Yunnan is the place for epic diversity, in more ways than one. About half of China’s 56 official ethnicities call this region home, while the Tibetan foothills give rise to mountains pushing 6,700 m (21,900 ft) and then swoop down to colorful rice terraces and immaculate gorges and river basins. If there’s a landscape you want to see, you can probably find it in Yunnan. Bio-diversity is big here too: one quarter of the country’s flora and fauna can be found in the Nujiang River Valley alone.There is too much to talk about in Yunnan and even more to do, so start turning these pages and figure out where you’re going to head to first. Just remember: the province is peppered with old villages that are so relaxing it can be hard to leave. But if you don’t trek a mountain or two or hop on a bike to hit the spectacular countryside scenery, your trip to Yunnan will fall seriously short.
From the time the warrior-emperor Qin Shihuang first unified China in the 3rd century BCE, Yunnan was considered a wild frontier, defined by an ethnic melting pot of “barbarians” and an imposingly rugged landscape. The early emperors’ uneasy grip on the region dissolved in the 7th century when the Nanzhou and Dali Kingdoms forged their own legacy and grabbed control of the southern Burma-India Silk Road trade routes established by the early Chinese emperors. When the Mongols thundered into the region (and later Burma) in 1273, the province was incorporated into China as Yunnan for the first time.
The province remained secluded for many centuries, but it has undergone major modernization in the last couple decades. That said, the distinctively Southeast Asian feel has hardly abated since the days of Nanzhou and Dali rule.
Mandarin is spoken by the majority of Yunnan residents, but for many of them it’s a second language. Tibeto-Burman languages make a big appearance here among groups like the Naxi (and their Naxi language), while other Sino-Tibetan languages besides Mandarin and Tibetan include those of the Lisu and Dai.