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Yunnan Travel Guide

Minority Cultures

naxizu peopleNaxi minority people in Lijiang, Yunnan

There are 26 different ethnic minorities represented in the province, the most prominent being the Yi (their most distinctive celebration is the Torch Festival) and the Bai (the March Fair being their main celebration) ethnic groups, but there are numerous other colorful ethnic groups in the province, including the Dai (the Water Splashing Festival, aka Spring Festival, being their main celebration), and the Naxi, with their unique Dongba culture that has been recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage. The Naxi inhabit the area in and around the city of Lijiang especially. 


Yunnan is the southernmost, centrally-situated (east to west) province of China, bordering Tibet to the northwest, Myanmar to the west, Laos to the south, Vietnam to the southeast, and Guizhou Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to the east. It is also the 5th largest of China's 23 provinces (not counting the 5 autonomous regions and the 4 municipalities, but counting Taiwan) measured in terms of area, and the 11th largest by population.


Lijiang TownLijiang Ancient Town

Though Yunnan Province has an ancient dynastic history within China, it is by no means one of the most ancient areas of China. The province came under Western Han (BC 206 – CD 009) Dynasty administration during the 2nd century BC, though it was largely populated by non-Han minorities at the time, of which the Yi ethnic group was prominent. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), much of what is present-day Yunnan Province was organized, with the emperor's blessings, into what was known as the Nanzhao Kingdom ( 737-750 and 794-902), a Tibeto-Burman speaking kingdom that represented a cementing of several related tribes into a single polity under the umbrella of the Tang Dynasty.

The area had been under Tibetan control a century earlier, up until 702, and though the Tibetans recognized the new Nanzhao Kingdom initially, they subdued it again from 750-794, after which the area, thanks to the help of key Nanzhao chieftains working in conjunction with the Tang emperor, again became a kingdom under the Tang Dynasty umbrella. After 902, the area of Nanzhao was ruled by warlords up until the 13th century, when it was wrested from Imperial China by the Mongols. Thereafter the area remained in the hands of successive warlords all the way up to the middle period of Republic of China (1911-1949) rule, when it was occupied by the Japanese during the late 1930s as part of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which spanned WWII in the Pacific theatre. After WWII the area again became a part of China, under the rule of the PRC.


tiger leaping gorge Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world

Yunnan is mountainous throughout (it has over 600 rivers, 180 of which figure significantly, itself a testimony to the province's mountainous character), most especially in the north, with older, more time-worn mountains, interspersed with fertile valleys, that cover the karst landscape of the eastern part of the province, which is a high limestone plateau, while the western part of the province is characterized by younger mountains (the result of more recent geological faulting) with tall, sharp peaks, separated by deep ravines and narrow gorges, including Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world.

The mountains of the northeast are snow-capped year round, with glaciers at higher altitudes while virgin forests, interspersed with lakes and hot springs, predominate at lower altitudes. One of China's major ski resorts, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Ski Resort, is located here, while only about 600 km (370 mi) farther south, near Yunnan's, and China's, border with Myanmar and Laos, and thus bordering on the Tropic of Cancer, lies the tropical rainforest, Xishuangbanna, home to China's last remaining herds of wild Asian elephants, the endangered (and protected) Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkey, and home to numerous rare and beautiful plants, some endangered (and thus protected by the state).


meili snow mountain Golden sun rays over Meili Snow Mountain in North Yunnan

The weather of Yunnan Province is as varied as its terrain, with a temperate zone to the north and a tropical zone to the south, and with a subtropical zone in between. But the deep ravines and gorges of the northwest are also subtropical, the difference being that they tend to be hot and dry, while the subtropical and tropical regions farther south are hot and humid. Mountains themselves, especially the tall mountains of the northeast – exhibit an almost full range of weather zones, from a subtropical zone at the base to a temperate zone in the middle to a frigid zone near the top. Another peculiar climatic feature common to the province is that the temperature in any given region varies more on a daily (daytime-nighttime) basis than on a seasonal basis.


Major attractions near the capital, Kunming, include the following: the Stone Forest (a huge expanse of limestone outcroppings that have been eroded into the oddest, almost crystal-like shapes), and one of the world's most amazing natural wonders; the Bamboo Temple, with 500 life-sized luohans (representations of Buddhist deities) that date from the 1800s; Golden Temple; Black Dragon Pool; Daguan Park and Zheng He Park. In the city's Western Hills section are three other famous temples as well as Dragon Gate, a structure built by Taoist monks in the 18th century consisting of grottoes, pathways and sculptures, part of which offers the best view of nearby Lake Dianchi.

Stone Forest kunmingKunming Stone Forest

Throughout the province are scattered the 26 ethnic minorities, so almost every major city in the province – cities such as Baoshan, Chuxiong, Dali, Dehong, Honghe, Lijiang, Lincang, Nujiang, Qujing, Ruili, Shangri-La, Simao, Wenshan, Xishuangbanna, Yuxi and Zhongdian – represents the "capital" of one or more ethnic group, each with its separate, distinctive folk customs and colorful pageantry. Yunnan Ethnic Festivals But the most priceless "tourist attraction" of Yunnan Province is inarguably its stunningly beautiful and richly varied natural landscapes that will leave the beholder in speechless awe.

Travel Tips

Respect local customs and traditions. Many inhabitants of Yunnan are minority peoples with a wide variety of beliefs and traditional rules. In order to respect the tradition and custom of local people, please remenber the customs listed below:

  • Do not enter the room of a pregnant woman.
  • Foreign pregnant women are not allowed to enter a bridal chamber, and cannot attend a wedding ceremony.
  • Do not walk over or stand astride the fire pit when visiting a Yi nationality' family.
  • Do not eat horse, mule or dog meat.
  • Do not touch the cattle bones that are hung up in a Jingpo village.
  • Do not touch the head of a little monk.
  • Do not stand on the threshold when visiting a Tibetan family.
  • Do not enter the bedroom of the host.
  • Take off your shoes when visiting temples or Dai nationality bamboo buildings.
  • Wearing short trousers is regarded as a sign of disrespect in Tibetan areas.