Southwest China: Mountains & Minorities

The Southwest of China, an area generally covering the provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou and parts of Hunan and Sichuan, is for many, one of the most fascinating regions of China. Wedged between Tibet and South East Asia, you have a dynamic melting pot of cultures, with over 20 ethnic minorities populating the remote mountains and jungles of the region.

Yunnan 云南

“South of the clouds” is what the name of this province means, which is very true, as it lies just south of the highlands of Tibet, while the southern parts border Burma, Laos and Vietnam, making this province the most geographically and culturally diverse in all of China, and is my top recommendation for a must see in China.

The northwest tip of this province is in fact part of historical Tibet, and in the town of Shangri-La (香格里拉) scarlet robed Lamas, prayer flags and nomadic yak herders are the norm. As you come slightly further south, you have Lijiang (丽江) and Dali (大理), home of the Naxi (纳西) people and Bai (白) people respectively. Both cities are very well preserved with fine examples of local architecture. Both peoples are said to be descended from the Tibetans, and the Naxi people particularly have a vibrant and unique culture, such as their Dongba shamanism and hieroglyphic script. For a fascinating account of a westerner who lived with the Naxi people at the turn of the 20th century, I highly recommend this hard-to-find book, Forgotten Kingdom.

In central Yunnan you have the provincial capital of Kunming (昆明), which has a few parks and tourist streets, but is nothing special other than either a hub for accessing other parts of the province, or a place to recover and have some modern comforts if you’ve been on the road too long. There are many very remote regions in the west of the province, such as the Nu River Valley and the Baoshan area. These areas are right in between the high mountains and low jungles, and so have a fascinating blend of cultures.

The south of the province is a massive area of sub-tropical jungle and steamy mountains called Xishuangbanna (西双版纳). The main people who inhabit this region are the Dai (傣) people. It’s no coincidence their name sounds so similar to Thai, they are in fact the ancestors of the Thai people, and the culture here is very similar to Thailand, Laos or Burma. There are also many other tribal people who live deep  in the jungle or high in the mountains, such as the Jinuo, Bulang and Hani .Jinghong (景洪) is the main town and the base which most use for exploration. Xishuangbanna is the chief producer of one of China’s greatest teas, Pu Er, which is actually named after the county to the north, although the best is grown in the “Six Famous Tea Mountains”, which are around the counties of Menghai (勐海) and Mengla (勐腊).

It’s worth noting that many villages close Jinghong are no more than tourist attractions that attract swarms of tour groups, it is advisable to hire a driver or trekking guide, Banna Café is highly recommended, while I had a bad experience with Mekong Café. Expect to pay between 300-600rmb per day, depending on services (as of early 2016).

Guizhou 贵州

Being one of the poorer provinces of China, Guizhou seldom makes it onto most traveller’s lists, which is a shame, as it is a beautiful and diverse province. The area I have travelled to is the south-east of the province, near the border of Guangxi province. Here you can find many remote hilltribes who grow rice high up in the mountains. People such as the Dong (侗), Miao (苗), Yao (瑶) and Zhuang (壮). This area is remote and infrastructure is poor, but for those willing to take the challenge, beautiful villages and colourful festivals are waiting.