Yunnan literally means “south of the clouds” so, if you’re looking for a heaven on earth, Yunnan may be as close as it comes. Whether you fancy hiking up the misty mountains, relaxing in a backpacker’s paradise, studying China’s ethnic minorities, or marvelling at the majesty of ancient Chinese towns, a trip to Yunnan will be time well spent. From the mountainous regions of the north through to the canyons in the west and the plateaus in the east, Yunnan’s geographical, biological, and ethnical diversity are unmatched throughout China.
In a place bursting with as much variety as Yunnan, it’s unsurprising that its climate is changeable. One of the Eighteen Strange Wonders of Yunnan is that “the same dress can be worn for all four seasons”, as the weather is so unpredictable that you can sometimes wear the same outfit throughout the year and sometimes require four different outfits for just one day. So if you’re taking a trip to Yunnan, be sure to pack your winter coat, raincoat, sunglasses, and scarf! In the south of the province, temperatures in the summer months can regularly exceed 30°C although, on average, temperatures range from 21 to 27°C (70 to 81°F) in the summer and 8 to 17°C (46 to 63°F) in the winter. Since the province is mountainous, the weather can also change depending on how high up you are as the altitude between regions can vary by up to 3,000 metres (9,800 ft.)!
Thanks to this unusual climate, numerous plant and animal species thrive throughout Yunnan. It is home to over 17,000 species of plant and also to China’s only community of Asian Elephants. If you want to catch a glimpse of these shy giants or the rare Yunnan golden monkeys, you’ll have to hike through the canyons and scale the mountains of the province, as they won’t be found in any zoo! Living in harmony with this myriad of wildlife, Yunnan is officially home to 25 of the recognised 55 ethnic minorities in China, including the Hani, Dai, Lisu, Lahu, Va, Nakhi, and Blang people, and unofficially is said to have communities of over 51 different ethnic groups.
Over 38% of Yunnan’s population is made up of ethnic minorities and this makes it the second most ethnically diverse province in China. Many of the minorities in Yunnan have been allowed to practice their customs uninterrupted for hundreds of years, with the exception of Yi slaveholding and Wa headhunting of course! The Chinese government realised, unsurprisingly, that these practices might deter tourists and perhaps violate a few human rights, so abolished them. No matter where you are in Yunnan, you’ll never be too far from one of the many cultural festivals celebrated by these minorities. Imagine marvelling at the acrobatic majesty of the Lisu people during their Knife Pole Festival, taking in the crackling lights of the Yi people’s Torch Festival, or dousing your friends in buckets of water during the Dai people’s Water Splashing Festival!
Since it is the most southwestern province in China, Yunnan borders Guangxi and Guizhou in the east, Sichuan in the north, and the Tibet Autonomous Region in the northwest, but shares most of its border with Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. This makes it the perfect place to end or begin your travels in China, as it acts as a gateway between these Southeast Asian countries. But I know what you’re thinking; what does Yunnan have to offer you?
Well you could hike along the infamous Tiger Leaping Gorge, marvel at the alien shapes of the Stone Forest, or scale the heights of the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. If adventure holidays aren’t your thing, you could study the ancient buildings in Lijiang Old Town or Dali Ancient Town. And, if you fancy taking a walk on the wild side and experiencing a culture far removed from your own, you can always visit the Dai communities in Xishuangbanna, the Tibetan settlements of Xamgyi’nyilha (Shangri-La) County, or the Yi villages near Chuxiong. With all of these spectacular choices on offer, you could spend a whole day just deciding where you want to go!