If just one of China's provinces, special administrative and autonomous regions could be said to best represent the country as a whole, it would probably be Yunnan. Granted, Yunnan is not part of the traditionally delineated Han ethnic Chinese heartland, named after the golden age Han Dynasty dating from 200 BC to 200 AD, but for diversity of landscapes and ethnicities, Yunnan is the perfect symbol of China today.
We'll start with the landscapes, because Yunnan stretches from one extreme to the other, namely the high-altitude edge of the greater Tibetan plateau to the steamy jungles where the mighty Mekong River forms the border with Myanmar. In between is a landscape punctuated by places of astonishing beauty, such as the lake at Dali, karst limestone pinnacles, soaring pagodas, verdant green rice paddy terraces and secretive towns surrounded by mountain valleys that spawned the legend of Shangri-La. As mentioned earlier, these diverse landscapes are also home to a wide range of China's minority ethnic peoples (25 of the country's recognised 56 ethnic groups, to be precise), from the Achangs to the Zhuangs. This ethnic and cultural cocktail certainly adds to the spice of life on Yunnan holidays, and on the subject of spice, the cuisine in Yunnan also packs a delicious punch, albeit not hitting the chilli-ed heights of neighbouring Sichuan province.
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So where to go and what to see in Yunnan? The provincial capital of Kunming will likely feature on your itinerary and it's one of China's more manageable cities. Low-rise (well, relative to many cities in China), low key and laidback Kunming is worth a short stay to explore its ancient temples and not so ancient craft breweries.
Aside from the capital, we'd recommend visiting the lakeside town of Dali, once a western backpacker fixture and now a favourite for domestic tourism, but still a soulful setting where fishermen fish with their cormorants.
Further north in Yunnan is the charming old town of Lijiang (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but again local tourism has blossomed so the streets can be crammed. As so often (and in keeping with our regular mantra) if you nip one or two cobbled lanes parallel to the main drag you may well find yourself away from the hordes. Even better, we can arrange trips out of the city entirely and up the surrounding valleys where you will definitely experience beautiful solitude.
Keep heading north and you come to first the picture (and hike) perfect Tiger Leaping Gorge and then Xianggelila, the inspiration for the literary creation of Shangri-La: the mythical perfect valley and city; to the extent that the Chinese authorities have actually renamed the town Shangri-La. As before, our guides can get you off the beaten track with walks in the surrounding countryside.
For more picture-perfect scenery, this time quintessential rice paddy terraces, head south of Kunming to Yuanyang. Keep going and you're into hill country home where you can hike to visit hill tribes closely related to those across the border in Laos and Sapa in Vietnam.
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