Yunnan Travel Guide

Yunnan is one of China’s southern provinces and perhaps its most diverse. It borders Burma to the west, Laos and Vietnam to the south, and Tibet and Sichuan Province to the north. While it’s easy to get to, getting around Yunnan can be tough due to the terrain.

Yunnan translates as ‘south of the clouds’ and is well known for its many ethnic minorities. The influence of the Tibetans in the northwest is particularly pronounced, not least for the high mountains that are so prevalent on the Tibetan Plateau itself. The province is divided into prefectures and autonomous regions.

Kunming is the bustling Yunnan capital. It sits roughly in the center of the province and is directly connected to all China’s main cities by air. It has modern malls and nice hotels and is also somewhat of an expat and backpacker hangout. The nearby Stone Forest (Shilin) is the main attraction in this region.

East Yunnan is one of rolling hills and gets busy with visitors opposite the popular tourist havens of southwest Guizhou province. Expressways cross this region from Nanning in the southwest from Guangxi. The little visited southwest of Yunnan backs onto Burma and is mostly forested or barren, while the southern portion is more inline with Southeast Asia, remaining warm year-round.

It starts getting rugged in the west of Yunnan the more north you head. The terrain here keeps rising and is the loneliest of the province. The UNESCO Nujiang Valley starts from the town of Liuku and hugs the Burma border. It has some of the most stunning scenery in all of China with the Nujiang Gorge the highlight.

The most impressive part of Yunnan is without doubt the northwest. It borders Burma, Tibet, and southern Sichuan and is mountainous almost on the order of the Himalayas. The town of Dali is the main gateway to this region, a busy center with an airport and cheap backpacker digs. Up from here is Lijiang, a delightful old town with World Heritage status for its ancient architecture.

Zhongdian (one of the Shangri-Las) is more northerly again and has Tibetan tendencies, along with nearby Deqin, gateway to Snow Mountain.

The most reliable weather is in April/May and September/October. Yunnan is best visited by air and Kunming’s Wujiaba Airport is the main hub. Flights arrive from Beijing (3 hours, 10 minutes), Xiamen and other major Chinese centers, as well as from cities throughout Southeast Asia. Trains serve from Nanning (Guangxi), Guiyang (Guizhou), and Chengdu (Sichuan), while buses run along expressways also from these provincial capitals.****