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South of the Clouds: May 8-17, 2005

Just as our visit to Xinjiang Province last October was both a look backward at a place Tom knew in the 1980s, and a look forward through the girls’ younger eyes at a fast-changing China, our 10-day trip to Yunnan Province in China’s far southwest was trip back in time and glimpse into a very different future. It also gave us a chance to experience cultures and lifestyles totally unlike what we’re accustomed to in super-urban Beijing.

Yunnan, which means South of the Clouds, is a land of dense jungles and high mountains. This late in the year, the tropical areas bordering Burma and Thailand are hot and humid, so we traveled instead to the northern part of the province, bordering Tibet, to visit several of the minority peoples living there.

Yunnan is home to over two dozen minorities, each with distinctive dress and customs that have persisted despite the area’s control by China since Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty and forcibly conquered the minority kingdoms here over 700 years ago. But that’s changing fast – since Tom and I visited Yunnan (separately) in 1986, improvements in transportation and communications, along with a big influx of Han Chinese, have within a generation done more to eradicate minority languages, costumes and folkways than centuries of imperial rule from the north.

We wanted the girls to see these endangered lifestyles before they vanish completely. Our itinerary, designed by Wild China, a company founded by a recent HBS graduate named Ms. Mei Zhang, took us to visit Bai people in the town of Dali, Naxi people in Lijiang, and Tibetans living in Zhongdian – better known in China as “Shangri-la.”

Our guide, Huang, made what would have been a good trip great with his knowledge of local people, languages and customs.


More on Huang later, but in the meantime, here’s a photo of him and the girls during our boat ride across Erhai Lake.

Next: Intro to Dali


Yunnan chapter shortcuts: Intro Dali Lijiang Tiger Leaping Gorge Zhongdian

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