Free Yunnan? What I Learned About China’s Wild West

The south of China quickly led me to the southwest of the Mainland: Yunnan province. Currently the most traveled and the most awesome of China’s 22 provinces (I’ve been to 15 of them…just sayin’), Yunnan is a pleasant surprise after many lonely but lovely weeks lost in Ming dynasty courtyards while dodging the electric bikes in the heavy, bold and booming world of eastern China. I stayed for a month. Having just spent a week in Guangzhou with one of my best friends from Montreal who was in town for the Canton Fair, and still missing my backpacker buddies/soul-mates from Yangshuo, I was feeling kinda bummed to continue my journey alone. But I don’t think I spent more than a half a day by myself in Yunnan. I had to sneak off to cafes to do some writing. It was tricky to pry myself away from all the fun just so I could get some solitude. 

The only real city in Yunnan is its capital, Kunming. You’re bound to pass through this city en route to south-east Asia, and if you plan on conquering western China, whether you like it or not (which you probably will) end up having to stay at least a night or two in Kunming. An hour in Kunming and I realized that this province was somethin’ else. For starters, in the cab ride to the hostel I wasn’t blinded by neon lights, there was space on the wide-open road. Walking around the market the next day with my new Canadian friend we discovered many wonderful things. Non-instant coffee. Fresh mint. And cheese! Apparently these things are grown locally in Yunnan. Having lived in Korea where one of the only things grown locally is ginseng and a few super awesome fruits, and in eastern China where the only thing on your plate you can be pretty sure is from less than 100 miles (kilometres…sorry!) away is the meat, seeing these 3 staples of the modern western diet made me dance. My Canadian friend thought I was weird (rightfully so) but I explained to her just how rare this is in my world. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. 

Another thing is that Yunnan is made up of a lot of minority people. This is still the case in most of western China, and Yunnan was my first experience with this world. About 94% of the Mainland is one ethnicity, the Han people (the more Chinese looking Chinese people), the rest are minority groups who have lived in China for centuries but could probably never run for office. In the 6% minority population, there are over 50 different groups. One of these minority groups is the Tibetans. There are the “Hui” people (Chinese Muslims), and the Uighurs in the north-west of China who look more like Central Asians than Chinese.

Also, I think they just started counting the western expats last year, my friends in Beijing got a census form. But in Yunnan province, 1/3 of the population is a minority (except in Lijiang, where I think the tourists outnumber the locals 3 to 1). You can see bits and pieces of the remaining 6% light up the province with their traditional clothes, funky headwear, and festivals. There’s the Dai, Lisu, Jingpo, Miao, Naxi, and even Tibetans in the notorious town of Shangri-La. All with different traditions, looks, foods, and villages making the province a little (maybe a lot) extra special.

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Let me get back to this cheese thing. There aren’t enough emoticons and exclamation points I can use to express just how exciting it is to find local cheese in Asia. From my east Asian experience (and uncountable second-hand knowledge of the southeast) cheese is simply meiyo at the markets. 

After a few nights of sleep in cloudy Kunming…by the way ÈYunnan” literally means “cloud south” in Chinese. Even on sunny days (it was never not sunny for me in Yunnan) I could always find some clouds resting on a mountaintop.  So I left the city and took the bus to the southern-practically-in-Vietnam town of Yuanyang. This county is home to about 10 different minority groups as well as some of the most kick-ass scenery ever. Rice fields, all ankle-deep in the water year-round can be seen for miles throughout the countryside. At sunrise and sunset, they sparkle. I met some more soul-mates and spent one day in Yuanyang just trekking up one area of the terraces, helped along by the kindness of the hard-working locals. Paying a 60 Yuan (10 dollars) entrance fee to one of the observatory’s for sunset was the only imperfect part of the day. 

The next day I returned to Kunming with new friends, I booked my ticket to the next place and ate more cheese. I had completely forgotten that just a few days prior I was annoyed to leave Guangzhou, and worried that I would not be able to top the amazing experience I had in Yangshuo. Over goat cheese and chilies we talked about where we’d been, where we wanted to go, and I told them that Yuanyang was definitely the most inspiring place I’d visited so far in China. 

Then I went to Dali.

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