Yunnan, China: a portrait
A colorful collision with modernity
Yunnan is likely the most diverse province in China. From the tropical lowlands bordering Laos and Vietnam to the vaunted plateaus and snowcapped mountains shared with Tibet in the Northwest, Yunnan hosts four seasons year-round. In the west, mountain peaks regularly rise 3000m above the valley floor leaving snowy peaks within ~100 lateral meters of palm trees, separated by cliff walls worthy of Alex Honnold’s most ambitious outings.
The diversification is not limited to topography. Yunnan has the largest diversity of plant life in China, home to greater than half of its plant species. The province also houses 25 of China’s 56 recognized ethic groups including the Yi, Bai, Hani, Tai, Dai, Miao, Naxi, Tibetans, Sui, and many others - representing 38% of the population, the highest in China. This ethnic diversity breeds a colorful tapestry of architecture, languages, scripts, religions, and traditional wear unique amongst many of China’s typically Han-dominated provinces.
It short, it’s worth the trip.
Below are some observations from a 10 day trip starting in the capital city of Kunming and meandering northeast through Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-La, and the Tibetan borderlands around Meili Snow Mountain.
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Kunming - The Capital City
In our approach, the focus on renewables was tangible. The colossal wind turbines dotted the mountains surrounding the city; slopes, not lush like those anchoring Taipei or Chang Mai, but more barren - similar in tone to the reddish-brown of dryer summer climates like Utah. Sneaking up the hillside to meet the turbines was a ceaseless torrent of reflective, silver paneling. I knew Yunnan was rapidly becoming the renewables capital of China, but the scale was staggering. The capital city appeared a small island lost in a sea of sparkling silver waves.
Our host approached us with a charismatic greeting and warm smile revealing teeth stained from decades of smoke and drink - proud badges and unavoidable collateral damage from ascending the business ranks of China’s wild west at the turn of the millennia. In many ways, he was a modern cowboy. He moved west twenty years prior in search of opportunity: dabbling in ventures as varied as furniture manufacturing, grapes, hotel management, and, most recently, a travel agency focused on customized experiences. He had the gift of relationships: an easy conversationalist backed by an arsenal of war stories from the rough and tumble years of decades past. He appeared in his early fifties, a face worn with wrinkles paired with noticeably calloused hands, not estranged from hard work. However, the gold watch and Louis Vuitton belt hinted at the favorable yields from such efforts. His was a journey which dovetailed perfectly with Jiang Zemin’s 2000 mandate to “go west;” a proclamation from Beijing to catalyze capital and expertise from the east towards China’s inland provinces which always seemed 10 years behind.
Despite the recent economic headwinds, he was optimistic about Kunming’s prospects - pointing to tailwinds from tourism, renewables, and a favorable location as a gateway to the growing commercial exchange with Southeast Asia.
The highway to the city was a patchwork of modern Chinese suburbia - massive, uniform apartment blocks raised in flocks of 10 or 20 at a time - interwoven with the still visible “countryside” dwellings - haphazard, organic, sometimes windowless two-story structures strewn together in collections of multi-colored brick, closer in character to those of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Along the drive, I realized the waves of shimmering silver I saw from the plane were not, in fact, solar panels, but a sort of protective film covering for crops.
“Flowers” our guide says in Mandarin. “Kunming is the second largest flower market in the world, only behind Holland”.
Dou Nan Flower Market & Distribution Center
The countryside dwellings gave way to denser uniform apartment blocks which relent to the colorful skyscrapers which our lane, along with countless others, weave through in the manufactured ease of modern Chinese infrastructure.
As we pulled off the highway, the skyscrapers gave way to a neighborhood feel. Trees lined the streets - a familiar sign of affluence in a dry region. Restaurants surrounded Dian Chi lake nestled at the base of a picturesque mountain. It’s quite peaceful, particularly in the evening. As the provincial capital, Kunming has a notable density of government buildings - easily spotted by their imposing, brutalist architecture which has surprisingly grown on me over time.
As is so often the case in China, the highlight was tasting the local flavors. Our first stop was at a revered retail spot notable for its mastery of Guo Qiao Mi Xian - Yunnan’s famed rice noodles. The format is adjacent to hotpot, but with less emphasis on the broth like in Sichuan. The broth is not constantly heated like traditional “huoguo” but is delivered standalone accompanied by a tray of fresh ingredients. Flowers, mushrooms, vegetables, spices, beef cuts, abalone, rice noodles and more. I shamelessly dumped in the full gauntlet. The result was a sort of hotpot meets ramen chimera, accentuated by distinct western (Chinese) ingredients.
