I don’t know how I got myself into this. I’m putting my right arm in, my right arm out and shaking it all about. It’s our first night in Yunnan and we’ve been goaded into a rendition of the hokey-pokey by our persuasive hosts. Little did we know this was how the evening would end up.
We are travelling the length of Yunnan with Canadian explorer Jeff Fuchs. Having spent the good part of a decade here, he is the perfect guide to introduce us to this unique province – diverse in its topography (from its subtropical south, bordering Burma, Laos and Vietnam, the province rises to a snowy 6,740m on its north-west border with Tibet) but most of all, in its people: half of China’s ethnic minorities live here.
We start the trip in the southern region of Xishuangbanna. Tonight, Fuchs has taken us to the Aini ethnic minority village of Nongyang. To get here, we’ve trekked through forests populated by 250-year-old tea trees – hunched, gnarled, and covered with a patchy grey-green bark, they resemble a huddle of wizened pensioners. On arrival, the villagers greet us with tea from these ancient organisms – yes, the night starts off innocently enough. But once we go inside for dinner, they ladle us with rice-based drinks and Aini songs. Soon, we’re asked to perform something and we opt for the hokey-pokey, hoping movement will distract from our terrible voices.
Not to be outdone, the Aini women start clapping and swaying. Their dance is all the more spectacular because of their traditional costumes: black tunics and hats, stitched with feathers, pompons and silver baubles. The bright fibres appear synthetic, giving away their newness, but the silver has been handed down through the generations.
All over Yunnan, and particularly in Xishuangbanna, traditions are actually being lived. Earlier that day, we visited Menghai’s fresh produce market. Here, odours of pickles, dried fish and tea-soaked eggs competed for dominance. Above the thwack of stallholders carving water buffalo steaks, several different dialects could be heard. Dai women in straw hats and Thai-style, ankle-length skirts, Dai men with tattoos on their arms; Yi women with their bright headscarves; Hui Muslims in hijabs and orange-clad Buddhist monks all squeezed past tightly-packed stalls.
The next day, I feel sick. No doubt it’s a hangover, but I blame it on the altitude. We’ve moved on to Dali, which lies at 2,200m altitude, sandwiched between the Cangshan mountains and Erhai lake, in the middle of Yunnan. Its people, the Bai, are renowned for their business acumen and you can see their wealth in Dali’s magnificent architecture: the courtyard homes are not unlike Beijing’s siheyuans, except they are adorned with marble and super-sized to two floors. With its willow-lined, pedestrianised streets, the old town is a picturesque place to wander. But tourism has left its mark. By the main gates, women in polyester Bai costumes pose for photos (at a price, of course). In ‘Foreigner Street’, hawkers catering for backpackers peddle ‘smokey-smokey’.
We decide instead to stay the night at the nearby village of Xizhou. Here, we ogle well-preserved buildings without the crowds. We pick up some Yunnan baba bread – soft, chewy and delicious with a sprinkling of spring onions – and explore the surrounding countryside. While the Bai dominate the towns here, the Yi people reign over the fields. You see the women busy at work in their bright pink headscarves, striking figures against the eerily luminous green of the paddies. Not a single inch of land goes unused. Cows wander dirt paths between the paddies, fish are reared in flooded fields and, on the roadside, feathers are separated from dung, to be used as down lining. Even the telephone lines are useful: they double up as drying racks for rice noodles.
At our next stop, Shaxi, we are treated to an equally delightful rural scene – so idyllic it’s like stepping into a Mao-era poster. Field workers carrying baskets leave golden hay meadows to cross stone bridges over a gentle river. The sweet smell of straw shares the air with incense and the only sound is the chug of a lone tractor. In the distance, suspiciously-perfect, fluffy clouds skip along wooded mountains. More a village than a town, Shaxi is a collection of wooden Bai courtyard homes and the perfect spot to chill out before hitting the tourist honey-pot of Lijiang.
With more than four million people visiting each year, a gaggle of tacky souvenir shops and the latest heinous additions of Pizza Hut and KFC, Lijiang can feel like Disneyland. But this Unesco-listed town is still well worth the visit. Its maze of cobbled streets, canals and bridges are best enjoyed outside of the spring-summer high season. At night, among the glowing red lanterns, the bustling masses actually add atmosphere. Perhaps the best time of day in Lijiang, though, is early morning, when few people are around and you can natter with the street vendors. Most are Naxi and have lived here for years. They’ll proudly tell you about their town and the Naxi script you find all over it. Described in guidebooks as hieroglyphs, this writing system looks like stick men – it’s fun to divine what the individual pictures mean.
If you’re staying in Lijiang a while, you’ll want to hike or at least take the chairlift up Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – a dramatic peak that looks like it’s been carved by a mad knifeman. We don’t have time to scale the dragon on this trip, but we’re not short on mountain views on the way to our final destination, Shangri-la. Here, at 3,200m, we start to breathe in Tibet. There are stupas with prayer flags whispering in the wind on high, and typical Tibetan chalets in the valleys below. After taking in Songzanlin Monastery, we visit a thangka centre (www.thangkaacademy.com) for a crash course in Buddhist art. Then Fuchs, who has made Shangri-la his home and seems to know every resident, takes us to the home of a local Tibetan family for dinner.
It’s our last night and a hint of sadness descends over the group as we realise we’ll soon be waving goodbye to Shangri-la’s blue skies. Our hosts teach us to make a yummy snack by dipping tsampa (barley powder) into yak butter. We’re told it’s best to wash it down with arra (barley whiskey) and, before I know it, it’s happening again. Our hosts dance and my last memories of the trip are the happy shouts of the hokey-pokey.
Need to know
China Eastern has launched a new route from Dubai to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Fly direct from Dhs4,925, or with a stopover in Guangzhou from Dhs2,483 (email@example.com, +86 10 6468 1166). From there, opt for a tour of Yunnan with Wild China (www.wildchina.com).
Where to stay
There are beautiful local guest houses all over the region; we’d recommend Sleepy Inn in Lijiang with its Naxi-style architecture, matched with crisp white bedding and views of the verdant hills and rural villages. Rooms from Dhs90 a night.
For a slightly livelier hostel with friendly travellers, try Panba Courtyard Guesthouse in Lijiang. Though it’s a bit further from town, you can rent bikes for next to nothing so you can explore the area. Beds from Dhs50 a night.
History and geography
• Yunnan has a population of 45.7 million people.
• Many of the mountains in the area rise to 3,000m.
• Yunnan is rich in natural resources; it contains the most aluminium, lead and tin in China.
• There are more than 600 rivers and lakes in Yunnan, which provide all the necessary water.
• There is still a large proportion of Tibetan influence seen in the architecture and beliefs, even though the Tibetan population is only 0.3 per cent.