For Chinese people, ‘Yunnan’ represents everything that’s most exotic about their own country. Bordered by Tibet, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Vietnam, the province encompasses extraordinary geographic extremes: ice peaks, rice terraces, jaw-dropping mountain gorges, high-altitude grasslands and moist subtropical forests full of rare plants and flowers. It also retains a wealth of historic towns, foremost among them Dali and Lijiang, on the old Tea Horse trade route to Lhasa, where large concentrations of antique houses and temples have been painstakingly restored, recreating the refined atmosphere of the Ming and Qing eras.
Ethnic minorities such as the Naxi and Bai have a high profile in both, and in the much warmer southern half of the state where, after decades of suppression, traditional ways of life are being revived, making this one of the most culturally engaging regions to explore. However, Yunnan’s burgeoning popularity, especially among domestic visitors, means it’s essential to venture a little off track here if you wish to experience the landscape and culture without the crowds.