Yunnan (云南) has been a favorite destination since the province was open to independent foreign travelers in the late 1980s. The main itinerary to follow from Kunming leads to the ancient-walled town of Dali, the former capital of the Naxi Kingdom of Lijiang and the Tibetan town of Zhongdian (aka Shangri-La).
Here is a list of 10 ancient villages to explore and discover another Yunnan. They all have important historical value, feature ancient architecture, are unknown to foreign travelers, and virtually untouched by tourism (no expensive entrance fee and no trinket stores).
These villages are entangled in China’s modernization process and are ‘intact’ places fixed in a distant path. You will see concrete buildings and new constructions next to well-preserved historical structures. Because they are relatively unknown to most travelers or remote enough to attract just a few of them, they have retained a level of authenticity that many of us are looking for in China.
1. Baxin 坝心
Located west of Jianshui (建水), the most important stop on the the way to the Yuanyang rice terraces, Baxin (坝心) is not on the radar of travelers. Yet, for those who enjoy Ming-Qing and early Republican era architecture and off-the-beatn path Chinese villages, Baxin is a good start. Built in 1776, the Huilan pavilion (洄澜阁)’s architecture is reminiscent of the Shuanglong bridge (双龙桥), in the heart of the village, ancient mansions hidden behind tall wooden gates are the last witness of China in motion. In the valley overlooking the Yilong Lake, in the village of Luzigou (芦子沟) we find amazing courtyard gate with meticulously carved dougong, a rare sight in rural China.
2. Shiping 石屏
Just one hour drive west from Jianshui, the ancient town of Shiping (石屏) remains largely unexplored by travelers. In the old town, Shiping offers everything that foreigner are looking for when visiting remote parts of China: cobble stone streets lined with historical buildings dating back to the Ming-Qing era where visitors can feel the slower pace of rural China and enjoy an ‘authentic’ Chinese town void of any trinket stores set up for tourists.
3. Zhengying 郑营
This village in the west of Shiping (石屏) is called the first village in Yunnan (云南第一村) by locals and might be one of the earliest Han settlement in southern Yunnan when the region became a military stronghold at the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). Zhengying (郑营) is home to two clans, the Zheng (郑) and the Chen (陈). Each family has built impressive lineage temples dedicated to the worship of ancestors. Even though they have been secularized, both temples attract a fair share of curious travelers who come to admire the unique architecture.
4. Heijing 黑井
Located deep in a narrow valley north a Chuxiong, a city half way between Kunming and Dali, the ancient town of Heijing (黑井) was once called the ‘salt capital of Yunnan’. Geography and road conditions have contributed to make an off-the-beaten path destination where travelers can explore the ancient mansions that used to belong to wealth local families involved in the trading of salt, discover the local lifestyle in the main pedestrian street, or hike uphill to the Buddhist temple that dominate the impressive landscape.
5. Zhoucheng 州铖
Nestled in a fertile valley east of Erhai, Zhoucheng (州铖) is an interesting ancient old town on the path towards modernization. Behind the Wenwu Temple (文武庙), an impressive temple compound that was recently renovated, the main pedestrian street in the center is dominated by an impressive bell tower (鼓楼) and lined with ancient historical buildings, some of which have already been torn down by locals who built brand new concrete houses.
Located on the way to Binchuan (宾川) famous for the sacred Chicken Foot Mountain (鸡足山), Zoucheng is an interesting stop and a nice place to explore on the margins of Dali ancient town.
6. Fengyu (凤羽)
In the heart of the Bai country, half way between Dali and Lijiang, Fengyu (凤羽) is gearing up towards modernization. Behind the concrete buildings of the new village, Fengyu is worth a detour to explore what remains of the traditional Bai architecture and admire the ancient courtyards that have survived the Cultural Revolution.
7. Jianchuan (剑川）
Travelers heading to Shaxi (沙溪) know Jianchuan (剑川) for its bus station. While waiting for the bus, it seems that Jianchuan has nothing to offer but the grayness of the concrete and the chaos of a remote Chinese town. Just a few hundred meters from the bus station, there is a maze of ancient streets, heart of the old Jianchuan, capital of wood carving and stop on the former Tea and Horse Road where we find cobble stone alleys line with courtyard mansions, some of which date back to the late 14th century and no tourist is sight.
8. Haba (哈巴)
After visiting the Tiger Leaping Gorge, if you are taking the long road from Lijiang to Zhongdian (aka Shangri-La) and want to visit the White Water Terraces on the way, you will probably stop in the village of Haba (哈巴). Haba is a multi-ethnic cluster of hamlets that spread at the foot of Mount Haba. For the active travelers, it is a base to go on 2 or 3 day trek in the mountain or simply go on a short hike in the pasture where you’ll meet yak herders.
9. Nuodeng (诺邓)
Relatively hard to get to, Nuodeng (诺邓) is an ancient salt village built on the steep hills of a remote valley. Once a wealthy and prosperous place from which horse caravans set off, Nuodeng is betting on the development of tourism in Yunnan to get rich again. Locals have transformed their ancient courtyards into guesthouse to accommodate travelers who want to explore the ancient temples, lineage halls, or salt offices that once contributed to the fame of the village.
10. Yiluo (绮罗)
Located in the outskirts of Tengchong (腾冲) in Western Yunann province, Yiluo (绮罗) is a historical village that was once home of business men who ventured on the network of trade routes that bear names like ‘Southern Silk Road’, ‘Tea and Horse Road’ or ‘Jade Route’ into Burma, India, Tibet, Thailand or Malaysia to deal in jade, silk, tea or precious wood. Walking in the streets of the village, the ancient library, the Buddhist temple and the Wenchang temple are the witnesses of Yiluo’s past. Since most travelers are heading to nearby Heshun (和顺), Yiluo is still a quaint and authentic village not to miss when traveling in the region.