks in pleasant spring weather. The weather was the definition of perfect as I traveled through China in the winter months.


2. The Relative Inaccessibility

Yunnan and Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia but not quite

As I plowed through my research, I noticed that from Manila in the Philippines, Yunnan was somewhat hard to reach. It's either you dig deep in your pockets to afford connecting flights or you endure long hours of overland travel. I found this strange given that Yunnan is immediately north of Southeast Asia, yet transport options are very limited from Southeast Asia. Naturally, my intrepid, foolhardy and sometimes misguided sense of adventure kicked in. I had to go.


3. The Relative Remoteness

Nu Jiang Valley
Nu Jiang Valley which leads up to remote Drung Valley in Northern Yunnan
By Nez de diamamt | CC BY-SA

Yunnan province is located in the southwest corner of China, far from China's more prosperous coastal regions. It's around 3,000 kilometers southwest of Beijing and 2,000 kilometers west of Shanghai. It's so far from the political and administrative center of China that erring officials of the Chinese empire and other sort of criminals were once exiled here.

Today, many parts of Yunnan province are just playing catch-up. Drung Valley up in Northern Yunnan is sandwiched between Myanmar and Tibet and separated from the rest of Yunnan by high mountains and remote valleys. It was only reached by a road in 1999, if you can imagine that. There's just something about that kind of remoteness and isolation that draws me in so much. (Note to self: Talk to a therapist.)


4. The Tourist Trail and the Untouristy Trail

Lijiang, Yunnan, China
It's a Chinese Disneyland up in here. This is the old town of Lijiang.

Fueled by an increasingly wealthy middle class eager to find out more about their country, tourism in parts of Yunnan province is booming, as with the rest of domestic tourism in China. Places like Lijiang or Dali see millions of tourists taking over the towns yearly. Then, you go west not 200 kilometers and you get places like the Nu Jiang Valley, remarkably isolated corners of China where development is just starting to arrive. So in Yunnan, you can follow the tourist trail, like I did, and still have the option of easily veering off from it. Plus points really.


5. Snow

Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China
Zhongdian (Shangri-la) in Northern Yunnan the morning after a fresh snowfall

While it may seem rather shallow to some (even to me sometimes, actually), I went to Yunnan thinking that there is a possibility to see snow again, and this time, see it fall and see the landscape fresh from the snowfall. One fateful day, it happened. I was walking along the corridors of my hostel in Zhongdian (or Shangri-la as the tourist brochures call it) when I looked up ahead and through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows in front of me, I saw it—snow falling. It was the first time I was seeing snow fall. I have seen snow a couple of times before but never saw it fall. Snow falls slowly and ever so gracefully. The kid in me who grew up in a tropical country watching Christmas movies like Home Alone lit up and smiled. I owed him that much.


6. The Himalayas

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Yunnan, China
The easternmost bastions of the Himalayas: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Seeing the Himalayas for the first time in India and then getting up-close and personal with these same mountains in Nepal left an indelible mark on me. The landscapes and the cultures fascinated and continue to fascinate me like nothing else in this world. I wanted to see more. I needed to see more. And outside of Tibet, the only place in China I was going to experience the Himalayas again was in the mountain range's most easternmost bastions—Yunnan. It easily became the highlight of my travels to China.


7. The Wide Open Spaces

Dali, Yunnan, China
An unbelievably beautiful landscape of mountains, old towns and highland lakes.
This is Dali in Central Yunnan, viewed from the slopes of Cang Shan.

Though the high Himalayas were indeed a feature of many parts of Yunnan, places where landscapes are "vertical" rather than "horizontal" as Michael Palin would put it, I still found wide open spaces in this province. And lots of them. Wide open spaces are something I seem to yearn for having grown up and lived in a city as congested and urbanized as Manila in the Philippines. There's something so romantic, and poetic even, about looking out and seeing uninterrupted vast expanses of the land, the mountains, or the sea. You start to believe that you get a better sense of the world. And sometimes, you do.


8. The Diverse Natural Landscape

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Thailand? Laos? Not quite. That is Xishuangbanna in Southern Yunnan.
By kenner116 | CC BY 2.0

Perhaps only one province in China can in one day people stand in a snow storm on a Himalayan plateau and not a thousand kilometers south, comfortably cool off by bathing in the Mekong River. Deqin County in Northern Yunnan province, where the highway continues on to Tibet, stands at 3,500 meters above sea level. It's so cold there they get snow til late March. If you head south down the mountains into the Mekong town of Jinghong in Xishuangbanna, same month or same day even (via flying of course), you will find yourself searching for the nearest shade or pool to cool off. In March, Jinghong's daytime temperature averages 32°C as it enters the warmest season of the year. It does not get any diverse than that.


9. The Diverse Cultural Landscape

Women of Yunnan, China
Women of Yunnan province in all their colorful costumes.
If I'm not mistaken, we have here Naxi, Bai, Lisu and Muso.

Almost 50 percent of the population of China's ethnic minorities lives in Yunnan province. And traveling through Yunnan province, you will see women in full costume often vividly colorful and intricate, which they do not wear for the pleasure of tourists, but rather as part of their everyday lives. In Dali, you will see the Bai and the Yi, and the Naxi in Lijiang and the surrounding towns. The Muso, one of the few matriarchal societies left in the world, resides on the banks of Lugu Lake. The Dai whose culture is more closely related to those in Thailand and Laos can be found in Xishuangbanna. I can go on as there lots more. Isn't travel just more interesting when you meet all sorts of people along the way?


That rounds up Part One of the list. The reasons here fall into a more general category. The second part of the list will highlight more of the specific places and cultures that drew me to finally travel through Yunnan province in China. Here's Part Two.


Have you been to Yunnan province? To any other province in China? What were your reasons for heading there?


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