Travel in




Yunnan province, bordering Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, remains one of the more unexplored provinces of China. The landscape is diverse and the ethnic groups of people plentiful. From tropical rainforest to snowcapped mountain tops. And from the Tibetans in the northwest to the Dai people of the very south.

Recently my friend, Paul, and I went on a trip to the Red River Valley not far from the Vietnamese border. We wanted to see the terraced mountains of the Hani and Yi minorities. Another friend of ours had described the place and it sounded incredible. Our destination was Yuanyang some 9 hrs bus drive from the province capitol of Kunming.


Lovely lush vegetation in the Red River Valley.        The terraced fields of Yuanyang.

On the way from Kunming to Yuanyang we spend one night in Jianshui, which is a town with remarkably many old Chinese style houses and some ancient wells. Some of those wells are still in use. Many people prefer to fetch the good water from the well, and some shops are even doing business by boiling well water, pour it into thermos bottles and then sell it for 0,5 yuan !!


The impressive former eastern city gate is the trademark of Jianshui and from there it is convenient to take a stroll through the ancient parts of the town. Several teahouses and old mansions, most dating from the Ming period, makes it interesting and it is also in the old town that the tasty homemade tofu is served in little cosy restaurants. Unfortunately Jianshui, at the time of our visit, also was home to several, claimed to be, stripshows, which is banned under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party - but obviously not under the rule of corrupt party officials.


Tofu is grilled and served with various snacks.          A beautiful lit teahouse.

We stayed in one of the old courtyard palaces, which has been converted into a museum and hotel. And all in all Jianshui turned out to be a fascinating stopover on the way to the terraces.


From our hotel in Jianshui.

Next day we arrived Yuanyang in the lower Ailaoshan. The city itself is nothing special, except for its location among the clouds, but the people are ethnic of mainly Hani and Yi nationalities. I've been to other places in China which has a majority of ethnic people, almost without noticing them because they wear normal Han chinese clothes. But here, deep in Yunnan province, almost everyone proudly wear their beautiful ethnic clothes.


Cooks and waiters in Yuanyang.                Vendors at the Yuanyang market.


A terraced mountain.                        A mountain side outside Yuanyang.

Certainly we wouldn't like to spend the night in Yuanyang itself. So we asked around and ended up in a Yi village some 30 minutes out of town. Here we were met by more Yi and Hani people and their rice field terraces. They are the people who are responsible for remaking the hills and mountains into thousands and thousands of hanging balconies with water running from them. A truly breathtaking sight. As Paul wrote after our trip:" Imagine mountainsides covered with tiny pools and miniature waterfalls flowing from each into the one below. It is like a massive man-made fountain but its purpose is not esthetic".


One of several Yi villages in the area.    The daughter of our host family with friends

Unfortunately we only had short time to explore the Yi people and these magnificent manmade landscapes. Immediately after checking in at our friendly host family we took a stroll through the village and were met by many of the hospitable Yi's. The lady's were doing embroidery in front of their houses at the same time taking care of their children, and others were busy washing vegetables at the village water central - which consisted of big basins with running water. That was the most busy place in the village with people coming and going constantly. An abundance of colors.


A grandmother with daughter in law and kids.  The village water central.

It wasn't quite yet the time for field work and it was raining, but even though many people were out doing different things. Water buffalos, pigs, children and adults -  everybody seemed to live in relative harmony...The style of their houses mean that people and animals live very, very close.


Waterbuffalo with calf returning from the field.    A pig in the way.


The village close up.                        Magnificent sunset viewed from the roof.

The night was spend on the second floor of the two story house among rice and grain. Plenty of fresh air, complete silence and a starlit sky followed our family's simple but nice dinner, to which we contributed beer bought from the village kiosk.

The following morning it was time to take a closer look of the terraces. It was time for a hike. It is told that it was the Hani's ancestors who built most of the terraces and most of the villages in the mountains for sure still belong to the Hani people. They are in contrast to the Yi's in their blue clothes without much embroidery. Some women wear a kind of turban covering most of their hair but with some beads of hair(maybe artificial) hanging down. A kind of silver jewelry is common to both peoples.


Hani's and a single Yi in Yuanyang.        Yi grandmother.


The road winding through the terraces.        A breathtaking sight.

As mentioned earlier all terraces are interconnected with water flowing from one to another and each village has chosen managers responsible for the waterflow and for giving the right amount of water for each field. An interesting system which must have contributed to the strong feeling of closeness among the people. 


One of the smaller fields.                  A girl returning home for lunch. She's

                                                         carrying a broom, an umbrella and a schoolbag.

 The mountains surrounding Yuanyang are some of the most terraced in the world. But it is not easy to reach the town and the terraces. It involves about 9 hours busride from Kunming and overnight on the way. Possibly in Jianshui. People are nice, scenery outstanding, and it all makes it well worth the hustle. Yuanyang are trying to be approved as World Heritage nature site, and that alone will probably bring along some more tourism. A program on Phoenix Channel of Hong Kong was recently shown to promote domestic tourism.


Terraces everywhere.....                            but on the very top of the mountain.