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There is something a little different about Yunnan. This remote province in China has geography with borders which call Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Tibet, neighbours. In its long history, Yunnan has exchanged hands between different ruling dynasties. It’s been a part of the Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan and was even under Muslim rule for sixteen years. Before joining the Republic, local warlords exploited Yunnan’s remoteness to rule with impunity . It is no wonder, with Yunnan’s colourful history and borders, this province should enjoy a rich cultural diversity.

Yunnan’s Unique Culture

Despite occupying a mere 4% of China’s land, Yunnan houses the most ethnic minorities. 51 out of the 55 recognised ethnicities in China are at home in this quiet southwest corner of the country. Half of these live within their own community of over 5,000. This diversity has led to an array of culinary offerings, different tongues, cultures and festivals. The Communist government tolerates them all regardless of ethnicity. It’s as if the mountain air brings an aura of calm to this far flung province.

The greatest population in Yunnan calls the eastern part of the province home. There is no dominant religion, the people of Yunnan practice Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Taoism. Religions co-exist here. The Northern and Western ends are mountainous regions and with a small number of human communities. And while not the prime address for residences, the region has instead been refuge for an abundant diversity of flora and fauna.

Tibetan Buddhism

In these mountainous ranges where Buddhism is observed, wildlife has been at its grateful receiving end. On Lake Napa, in the northwest of Yunnan province, the rare Black-necked crane has fed off the land undisturbed. Here this ‘bird of heaven‘ has lived side by side with its human residents for generations. The tolerance for wildlife feeding on scarce agricultural land stems from Buddhist beliefs. Tibetan Buddhists believe that all animals have a human soul waiting to be reincarnated. So they respect all forms of life.

Life in Yunnan is simple. It remains to this date one of the least developed regions in China. Good news for the diversity of fauna as it continues to live in peace and undisturbed in many areas. Yunnan’s bountiful topography allows the region to boast half of China’s birds and mammals. Aside for being a mineral rich region, Yunnan’s 394,000 sq km is also abundant in rivers, wetlands and lakes. As a result the region is a haven for resident wildlife as well as migratory birds. The balance between China’s big push west and the resident wildlife and cultures is a fragile one.

Lake Lashi

Lake Lashi is a 30 minute drive from Lijiang which sits on the edge of the northwestern part of Yunnan. Lashi Lake has been listed as one of China’s National Wetland Parks and is a protected area which sits 2,500m above sea level. Here visitors can meander through the weathered trail paths through dense forest. Set against mountainous backdrops, travellers go in search of pristine waterfalls. Chinese tourists come by the coach-load. Visitors from other parts of China come to the lake for boating or horse riding. These are some of the most popular activities available in the area. Yet, the natural highlight of Lake Lashi is its winter bird watching.

Migratory Birds

As many as 57 different kinds of migratory birds overwinter here in numbers, seeking refuge where they can feed in safety. The birdwatching season starts between the months of December to February. At its peak as many as 30,000 birds stay around the Lake. For instance, the Common crane, Eurasian bittern, Little grebe, Bar-headed goose, Merlin, Hen harrier, Black-winged kite, Common hoopoe, Grey-backed shrike, Crag martin and Asian stonechat. However, it appears that the Black stork and the Black-necked crane no longer visit this lake. Still, the numbers and variety of birds in congregation here is a sight to behold.

Some birds settle on the lake, others around the lake’s edge, in the rugged foothills or nearby on tired willow trees. A boat ride might be worth the price paid only if it is to experience the majestic views of the birds in closer proximity. Another worthy investment is a translator to speed communication along.

A trip to Lake Lashi is a welcome respite from the populous area of Lijiang. For example, things are a little slower and a lot calmer. Moreover, it provides an opportune time to soak in the beauty of Mother Nature. Early mornings and late afternoons are the best time to view the birds. Its the perfect excuse to wake up early to catch that beautiful sunrise over the towering mountainous landscape.

Lake Napa

Lake Napa, located at the heart of northwestern Yunnan is home to the Black-necked crane. It is a mere fifteen minute drive from Zhongdian Old Town, also known as “Shangri-La”. The lake spans over 23 sq km with a flat terrain. This wide plain plays host to different animals over the course of seasons. The mountains of the Himalayan range flank Lake Napa on three side. Waters from melted mountain snow flood the Lake over spring and summer and turn the plains into a marshy wetland. This season becomes a playground for the different species of waders and wildfowl. Meanwhile raptors wheel on the mountainous thermals high above. Autumn sees the grounds dry out, morphing into grassland, attracting livestock to feed. Seasonal guests feed in safety, surrounded by mountains and a tolerant human population.

Black-necked Crane

In the bitterly cold months of winter, the vast plains of Napa receive the revered crane. The Black-necked cranes become resident over the winter months in Shangri-La and Lake Napa. They come to feed on buckwheat and oat during and after the harvest period. On the plains of Napa, Tibetan Buddhist spiritual and religious values guide the communities. As a result, the Black-necked crane holds a special place within this community.

Here there lives a certain magic – a fusion of faith, religion and tolerance. The animals feel it. Their demeanour of calm is very telling of the trust these birds have in their human neighbours. The picturesque landscape with its seasonal guests will treat visitors to a serene experience.

