South of the Clouds: Introduction to Yunnan, China

Yunnan, which translates as “south of the clouds,” is China’s most diverse province, and offers travelers extreme variation: tropical lowlands bordering Laos and Burma curl at the bottom of the province, while the unsummited Meili Snow Mountain reigns near Tibet. It’s home to more ethnic minorities than any other province in China (25 out of 56), three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the deepest river canyon in the country (Tiger Leaping Gorge).

Long on the informal backpacker’s “banana pancake trail,” Yunnan shares not only borders but culture and languages with Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Tibet.

Gadling recently spent three weeks in Yunnan on a trip partially sponsored by WildChina. During that trip, we followed parts of the ancient Tea Horse Road, from the southern Yunnan tea fields to caravan market towns. Over the next few weeks we plans to introduce in detail some of Yunnan’s delights.

But first, the basics:How to get there

Though high-speed rail connections to Southeast Asia are in the works, the easiest way to visit Yunnan from outside China is by flying there. Kunming is the capital of the province, with direct flights to and from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Hong Kong, among others. Within China, domestic flights abound, and it’s possible to ride the rails from Shanghai and Beijing. For “shorter” distances, sleeper buses run between provinces — and there’s even a 40-hour bus from Kunming to Vientiane. It’s also possible to ride the bus to the Vietnam border in Hekou and transfer to a train to Hanoi on the other side of the borer.

What to do and where to visit

Your options are nearly limitless, but more popular destinations include Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-la (Zhongdian), and Kunming. You can hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, cycle to the Vietnam border, and photograph the terraced rice paddies in Yuenyang at sunrise. In Xishuangbanna, eat Dai food and wander medicinal gardens. In Shangri-La, perform koras around a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and in Dali hike the Cang Shan trail.

In most tourist-centric towns you’ll manage with English, and though traveling without any Mandarin is no doubt tough, it’s not impossible.

Read more about my travels in Yunnan here.

Though my trip to Yunnan was partially funded by WildChina, my opinions are all my own.

[Photo credit: treasuresthouhast, Flickr]