Yunnan Travel Guide
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Yunnan Province lies on China's southern border. It is located in the center of the country, roughly, east to west. Yunnan lies on a subtropical latitude, with the Tropic of Cancer running across its southerly reaches. To the west lies Myanmar; to the south, Laos; to the southeast, Vietnam; to the east, China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (aka Guangxi Province); to the east-northeast, China's Guizhou Province; to the north, China's Sichuan Province; and to the northwest, Tibet Autonomous Region. The nan of Yunnan means "south" while the Yun of Yunnan refers to the Yun Ling Mountains, or the Yun Range to be more correct, as ling means "range". This irregular-shaped province is nearly as "wide" (measured east to west) as it is "tall", or about 900 kilometers by 900 kilometers. Like Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, or Xinjiang, for short, Yunnan Province is surrounded by one of the largest number of political (foreign) and administrative (domestic) entities in China (Xinjiang has the distinction of being surrounded by the largest number of foreign countries among all of China's provinces and regions).
Mountains & Plateaus
Depending on how one looks at it, Yunnan Province can be divided into two main regions or into three main land forms. The division of the two main regions is east to west, where the eastern section is a high plateau dotted with lower mountains and hills (the plateau's elevation averages 2000 kilometers above sea level) - the Yunnan Plateau, which can be further subdivided into the Diandong and Dianzhong Plateaus - while the western section is the alternating mountain and valley terrain of the Traverse Mountains (the Hengduan Mountain Range). Here are high mountains interspersed with deep valleys, some of which are in fact deep gorges, creating a ruggedly beautiful terrain. This latter part of the province also offers the greatest spread in climate, with frigid, snow-capped mountain peaks adjacent to deep gorges with what amounts to a tropical climate in a subtropical zone, thanks to the depth and the narrowness of the gorges, which choke off the wind and increase the heat, though not the humidity/ precipitation (to read more about the provinces's climatic pattern on a separate page, go here).
In addition to the east-west topographic division of Yunnan Province (and in addition to a northeast-southwest division into distinct land forms, to be discussed below), there is a north-south topographic division that also affects the clima in two ways: the farther south one proceeds the closer one appoaches the Tropic of Capricorn (the lower the latitude), on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the farther south one proceeds the lower the altitude, since the western section of the province varies in altitude from 4000 meters above sea level in the north to only 1500 meters above sea level in the south. But the eastern section of the province, part of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, is not featureless and flat: it consists of low mountains and rolling hills accentuated by a number of sharp, karst pinnacles. Lastly, Yunnan Province can be divided into three distinct landforms: high mountains in the northwest, low mountains in the southeast, and a plateau in the middle.
The principal mountains include the Cawang, Jiaozi, Liangwang, Liushao, Niutou, Wuliang and Wumeng mountains in the east, while in the west lie the Yunling Mountain Range, the Yulong (Jade Dragon), the Meili (Beautiful) and the Baima (White Horse) Snow Mountains, which are high, narrow and long, belonging to the Hengduan Mountains which stretch into Tibet to the west and into Sichuan Province to the east. Of the latter, western mountains, those in the north are the highest, and are clothed with dense forests on their lower slopes. Just south of these high mountains in the northwest are the Gaoligong and the Biluo Mountains, which lie in the area around the city of Lijiang, still in the northern part of the province. South of this lies the subtropical rainforest of Xishuangbanna, home to China's last remaining indigenous Asian elephant herds.
Rivers & Lakes
Where there are mountains, there are rivers and lakes, and Yunnan Province abounds in both, with over 600 rivers - 180 of which are major rivers – and some 30 lakes of various sizes. Yunnan's rivers are too numerous to name. However, they all belong to 6 great drainage systems, each of which drainage system is represented by the following 6 major rivers: the Honghe River, aka the Red River and the Yuan River in China, while it is known as the Song Cai and the Song Ca in Vietnam; the Irrawaddy, a Burmese river (made famous by the Rudyard Kipling poem, Mandalay, the 'Road to Mandalay' mentioned in the poem is in fact the Irrawaddy River) that is fed by the Dulong River, which originates in Yunnan Province's northwestern corner; the Jinsha, the major headwater of the Yangtze River; the Lancang, aka the Mekong River, it also flows through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it forms one of the largest river deltas in the world; the Nujiang, aka the Salween River in Tibet, it also flows into Myanmar; and the Zhujiang River, aka the Pearl, the Guangdong and the Canton River. Most of China's largest rivers that eventually empty into the sea have their origin in the mountains of this part of China, i.e., on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
As to the province's lakes, in the north, the lakes can be divided into those which lie in the high mountains in the west and the lower mountains in the east. In the northeastern part of the province, the larger lakes include lakes Dianchi, Fuxian, Yangzonghai, Qilu and Xingyun, while in the northwest, they include Chenghai, Lugu, Jian and Zibi, and of course Yunnan's largest lake, Lake Erhai. In the south, the main lakes are Yilong, Changqiao and Dutunhai.
The average depth of Yunnan's lakes is around 20 meters, but lakes Fuxian, Yangzonghai, Chenghai and Lugu are deeper, while Lake Fuxian, at 155 meters, is the second-deepest lake in China, and is at the same time China's deepest natural lake (the deepest lake in China, Lake Changbai (aka Lake Tianchi, though there is another Lake Tianchi located in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), is in fact a crater lake at 384 meters depth, lying in the caldera of a stratovolcano on Mt Baekdu, which straddles the Chinese-North Korean border (the volcano is considered dormant, though its most recent eruption occurred in CE 1702, while the caldera itself stems from a major, CE 969 eruption... traces of the volcanic ash from this eruption have been found as far away as the Japanese island of Hokkaido, some 1200 kilometers from Mt Baekdu).
Besides its Han Chinese majority, China has 55 ethnic minorities, 51 of which can be found in Yunnan Province, of which a subgroup of 25 both have a population in excess of 5000 and have lived for generations in enclaves in the province. There are 15 ethnic minorities that are indigenous to Yunnan Province. These include the Bai, Blang (aka Bulang), Dai, De'ang (aka Deang), Drung (aka Dulong), Hani, Jingpo, Jinuo (aka Jino), Lahu, Lisu, Naxi, Nu, Wa, Pumi, and Yi. Of the province's 51 ethnic minorities, four of them have a population that exceeds one million: the Dai, the Hani, the Yi and the Zhuang. In addition, the other major ethnic groups are the Achang, Bai, Dulong, Han, Hui, Jingpo, Lisu, Miao, Naxi, Shui, Wa and Yao.