The province of Yunnan is a wild kingdom of mountains and raging rivers
They dance in the streets in Shangri-la. By 8 o’clock in the evening, the main square in the old town is packed with local Tibetan kampa people, who form a giant, slowly circling wheel that brushes against the far corners of the square on its rim, 500 people, young men, women, grandmothers, sub-teens, all wafting their hands in the air and dancing. It’s not a complicated movement. A step to the left, a step to the right, a turn with a sweep of the body, but it’s difficult for us half-dozen gwailos to achieve anything like the willowy hand movements of the locals.
Cradled by toothy grey mountains that soar to over 5,000 metres, the city rises from barley fields and pastures sprigged with euphorbias where Tibetan herdsmen graze their yaks. Prayer flags flutter from the hilltops, on its outskirts is Songzanlin Monastery, a cliff of gold that shoots shafts of light into the evening clouds, and on a rise above the old town, Tibetan women in embroidered aprons circle endlessly, twirling the world’s largest prayer wheel.
Deep in southern China, surrounded by Burma, Thailand and Tibet, the province of Yunnan is a wild kingdom of mountains and raging rivers,home to more than half of all China’s ethnic minorities, whose cultures find expression in distinct styles of architecture, cuisine and costume. Three of Asia’s great rivers – the Mekong, the Salween and the Yangtze – have carved deep trenches through the mountains of Yunnan as they gush down from the Tibetan plateau, and created such scenic marvels as Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Half Moon Bend on the River Yangtze. Yunnan is also a botanical treasure chest. More than 2.500 species of ornamental plants are found here. This is the genetic home of the azalea and the rhododendron, and who has not sipped at one time or another a cup of Yunnan tea?
Yunnan’s gateway is Kunming, a city larger than Sydney with one of the busiest airports in China, a burgeoning metropolis galloping full tilt along the capitalist road – but there’s no real reason to linger. A short flight across the mountains will take you to the Lijiang, “Beautiful River”, which sits on a high plain in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Lijiang is so fecund with architectural wonders that the old city has been declared a World Heritage zone. From the giant water wheel at the top of the town a willow-lined stream forms the centrepiece of a cobbled street lined with open shopfronts. Not least among its wonders is the Naxi people, an animist minority originally from Tibet who made Lijiang their capital. Everyday dress for the Naxi woman is a cape which is divided to represent day and night, with embroidered circles to symbolise the stars. Two larger circles on the shoulders are the eyes of a frog, an important Naxi diety.
Lijiang is ringed by a handful of villages that might have sprung to life from a willow-patterned plate, complete with arched bridges and temples with swooping roofs and sacred ponds with auspicious fish. One of these is the village of Baisha, home of the renowned Dr Ho, a charming octogenarian herbalist with a Confucian beard who will sit you down in his consulting room, show you a visitor book filled with names worth dropping, give you a cup of herbal tea and tell you the secret of a long and happy life (“Don’t worry, be happy”).
Of course, Yunnan does not reveal its secrets to just anyone. Go it alone and you will not make much sense of it. You need help. Only an expert guide with thorough local knowledge will reveal its culinary splendours, such as the edible fungi for which Yunnan is famous, track down the best place for a local-style foot massage, introduce you to the Living Buddha in Songzanlin Monastery for a personal blessing – or even tell you which foot to lead with when you’re dancing in the streets of Shangri-la.