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Yunnan World Heritage Sites

A rundown and photos of sites on UNESCO's 2020 World Heritage and Tentative lists for Yunnan (China) plus, as usual, a few of our personal suggestions

China’s impressive UNESCO line-up includes no less than 37 cultural sites, 14 natural and a further 4 mixed entries. While we’re more than happy to consider any destination in this vast nation for potential tour add-ons or extensions, we’re going to stick to Yunnan World Heritage sites in this post as that’s the province our itineraries currently cover.  With a surface area of nearly 400,000 square kilometres, Yunnan Province alone is larger than most European countries and covers a geographical range all the way from the tropical jungles of the far south – Lao and Myanmar borders – to the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and the foothills of the Himalayas. (Which is precisely why we don’t attempt to cover more than the one province in a 2-week tour.)

Yunnan World Heritage
Lijiang Old Town
Current sites

At last count, the Yunnan World Heritage list weighed in at 3 natural and 2 cultural sites. We’ll confess right away that of those, we’ve never visited the Chengjiang Fossil Site (although we did once have a group make an improvised stop at the nearby dinosaur museum).

The first site on the cultural list, inscribed in 2013, goes under the name of the Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces. Hani is one of the indigenous minorities of this rugged, mountainous part of southern Yunnan and they’ve been creating and maintaining narrow rice terraces on the steep slopes of the Ailao Range for well over a millennium to truly spectacular effect. The terracing covers a wide area to the south of the Red River Valley with some of the steepest and most spectacular slopes being in the vicinity of Yuanyang Town where we stay during our visits.

China, Hani rice terraces, Yuanyang
Honghe Hani Rice Terraces near Yuanyang

The second cultural entry is, of course, the justifiably celebrated Lijiang Old Town. From the 12th-century Lijiang became an important post on both the silk and tea roads and while the charmless, adjacent modern town has suffered serious earthquake damage on more than one occasion, the cleverly constructed old town has survived remarkably intact to this day. The extensive maze of narrow, windy cobbled lanes, interwoven with streams and period bridges, is delightful while the listing also extends the nearby picturesque Black Dragon Pool and unique architecture of outlying Naxi minority villages such as Baisha. (The Naxi people’s claims to fame being that they’re considered the World’s only ethnic group to still actively use a form of hieroglyphic writing!)

World Southern China tour, Lijiang, Black Dragon Pool
Picture postcard Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang

More on Lijiang later but moving on to the Yunnan World Heritage natural sites we have a broad entry in the form of South China Karst. These limestone landscapes actually cover parts of Guizhou, Guangxi and Chongqing provinces as well as Yunnan with the Shilin Stone Forest near Kunming being one of the first areas to meet UNESCO’s criteria. According to their inscription, the dramatic karst formations of Shilin – an area traditionally inhabited by the Yi minority – are a “superlative natural phenomena and a world reference”.

Yunnan World Heritage
Tiger Leaping Gorge in the 3 Parallel Rivers Protected Area

In addition to the aforementioned Chengjiang site, and moving northwards, the final natural site is the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Area(s).  Lying in Yunnan’s far northern reaches this comprises of a grouping of no less than 15 separate protected areas, between Lijiang and the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and covers a highly impressive 17,000 square kilometres. The three rivers in question are the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween – known locally and respectively) as the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu Jiang – which unusually at this point flow through 3 adjacent and parallel north-south gorges.  (Further south the Yangtze turns east, the Salween flows southwest into Myanmar and the Mekong continues south to form the border between Laos and Myanmar.) Certain stretches of the gorges are 3,000 metres deep towered over by glaciated peaks rising to well over 6,000. With a geographical location linking the eastern Himalayas to Indochina to the south, the exceptionally varied flora and fauna are considered by UNESCO to possess the richest diversity of any temperate region on the planet.

Some exceptional and extraordinary listings then, although, taking into account the size of the province it is, once again, a meagre total.