Mushrooms, in particular, are Yunnan’s specialty. Scavenging wild mushrooms has emerged as one of the larger agricultural exports. The fungi rank among the expensive delicacies in Yunnan, next to high quality Pu’er tea and the cordyceps harvested from the Tibetan mountains. Driving out passed Yunnan Da Xue (University), through an industrial zone to the foothills of a small mountain range, we arrived at an unbranded restaurant renown for its local scavenging monopoly. There we sat, on small stools at outdoor stables, surrounded by locals chainsmoking cigarettes and clanking beer and baijiu glasses as the plates of wild mushrooms arrived in droves. I’m going to be honest, I have no idea how to tell certain mushrooms apart from others, but the diversity across the plates was tremendous. The complementary dishes of cow intestine, beef jerky, fresh cucumbers and rice cakes could not hope to compete, callously pushed aside to make room for the mushroom parade which danced on through the evening.
For any APAC mushroom lovers traveling to Kunming, please DM me for the name of the establishment. It is very hard to find, but second to none in what is likely the world’s mushroom capital :)
The Train to Dali
The next morning we found our seats on the highspeed rail connecting Kunming to the mountainous regions of the northwest. The vast expanses between cities is where the delineation between tradition and modernity is most stark. The infrastructure itself is a feat to behold. Roads carved into the mountain side, bridges jumping cavernous drops, junctions and trains weaving from village to mountain pass - cutting through wind farms, active mines, and a mesh of tired factories and small farms dotted by a spattering of countryside homes. The urban tourists whizz past at 250 km per hour.
There is something surreal about the contrast: the high speed rail, a marvel of modern engineering, within a stones throw of those toiling away in the red soil. As they have for centuries, millennia perhaps. A tacit acknowledgement by the inhabitants of the airconditioned fuselage of the need for “common prosperity” - the tantalizing, if distant, hope of a second Chinese miracle to bring the next 700 million into the country’s expanding middle class.
The journey is interrupted by long blackouts through the heart of reddish, green mountains. The dark silence interrupted by a quick buffeting every time an opposite train speeds by unseen. Tunnels near the Tibetan border can stretch beyond 10 km in length - a testament to both a mastery of civil engineering and the lengths the government has gone to to connect many estranged, rural communities.
The train itself is sleek and clean - similar to intercity travel in Japan. The cabin interior, however, highlights the differences. The respectful silence is replaced by animated conversation - some loud, some soft, many on wechat, competing to be heard above the cabin’s Avant Garde crescendo in the background.
Dali comes into view.
It is a small, neat city tucked in between Erhai Lake and the swelling mountain rage to the north: a first taste of the altitude beyond its northern border which flows down from Tibet.
Half of the city - the half away from the mountains - is plagued by resi-condo developments, skyscraper hotels, and other neon-adorned retail which is common in many of China’s tourist destinations. Fortunately, the unwelcome intrusion has been contained. Dusk reveals a distinct break between the natural and neon as the sun sets behind.
The city is a success story of preservation, mandating new structures on the historic side of the lake must conform to the ancient Bai style now synonymous with Dali.
The uniform off-white exterior crowned with arched, grey tiles stand guard against the neon intrusion, preserving the narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets to which the city owes its draw.
Within the traditional facades, however, the honeycomb has been invaded by boutique cafes, street vendors, costume sellers, and restauranteurs inevitable in any popular tourist destination. The ancient architecture framed within the mountain range behind and the green rice paddies rolling down to the fringes of the lake is crack cocaine for aspiring “wang hongs” (Chinese term for internet influencers) in search of a dopamine rush. Heavily made-up women in local costume prance through the rice paddies, closely followed by diligent boyfriends or hired professionals in search of the perfect shot for a post to Douyin, Weixin, or XiaoHongShu.
After ordering a coffee on a second story overhang to enjoy the view, my veranda was taken over by a pretty young woman and a pudgy photographer who stood directly in front of me - no less than 6 feet away for >30 minutes - in search for the perfect photo. My initial irritation turned to comic incredulity and finally ended with an odd appreciation at the audacity. The single-minded determination of ones interest, unconstrained by the heightened awareness and etiquette to which my mind had been trained.
This was one of the consistent trends of the trip. A country in flux. A collision of tradition and modernity: both in the obvious, tangible sense (the high speed rail through the farms, influencers coming ancient streets, Tibetan monks donned in Air Force Ones) - but also in the evolution and bifurcation of societal norms.