Mount Baima

Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve is in the southwest of Yunnan province. At its highest, its snow capped peaks stand at over 5,000 meters. Indeed, this reserve is the highest and largest nature reserve in Yunnan. Step into a world of breathtaking alpine views, including lake and canyons carved by the Lacang and Jinsha rivers. Here this geographical wonder spans 180,000 hectares wide and is mostly pristine. Intrepid tourists can enjoy discovering the lush virgin forests and its thriving ecology. Baima’s rich plant life will treat lovers of botany to a field day. Baima’s forests includes Yunnan pine, George’s fir, Highland oak birch and Snow-white rhododendron to name a few.

Life on this mountain is simple. As a result, there is little development on Mount Baima. The main population, the Lisu hill tribe reaps the bounty of the area responsibly. Indigenous use of forest products includes bee farming and the harvesting of wild mushrooms. Furthermore, they harness local flora for medical purposes.

Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey

The cold-loving plants and animals of these highlands have attracted explorers from outside China for over a century. Here the rare snub-nosed monkeys are the resident primates. There are three species of snub-nosed monkeys in China. Mount Baima provides a sanctuary for a large population of the endangered Black snub-nosed monkey. Known to the locals as the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey, for it sets its roots and raises families there. Furthermore, these animals are the only non-human primate to live at such a high altitudes and extreme conditions. So visitors can expect to find the snub-nosed monkeys living between 3,200 – 4,000m of this majestic mountain. These monkeys are endemic to this region because they feed on specific lichens found only on fir trees in this area.

Yunnan Travel Advice

GETTING THERE: International flights will take you as far as Kunming in eastern Yunnan.

GETTING AROUND: Cheap domestic flights connect Kunming to Lijiang and Zhongdian (Shangri-La). A local coach operates a fast and frequent service between Lijiang and Zhongdian. Self-drive is impossible without a Chinese driving licence, hiring a local driver is essential to access some parts of Yunnan.

WHEN TO GO: Winter is the best season for birdwatching, however the cranes at Lake Napa will hang around until April before flying to their breeding grounds. Autumn colours are spectacular. It’s best to avoid summer and Chinese public holidays as accommodation will be thin on the ground.

TIPS & WARNINGS: A lot of Yunnan is at high altitude and the terrain challenging, so a good level of fitness is required. If you have a delicate stomach or have special dietary needs, find out in advance how much of the delicious local cuisine you can take. If you don’t have a good grasp of the Chinese language, we advise you to hire a local guide with a good grasp of English. Gem up on your knowledge of Chinese birds and other wildlife to get the most out of your trip.

SAMPLE PACKAGE TOUR: The Lijiang XinTuo Ecotourism Company offers tailor made tours including birdwatching at Lake Lashi, cultural trips to Shangri-La and monkey watching at Mount Baima. Accommodation includes Naxi homestay, Lisu hill tribe lodges and Tibetan guesthouse.

TOUR OPERATORS: The Lijiang XinTuo Ecotourism Company is the original ecotourism operator in Yunnan, Tel: + 86 0 139 8882 6672.

 

Author: Reehana Shihab

Editor: Tim Plowden

Photos of Northwest Yunnan

Members of a flock of Bar-headed Geese fly in to land amongst Common Crane in the fields next to Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Bar-headed Geese fly in to land amongst Common Crane in the fields next to Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

A wagtail perches on a sunflower stalk in the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

A wagtail perches on a sunflower stalk in the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Bar-headed Geese fly in formation above Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Bar-headed Geese fly in formation above Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

A pair of Black-winged Kite perch on sunflower stalks in the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

A pair of Black-winged Kite perch on sunflower stalks in the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

A male Stonechat perches in the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

A male Stonechat perches in the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Common Crane fly in formation around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Common Crane fly in formation around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Common Crane fly in formation as they prepare to land in the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Common Crane fly in formation as they prepare to land in the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

A male Hen Harrier hunts over the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

A male Hen Harrier hunts over the fields around Lake Lashi, Yunnan.

Close up of an adult male Yunnan Snub-nosed monkey foraging in an alpine forest, Yunnan.

Close up of an adult male Yunnan Snub-nosed monkey foraging in an alpine forest, Yunnan.

Juvenile Yunnan Snub-nosed monkey foraging in an alpine forest, Yunnan.

Juvenile Yunnan Snub-nosed monkey foraging in an alpine forest, Yunnan.

Mother and young Yunnan Snub-nosed monkey cuddling in an alpine forest tree, Yunnan.

Mother and young Yunnan Snub-nosed monkey cuddling in an alpine forest tree, Yunnan.

Juvenile Yunnan Snub-nosed monkey playing in an alpine forest, Yunnan.

Juvenile Yunnan Snub-nosed monkey playing in an alpine forest, Yunnan.

Forest covered mountain landscape of Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve, Yunnan.

Forest covered mountain landscape of Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Black Stork rest on the frozen shores of Lake Napa, Yunnan.

Members of a flock of Black Stork rest on the frozen shores of Lake Napa, Yunnan.

Black-necked crane foraging around Lake Napa, Yunnan.

Black-necked crane foraging around Lake Napa, Yunnan.

All images are under copyright © Tim Plowden

About The Author

Reehana Shihab
Reehana Shihab studied Public Relations, Film, Television and Video at Curtin University and later received an MA in Mass Communications, Editing, Literary Journalism from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. She has a passion for the outdoors and has worked closely with Tim on script and story ideas since 2012.
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