The Magic of Southwestern China

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In 2010, China welcomed nearly 56 million international tourists to its country, making it the third most visited country in the world. Of these tourists, many of them stayed on the eastern coast of the country, visiting large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Many may have even made it as far inland as Guilin or Xi’an, but very few venture further west in this large and imposing country.

Sitting in the southwestern corner of China, Yunnan Province is one of the countries most breathtaking; however, only three million international visitors made their way to the province in 2010, the majority of those from other Asian countries.

Honestly, this is really a shame. I know that six weeks in China doesn’t make one an expert, but I found my two weeks in Yunnan Province to be by far the most interesting and relaxing during my time in the country.

Bordering Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Tibet, Yunnan Province is easily one of China’s most diverse, both ethnically and physically, because Yunnan Province has the highest number of ethnic groups in China and is China richest area of bio-diversity. That being said, minority groups and diverse landscapes don’t necessitate a must see tourist destination, so why should your next trip to China include Yunnan Province?

The Golden Horse Memorial Archway in Kunming, China.
The Golden Horse Memorial Archway in Kunming, China.

Well, one great reason is that there is a something for every traveler.

Kunming, the provencial capital, is a vibrant city of over six million and features all the trappings of a large city, sans the tourist crowds and touts. Compared to the other cities I’ve visited in China, Kunming is positively relaxing. Even coming there straight from Laos, one of the most laid-back countries on earth to travel in, Kunming barely raised my blood pressure. It’s true that there is no must-see site in the city proper, but it is a great gateway city to the rest of this fantastic region.

If minority villages and charming towns are you thing, Yunnan has two fantastic destinations: Lijiang and Dali. While both are crawling with Chinese tourists and the cities have been heavily restored, neither have lost their charm. With winding alleys, classic Chinese scenery, and fascinating people, there is much to explore in both cities.

An alley in Lijiang, China's old town. The side-streets are refreshingly empty despite the tourist hordes.
An alley in Lijiang, China’s old town. The side-streets are refreshingly empty despite the tourist hordes.

When I visited Venice, Italy, a few years ago, one of the most visited cities on earth, peace and quiet were just a few streets away.  In the same way, it’s possible to avoid the crowds by moving even one street away from the main passageways. When you do, it’s still possible to see locals going about their daily lives, much as they have for hundreds of years amidst fabulously restored old buildings.

If it’s beautiful scenery that you’re after, southwestern China has some of China’s most beautiful landscapes. From giant stone forests, to beautiful lakes, to snow-capped mountain, there are countless places to explore. Some of them, like Jade Dragon Snow Mountain are crawling with domestic tourists, making it hard to find any calm. Others, however, like Lugu Lake or Tiger Leaping Gorge (pictured above), are huge open spaces that are rarely visited by tourists.

Of course, there’s also the fantastic weather. While most of eastern China is sweltering during the summer, the majority of Yunnan Province is relatively cool. With an average elevation of nearly 2,000 meters, Yunnan Province is a wonderful restbit from the humidity of China or southeast Asia.

So, when planning your next trip to China, make sure to include a trip to China’s hidden corner. It’s truly a magical destination.

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1 thought on “The Magic of Southwestern China”

  1. We’ve lived in Shanghai for nearly two years and recently spent two very refreshing weeks soaking up the clean air of Yunnan. We’ve traveled quite a bit around the country and this has been our favorite part so far, for the spectacular scenery and ethnic diversity. Shangri-la was our favorite spot in Yunnan thanks to its celebration of Tibetan culture. We enjoyed Dali very much also, as it felt very authentic and livable. Lijiang was the only disappointment. Coming from Shangri-la, we were expecting to find strong evidence of the Naxi culture but found very little. Sure, the quieter side streets were charming, but they could have been anywhere in China. The whole place reminded us of Yu Gardens in Shanghai. Some of the ancient villages surrounding Lijiang, on the other hand, were delightful, and it was a great base for a day trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge. I’m glad you enjoyed your time there!


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