The most stark, perhaps, was the delineation within the private and public spheres. Within family or work relationships, many young Chinese are the embodiment of honor and duty: acutely aware of their place in the hierarchy and engaging in many tacit and explicit gestures of respect (from extreme devotion to parents and grandparents all the way to small things like “jinging” (toasting) the relevant seniors at meals and using the correct designation). However, this heightened awareness often seems completely lost in the public domain.
The tension is at odds with greater uniformity elsewhere where it seems public and private norms are more aligned. The more formal flavors which blanket much of Japan say, or the more casual norms which govern both spheres in the U.S.
In China, the awareness and courtesies reserved for close relationships did not seem to apply elsewhere. From the wang hongs in the rice paddies, to the live streamer rambling a thirty minute monologue in my ear over dinner, to the drones hovering above the heads of lakeside diners, considerations of public space seemed almost non-existent. I assumed it was simply different norms, but couldn’t help sensing a small hint of calculated dismissal. A trained thickness of skin in a Darwinian market of 1.4 billion to go after what one wants. The triumph of self expression and self-interest in the domains no longer expressly governed by millennia of tradition which not even Mao could banish.
As I looked at the model in front of me, I was actually a bit envious. A skill I need to cultivate.
Lijiang - The “Switzerland of China”
Lijiang is a ~2 hour train ride north of Dali: a cute, ancient town at the foothills of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
On arrival, the increase in elevation was tangible (~2,400 meter elevation). The June night had a refreshing crispness. Equally surprising for a relatively small, well-preserved city was the density of cabs. Hundreds of green cars line the streets with not aggressive, but persistent drivers angling for business in numbers that would make a New Yorker envious. Our hotel was about ~30 minutes away and ended up being ~24 RMB, the equivalent of US$3.
Aside from the natural beauty, the city’s architecture is worth appreciating.
The density and breadth of the old town is impressive. The UNESCO world heritage site forms a modern maze - the interior formed of Naxi-style homes with angled, tiled roofs and white facades which carve down from the city’s acropolis to the old town’s main plaza. Like Athens, the city comes to life at night - throwing open its more commercial hinges for thousands of visitors which flood its streets daily.
The vibe is mixed. Towards the top of the acropolis, the maze is graced by local restaurants and quaint bars, balcony’s overlooking the ancient rhythms and lighted outline of the city below. The mood is quiet, magical even - with views accentuated by solo artists strumming harps or guitars, replaying love-sick Chinese favorites. More European in tone.
Closer to the old town’s center, the vibe is… different. A hyper-commercial orgy of bodies, strobe lights, and loud music flanked by “copy and paste” stalls hawking cheap goods from the same three manufacturers. “Jiu ba jie” (“bar street”) offers a glimpse into the worst of these excesses.
The unending stream of tourists shuffle down the ancient canals at a snails pace, curiously examining the large glass windows on either side. Each pane offers a different flavor of cringe: flashing neon lights and aggressive on stage performances - fist pumping, jumping, fog guns, backup dancers, you name it - yet completely at odds with the docile behavior of the guests, all seated, scrolling through social media.
It was… it was almost as if no one was actually having fun - not the performers, the backup dancers, nor the guests. There was simply no exchange of energy between the parties which is the hallmark of a good performance. Everyone seemed to be doing what they were “supposed to be doing”. A weird Truman show of spiraling memetic desire. A 21st century “wang hong-laden” version of the Emperor has no clothes. The first wave of tourists posts their selfies at Jiu Ba Jie, so the second wave follows and so on, despite the seemingly forced nature of all the various participants behind each window pane sitting in silence as the screams and lights ricochet off the walls around them. An ancient China meets millennial doom scrolling meets Khaosan Road blend of horrors.
Shangri-La was more palatable.
Shangri-La - Paradise in the clouds
During the ride north, the architecture morphs from the Naxi off-white to a decidedly Tibetan style. Larger, neutral colored boxes with various shades of brown and slanted square roofs. The interior and frontal façade often contain intricate wood carvings, while the sides are coated with ~18 inches of thick clay plaster for insulation - keeping the home cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The houses and plots are much larger than just two hours south; accentuated by the large glass coverings often constructed over the courtyards to shield against the harsh winters. Yaks and meandering cows roam liberally into the two lane highway cutting through picturesque farms and plains. Temperatures drop quickly into multi-layer territory once the sun begins to set - even in June.
In town, the density rivals Lijiang. From the city’s acropolis - crowned by a beautiful Tibetan temple and an adjoining ~60 foot prayer wheel - the rectangular square roofs hide many of the narrow pathways and intricate woodwork beneath, not matching the beauty of their shingled southern cousins.
