Fragrant teas, robust arabica coffee, orchids, stone forests and frozen lakes are but a few of the many delights that await travellers to Yunnan province in China.
Situated along the southwestern frontier, Yunnan has much in common with its neighbours Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos. Characterised by a rich diversity of landscapes, from the snow-covered peaks of the Tibetan highlands in the north through the central plains traversed by three of China’s major rivers – the Yangtse, Salween and the Mekong – to the volcanic plains and tropical rain forests in the south, Yunnan is home to one-third of China’s ethnic minorities. Due to its relative isolation Yunnan largely forged its own path and was little affected by the internecine wars that ravaged northern and central China for centuries.
Kunming, the capital of the province, is a laid back city even though its streets are crammed with a chaotic melee of buses, pedestrians and scooters.
Markets offer an eclectic variety of goods including pink frogs, tarantulas, canaries, swords and relics of the Cultural Revolution.
Not far from Kunming lies spectacular Shi Lin. Fossils recovered in the area indicate that Shi Lin lay under the sea some 270 years ago and, once the sea had retreated, the weather was left to work its magic on the remaining limestone seabed.
Resembling a petrified forest, the extraordinary formations have equally bizarre names such as “Everlasting Fungus” and “Wife waiting for Husband”.
The Shani people, one of many subgroups of the Yi minority who populate the southwestern area of Yunnan, live predominantly in the area surrounding Shi Lin.
They are master embroiderers, and their traditional costumes are a riot of colour. Although Yi society was largely feudal well into the twentieth century, it has well-documented histories of the ruling families and numerous dissertations on medicine and shamanism.
North of Kunming lie the charming towns of Dali and Lijiang, home to the ethnic minorities the Bai and Naxi respectively.
Within the city limits of both Dali and Lijiang the areas that were once the heart of the ancestral villages are well preserved, and the cobbled streets, small shops, market places and stone houses conjure up wonderful images of traditional life.
The Bai are mostly fishermen and farmers and market days in Dali are vibrant affairs where the locals catch up on news and trade everything from scissors to yaks. Women, particularly those of the older generation, are attired in traditional garb and different ways of tying their outer clothing denote the marital status of the wearer.
Lijiang’s old town – Dayan – has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Charming stone bridges lean over small canals, the cobbled streets are lined with the workshops of craftsmen and wooden houses and to this day men gather in the market square to play cards, chat and to show off their eagles and hawks.
The Naxi minority honour Lijiang as their spiritual capital. Very much a matriarchal society the women run the businesses and head up the families while men are relegated to whiling away their time gardening and playing music.
“Dongba” is the name for both the Naxi religion and the Naxi script. The Naxi script, consisting of over 1,400 pictograms, is the only hieroglyphic system in use today. The Naxi religion is polytheistic and is a strange mixture of Buddhism, Tibetan Lamaism, and animist beliefs. To this day Shamans and sorcerers still preside over certain festivals and events.
Traditional clothing is still prevalent amongst the older generation and the design and colouring of their beautiful shawls represent elements of nature such stars, daylight and the eyes of a frog.
Whether it is rice terraces, magnificent flora, deep gorges, spicy local fare or Buddhist temples that interest you, Yunnan province is an alluring and magical place with an abundance of rich and tantalising diversity and well worth a visit.