Yunnan (云南, Yúnnán) is the most diverse province in all China, both in its extraordinary mix of peoples and in the splendour of its landscapes. That combination of superlative sights and many different ethnic groups has made Yunnan the trendiest destination for China’s exploding domestic tourist industry.
More than half of the country’s minority groups reside here, providing a glimpse into China’s hugely varied mix of humanity. Then there’s the eye-catching contrasts of the land itself: dense jungle sliced by the Mekong River in the far south; soul-recharging glimpses of the sunset over rice terraces in the southeastern regions; snowcapped mountains as you edge towards Tibet.
Infrastructure development makes travel here easier than ever, but you’ll need time to see it all – whatever time you’ve set aside for Yunnan, double it.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Yunnan.
Bada is one of the finest rice terraces at Yuanyang to catch the sunset at. If you only have time for one terrace, this is it.
Tumbling off the side of Kawa Karpo peak is the 12km-long Mingyong Glacier. At over 13 sq km, it is not only the lowest glacier in China (around 2200m) but also an oddity – a monsoon marine glacier, which basically translates as having an ecosystem that couldn’t possibly be more diverse: tundra, taiga, broadleaf forest and meadow. Sadly, this natural wonder is also retreating at an alarming – and increasing – rate.
Absolutely the symbol of the town and region, these pagodas, a 2km walk north of the north gate, are among the oldest standing structures in southwestern China. The tallest of the three, Qianxun Pagoda, has 16 tiers that reach a height of 70m. It was originally erected in the mid-9th century by engineers from Xi'an. It is flanked by two smaller 10-tiered pagodas, each of which are 42m high. Guided tours in English are available from ¥120.
Tucked away atop a winding mountain road up the forested hills northwest of the city centre, this serene temple is definitely one to be visited by sculptors as much as by those interested in temple collecting. Raised during the Tang dynasty in 639 AD, it was refitted in the Qing Dynasty by master Sichuan sculptor Li Guangxiu and his apprentices, featuring 500 luóhàn (罗汉, arhats or noble ones) in a fascinating mishmash of superb realism and head-scratching exaggerated surrealism.
Originally constructed in the Tang dynasty, this was once the most important temple in the Dali area. Only one of the original 36 halls remains, but reconstruction continues apace and in its forested mountainside setting the atmosphere is magnificent.
The Golden Temple Scenic Area is equal parts religious space, forest park, botanical garden and open-air sculpture museum; it covers 118 hectares on the northwestern outskirts of the city. The obvious highlight is the namesake Qing dynasty shrine, the largest bronze temple in China, which shines magnificently under the bright Yunnan sun.
Located about 25km from Xinjie, this rice terrace has the most awesome sunrises. As it's walking distance from Pugaolao it's an easy choice for the morning.
On the northern edge of town is Black Dragon Pool Park; the view from here of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is an obligatory photo stop in southwestern China. The Dongba Cultural Institute is part of a renovated complex on the hillside inside, an interesting stop for Naxi cultural artefacts and scrolls featuring the unique Naxi pictograph script.
Set inside a small nature reserve, this large cave complex is split into two – one high and dry, the other low and wet. The natural quiet of the popular wet cave is diluted a bit by bright neon lighting and a small shopping complex, as well as the drone of free motorboats that ferry tourists back to the cave mouth, but the hundreds of thousands of swallows flying around in spring and summer are a delightful touch of wildlife.