Yunnan Province, in southwest China, shares international borders with Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, as well as provincial borders with Sichuan, Tibet, Guizhou and Guangxi. Its historic nickname is “Land South of the Clouds,“ a reference to its colorful and sunny climate. Yunnan is the most diverse, culturally as well as ecologically, of China’s 22 provinces. It is home to 26 of China’s 55 minority nationalities who have coexisted peacefully for millennia and express their heritage daily through food, dress, ceremonies and long-standing traditions.
The geography of Yunnan is as varied as its people, ranging from exceptionally dry and mountainous in the north to warm and tropical in the south. The edge of the Tibetan Plateau marks its northern and western boundary, with peaks towering to 15,000 feet above sea-level. The southern portion of the province is hilly and tropical. The diverse topography boasts more than 18,000 plant species, many of which are indigenous and endangered, as well as an incredible array of animals, including the Asian elephant and the protected Yunnan golden monkey.
Yunnan is the most diverse, culturally as well as ecologically, of China’s 22 provinces. It is home to 26 of China’s 55 minority nationalities who have coexisted peacefully for millennia and express their heritage daily through food, dress, ceremonies and long-standing traditions.
Yunnan is also a region steeped in history and cultural exchange. Ancient kingdoms flourished here, playing an important role in the transmission of Buddhism. Two historic trade routes cross Yunnan: the Southern Silk Road and the Tea Route, on which the tea produced in Yunnan was transported on horseback to Tibet. The 2,300-year-old Southern Silk Road connected central China to the Middle East for centuries via India and Pakistan. The warmer climate allowed year-round trade. Along the Southern Silk Road arose numerous towns, regions and cities of historical importance. One of the most important is Dali, located at the intersection of the Tea Route and the Southern Silk Road.
China’s economic development and modernization are occurring at an astonishing pace, and Yunnan is no exception. With increasing pressures from tourism and other industries, the region’s treasured natural and cultural landscapes are at risk. In 2005, the Yunnan Province Tourism Development Master Plan developed by the Yunnan Bureau of Tourism, World Tourism Organization, and the National Tourism Administration of the People’s Republic of China called for 52.6 million tourists by year 2010 without realistically addressing the carrying capacity of the province’s exceptional historic and cultural resources and its fragile ecosystems.
Other threats and challenges to Yunnan’s fragile ecosystems include fuel consumption, poaching, hydropower development, mining, and loss of habitat due to development and deforestation. In some cases, efforts to reduce poverty contribute to environmental degradation.
Weishan Valley and the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve in Yunnan are representative of the conservation, development, and management issues facing the province; and also demonstrate China’s challenge in balancing conservation and visitation. Indeed, the country faces a widespread dilemma on how to protect some of the world’s most important historic and natural treasures while also making them accessible to domestic and international visitors.