Yunnan – Western China’s fascinating province |

Yunnan – Western China’s fascinating province

First-time travelers to China usually visit China’s Great Wall, the Clay Soldiers in Xian, take a trip up or down the Yangtze River between Beijing and Shanghai.

An addition may be a side trip to Hongkong or a sailing trip down the Li River in Guilin.

But wherever they go, tourists typically stick to the eastern portion of China.

Lately, travelers have shown growing interest in visiting the more remote western regions of China, in particular Yunnan Province, starting with its capital, Kunming.

Old timers may remember this city as the terminus of the WW II Flying Tigers “Over The Hump” from India and Burma to supply the Chinese forces fighting the Japanese Army.

With a population of 45 million, Yunnan has the largest number of ethnic groups (25 of them), comprising about 38 percent of its people. One of these groups is the Tibetan Naxi (“Nah-shee”), whose language and customs are similar to those living in Tibet proper. Parts of this province belonged to Tibet prior to 1949.

I chose this area to visit rather than Tibet for a number of reasons, including the fact that the altitude is not quite as high as Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.

I joined seven other California travelers on a Ritz Tour in May 2008 for a two-week excursion into this fascinating corner of southwest China.

Our trip began with a one day transit in Hongkong and a short flight to Guilin, where our Chinese tour guide met us. “Vivian” was a young woman from Shanghai, who spoke fluent English. She accompanied us for the entire trip in China.

From Guilin it was but another short flight on a local Chinese Air Line (Dragon Air) to Kunming for an overnight stay.

But the real adventure started when we arrived in Lijiang, a small town by Chinese standards, and the cultural center of the Naxi.


Lijiang is a city and county at 8,500 feet elevation, with a population of 1 million, including 300,000 Naxi. The city of Lijiang, which is more than 800 years old, has been designated as a United Nations World Cultural Heritage Site. The Old City has narrow, cobble-stoned streets, making it fun to walk, visit funky shops and restaurants, and get lost in its maze.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

This mountain, at 14,000 elevation, is holy to the Naxi people. It is located just outside Lijiang and is reached by a long cable car ride; we were grateful that the cabs were enclosed, since the temperature dropped rapidly as we rode higher and higher. I was glad I had piled on all the clothes I had brought for this trip. We stayed at the top for about one hour, occasionally using the small oxygen canister that we carried. We were in the snow and the view was truly awesome.

Clouds quickly moved in and out. It is a very popular spot for tourists, many of whom frolicked in the snow, which they had never seen before, but there were very few foreigners among them.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Located about halfway between Lijiang and Shangri-la – heading north – we arrived at this scenic spot on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River after a three hour ride on a narrow two lane road. First we descended 498 steps to get to this spectacular viewpoint. The Yangtze River here is very turbulent and forceful and it has cut a deep gorge into the surrounding mountains.

My upper leg muscles were really sore just from going down, and I hired two young men to carry me back up by a chair lift (one man in front and one in back lifting the “chair” with slings over their shoulder). I considered the US$15 (100 yuan) a bargain and well worth it. They were happy, too, since I tipped them generously.


There are three different places that claim this name after James Hilton’s famous 1930 novel “Lost Horizon,” but only one has adopted the name officially. It also is known as Zhongdian or Diqing in China. We spent most of a day here, visiting the Songzan Temple (no photos allowed), the largest Tibetan monastery outside Tibet and patterned after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Eight hundred monks live in this monastery compound. The elevation here is 11,000 ft. This is yak country, where the wealth of people is measured by the number of yaks they own. We had a taste of yak butter (not bad Ð very rich and providing energy) and Yak tea along with our meal in a large Community Hall and then saw a performance by another minority people.

Stone Forest

This is a National Park located in Shilin, about an hour’s drive southeast from Kunming. The limestone formations here are breathtaking and many of them are named after animals because they resemble an elephant or camel, etc. Instead of walking here for hours, we rented a motorized vehicle – sort of a large golf cart – driven by a Minority woman of the Yi tribe.

There are many scenic spots along the way where enterprising Yi women rent out their colorful tribal garments to visitors for a Kodak moment.

Political unrest

The Chinese government had placed restrictions on travels into Tibet as well as around the Shangri-La area in April because of political unrest in and near Tibet, but lifted them by the time we started our trip in May.

There were no demonstrations in the areas we visited, which have been part of China or Tibet at various times in the past.

We saw a lot of new Tibetan style houses being built here. They are simple and practical: The ground floor houses their animals and shelters them from winter’s cold, while the first or upper floor consists of the family living quarters.

If there is a loft, it is used to store things. They use a lot of rocks and large stones – no concrete foundations – and local wood and other native materials erected with very cheap and mostly unskilled labor.

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