Tentative List

There are some 60 sites in China’s tentative category – not listed by province – so apologies if we’ve missed any, but we came up with a mere 2 Yunnan World Heritage candidates in the form of Dali-Erhai Lake and the ancient tea plantations of Pu’er.  The latter falls into the cultural category and includes the famous tea plantations themselves as well as the minority groups who inhabit the area and have traditionally cultivated Camellia Sinensis on the slopes of the Hengduan Mountains. Some wild tea trees in the area are thought to be 2,700 years old while certain cultivated plantations date to over a thousand years ago so Pu’er certainly has a good claim to be the birthplace of the ubiquitous infusion. (Tea was considered to have been picked and pickled as a herb for a long time before someone actually came up with the bright idea of infusing fresh buds in boiling water and it still features in Yunannese and certain Southeast Asian dishes.)

Dali with Cangshan Mountain in the background
Dali with Cangshan Mountain in the background

Dali-Erhai Lake is a complicated, mixed, entry including Dali’s old town, the adjacent lake and shoreline ethnic Bai villages as well as the natural biosphere of neighbouring Cangshan Mountain. The proposed site also extends as far as Weishan to the south – another well-preserved historic town and valuable addition. Dali’s heavily restored old town and city walls are impressive, the nearby mountains rich in flora and fauna, lakeside Bai villages home to some well-preserved period architecture and scenic Erhai Lake was in former times the setting for the iconic cormorant fishing so Dali certainly offers an impressive all-round portfolio.

Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, Zhongdian
Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, Zhongdian
Not on the list

The ancient towns of Dali and Weishan, Bai heritage of Erhai and rich biosphere of Cangshan plus the 1,000-year-old plantations of Pu’er make for strong candidates but surprisingly, we couldn’t see any other entries on the tentative list. The charming old town of Zhongdian – composed mainly of wooden constructions as opposed to Dali, Lijiang and Weishan’s stone – would have been an automatic candidate if it hadn’t suffered extensive damage in a fire a few years ago. However, large chunks did escape, the remainder has since been restored as has the town’s spectacular Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery so… (Note the Monastery’s damage date from the Cultural Revolution rather than the recent fire.)

Shuanglong Bridge, Jianshui
Shuanglong Bridge, Jianshui

The various sites of south Yunnan’s Jianshui could also add up to a valid candidature and include the nearby Medieval walled village of Tuanshan, the Ming period Shuanglong Bridge, the ancient Temple of Confucius (one of the largest in China) as well as the old town of Jianshui itself with the spectacular Zhu’s Garden Mansion.

An obvious natural candidate would be the so-called Wild Elephant Valley in Jinghong District in the far south of the province. This area of subtropical rainforest is home to China’s only heard of wild elephants. The Gajah Liar Valley, to give it its correct name, is part of the Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant and Nature Reserve and the Chinese government’s substantial efforts to protect this fragile eco-system merit reward.

On our tours

With the above sites widely scattered across a large area, it would be very difficult to incorporate all of them in any single tour. Nevertheless, we reckon our Yunnan, South of the Clouds tour does pretty well while keeping to a reasonable time frame. Arriving in Yunnan overland from Lao Cai in Vietnam means our itinerary easily takes in the otherwise rather remote southeastern sites of Yuanyang (Honghe Rice Terraces) and Jianshui. Our programme includes a sunset visit to the terraces with an additional optional dawn trip.

Our Kunming stay features a half-day trip to Shilin Stone Forest before heading west to Weishan and Dali. With a range of potential sites in and around Dali, we’ve added a free day in town with a choice of options including a walking tour of the old town, early morning boat trip on the lake or a ride in the spectacular cable car up to the national park on the summit of Cangshan Mountain.

Next up is a 2-night stay in Lijiang which includes a walking tour of the old town and Black Dragon Pool and a visit to the outlying Naxi village of Baisha. Lijiang is a good spot to avoid during weekends and public holidays when it’s busy with local tourists but if we can’t avoid that, then an early morning walk around town is an excellent solution.

Next up is the awe-inspiring Tiger Leaping Gorge – the southern section of the 3 Parallel Rivers Protected Area. Again, and in this case with the Gorge’s geography in mind, we’ve left our day flexible so you can opt for a tough, medium or easy hike or an opportunity to just sit back on the balcony and soak up the magnificent surrounding scenery. From here it’s onwards and upwards to our final destination, Zhongdian, now officially renamed Shangri-La by the powers that be!

The somewhat incongruous Shangri-La Expressway
The somewhat incongruous Shangri-La Expressway