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A Han Chinese emperor of the Tang dynasty dubbed the lands south of rainy Sichuan Yun-nan ('South of the Clouds') as early as the 8th century. Known as the land of eternal spring for its pleasant climate and long centred on the ancient royal capital of Dali, Yunnan was absorbed by China when the Mongol invader, Khublai Khan, swept through it in the 13th century. The prize was a territory of extraordinary variety. Some 25 of China's 55 ethnic minorities are present in this southwest province of 394,000 square kilometres, not a great deal smaller than mainland Spain. For centuries, merchants plied the ancient Horse and Tea Route through country that extends from the tropical border country abutting Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (where people of myriad minorities proudly display their identity through traditional dress and local cultures) to the high Tibetan plains of the northwest. Banana plantations thrive along the Upper Red River close to sea level in the province's southeast, while the majestic peaks of the Meiji Snow Mountain chain soar more than 6000m into the startling blue skies near the Tibetan border in the northwest. South of the busy modern capital of Kunming, rice farmers work magically carved mountain terraces as they have down for centuries. To the north, the former Nanzhao kingdom's royal seat of Dali, resting by the vast Erhai Lake, is preserved proudly by its Bai minority inhabitants. The route north passes through the little known Tea Route town of Sideng in the pretty Shaxi valley and on to the splendid Unesco World heritage town of Lijiang. Further north still, the sandy-coloured waters of the Yangtze River pound through the dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge. The river and road split around a mountain chain on their northward progress to the brightly lit Tibetan plains around Zhong Dian (also known as Shangri-La), where Buddhist monks still sound deep mournful bass horns within the sanctuary of the second greatest Tibetan Buddhist lamasery after that of Lhasa, Sonzanlin. To the newcomer in China, Yunnan presents an unexpectedly rich spectacle of cultural diversity and colour.

 

Damien Simonis

Lonely Planet writer for Yunnan Viajes

 

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