In Kunming, people will often gather to sing traditional songs, sometimes in local dialects. And at night public squares are often full of people who come to practice their dance steps.
The southern province is home to hundreds of Buddhist temples. Indeed it is arguably the most practiced faith in Yunnan. In fact there are three main divisions of Buddhism: Hynayana Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism). Moreover, Hynayana Buddhism exists only in Yunnan province.
Even if not a practicing Buddhist, these temples can bring peace and tranquillity to anyone who visits.
Food of course is perhaps the thing most praised by the Chinese, and Yunnan offers some amazing culinary fare. With a rich ethnic population there is a varied range of dishes offered from the fragrant fish dishes of the Dai people to the spicy dishes of the Bai ethnic minority.
Of course one cannot cover the rich diversity in such a short article. Indeed, Yunnan’s diversity in food could pack a small book.
One important ingredient in many Yunnan dishes is chili. This spicy fruit is everywhere and it may often feel like there is hardly a dish that does not utilise this fiery condiment.
For those less keen on chili a visit to a stone pot fish restaurant may be particularly welcome. Here, fish is boiled in soup and consumed with various condiments. Often the pot may be split in two thus offering a choice for those who want a spicy dish and another for those with a more sensitive palate.
Smelly tofu & snacks
Another acquired taste is smelly tofu, or chòu dòufu [臭豆腐]. This fermented tofu snack is popular all across Yunnan where it is usually sold at street stalls and consumed with beer.
Spicy crayfish is another favourite. Known as Málà xiǎo lóngxiā [麻辣小龙虾] this is not strictly a Yunnan dish, but is nonetheless enjoyed across the province with a beer on summer evenings. Whilst there is health risk due to the polluted waters these crustaceans often live in, few people are put off given how delicious they are.
But Yunnan does have some very clean waterways and Jianshui is particularly renowned for its natural wells which locals still draw their water from. The water is also used in the making of smelly tofu and Jianshui is famous for its own particular brand of this smelly snack.
Much further south is the town of Hekou which borders with Vietnam. Crossing into Yunnan’s southern neighbour reveals a very different culinary adventure. Only a few kilometres from the border is Sapa where one can enjoy salmon hot pot and gỏi cuốn, a type of Vietnamese spring roll. This Vietnamese dish traditionally consists of salad vegetable and other ingredients such as raw salmon marinated in lemon juice all wrapped in a thin sheet of rice paper known as bánh tráng.
Travelling south-east of Yunnan’s capital Kunming is Puzhehei in Qiubei county. This scenic area is home to beautiful caves, lakes and green mountains. As well as a tourist destination the region is also an important centre for rice production. In the late summer months peasants can be seen harvesting what is Yunnan’s biggest crop and threshing the rice in the streets before bagging up the valuable staple food.
To the south of Kunming is one of Yunnan’s most famous tourist spots. Located in Shilin Yi Autonomous County is the Stone Forest, a bizarre array of limestone rock formations. Visitors may also be treated to performances by the Sani people, a sub-group of the Yi ethnic minority. But you don’t need to travel into rural Yunnan to find the province’s ethnic groups. Even in Kunming’s city centre members of ethnic minorities may gather to play music and entertain crowds, especially near to the Green Lake.
This brings us to the end of our journey through Yunnan. Of course there are many sights we haven’t covered, such as the pagodas of Dali and the old town of Lijiang to the north-west. We could only touch on the diversity of Yunnan’s food and its ethnic culture. But hopefully our short introduction has given you a taste of what is arguably one of China’s most interesting regions.
Related: Exploring Yunnan - Part 1