From below, however, the city more than holds its own. The layers of wood and stone, generous use of wool fabrics and thick carpets, and the decidedly winter weather flavors - from Yak meat dumplings to hearty soups - provide a Tibetan, mountain-town feel, in sharp contrast to settlements just two hours south.
The people of the plateau.
My lack of enthusiasm for the coarseness of Yak meat was countered by my newfound love of “su-you-cha”. This delightful concoction - literally translated “Yak Butter Tea” - is a blend of Yak milk, Yunnan tea, and local oils served in both sweet and sour variations; the perfect drink to complement a crisp walk through old town. The drink would sell like hotcakes in Williamsburg in late autumn, leaning into the Tibetan brand no doubt.
Powered by the calories lent via untold cups of the warm nectar, we boldly ventured from the comforts of our lovely “minsu” into the borderlands facing Tibet. Many tunnels remained under construction, so we elected for a six hour drive north. A journey filled with violent fluctuations in altitude: from the valley floor with ~103 degree heat through an elevated mountain pass at >4200m facing one of Tibetan Buddhism’s more revered peaks, another 2000 meters above.
The rural highlands experience was on full display. The elevated roads carved from the mountain side often neglected guardrails, cars passed each other with surgical audacity overlooking 1000 meter cliffs. The restroom stops were often little more than a slanted half-pipe running from the floor to a howl in the wall; requiring a bucket of water to manually splash the interior towards the nature beyond. The congregating flies were often the worst part.
And still, it was worth it.
Given their revered station in Tibetan culture, summiting the peaks of Meili Snow Mountain is forbidden. Each morning at around 6am, the sun emerges to illuminate the highest peaks, beams of light sparkling off the snow and slowly creeping down the rest of the face before the small mountain towns clustered opposite emerge from the darkness. There is something divine about the experience. The cold wind rattling the prayer flags as the spine illuminates, standing guard over the terraced farms for centuries.
In the afternoon, the clash of epochs is visible once again. A group of 30 older Tibetan locals have traversed the mountains to pay their respects - completing full-bodied prostrations amidst a deep, rhythmic chanting. Twenty meters to the left, a young woman in a small white dress is gesturing in front of a phone stand. The battle rages - her tolerance of the cold is admirable, but the gusts sweeping down from the plateau knock at her phone-stand while the rattling prayer flags behind drown out her high-pitched narration. She calls an audible, shifting to a handheld selfie stick, monologue now reduced to smiling, nodding, and cute waves.
The weathered Tibetans pay her no mind as the chanting continues, pressing their faces to the cold ground in what has to be at least the 100th time. There is no sign of an end to their procession as we head back to a small bed and breakfast for an unfortunately diluted su-you-cha.
Developing the West
On the return, our driver explains the trek from the mountain villages surrounding Meili Snow Mountain to Kunming used to take as long as a month - a journey which today can be made in as little as one, rather long, day.
The monumental project of developing the west is well underway - trains, highways, bridges, and airports - galloping across the frontier to the benefit of hundreds of millions previously at the mercy of mother nature - isolated from the modern wonders of healthcare, running water, and markets.
And still, the relentless march of modernity is not without its downsides.
On the way out of town, we swung through the Gadansong Zanlin Temple in Shangri-La. A beautiful, white Tibetan complex - smaller but similar in aesthetic to the famous Potala Palace near Lhasa.
As we ascended the flights and stepped over the floorboard into the temple with reverence, the respect I had witnessed the prior day on the mountain top seemed to languish. A multi-generational pursuit of wisdom and self-mastery giving way to secular, commercial realities. Many young monks could be observed playing on smart phones during prayers. Older monks had set up a booth and appeared to be selling “indulgence” candles for blessings. AliPay and WeChat QR codes were strung up liberally alongside other cash collection jars in front of the golden statues. One monk went up the stairs ahead of me, pulling up his robes to reveal a new pair of Air Force One’s.
I’m not sure if this is a one off or the natural blending of Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese folk religions emphasizing luck and financial outcomes or if the central government’s crackdown in Tibet and insistence on the “Sinicization of religion” or some combination is responsible, but the small corruptions were discouraging.
I have little patience for romantic nostalgia about the good old days. While rather boring, I’m a firm believer in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now thesis. That decade after decade after decade, the post-enlightenment march towards modernity has generally been an unmitigated force for good - towards literacy, limited child mortality, longevity, higher living standards and happiness. A move from subsistence toil towards high speed rail. In China’s southwest, this happy transition is well-underway.
However, that does not mean there aren’t pockets worth preserving - environmental, cultural, and religious. Yunnan has more such pockets than most.
If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to check out my prior “portraits” for city’s below:
Until next time,