In conversation with Huang Huaihai, our expert guide in Yunnan, China
China is an utterly captivating destination. We have many friends on the ground, allowing us to create extra-special private experiences in some of the country’s remotest regions with the best expert guides. One hidden jewel is the Yunnan province in the south-west, an extraordinary land of snow-capped mountains, rice terraces and lakes. We asked one of our favourite guides, Huang Huaihai, to tell us about his passion for his homeland and why our clients should go there. His answers are below:
Where are you from in China?
I am from the city of Lijiang in the Yunnan province.
What was it like growing up in Yunnan?
It was paradise – good weather, delicious food and kind people.
How did you become a guide?
I have always loved travelling since childhood. My first trip was with my father to Kunming to see my uncle in 1986. Although it was difficult to travel at that time, I was so fascinated to see new things on the way. When I left my teaching job, it felt like an exciting next step to accept the offer of being a guide.
What do you love about Yunnan?
Yunnan has probably the largest variety of ethnic minority cultures, cuisines, landscapes and climates in all of China. Most of the 52 ethnic minorities have their own languages, culinary traditions or even religions. In different seasons, there are many kinds of ceremonies and festivals held here. Weekly markets are fun to visit, where locals gather to sell and buy things or just to have a chat. I also enjoy hiking with friends in the mountains.
Why should our clients travel here?
They should come to Yunnan for the unique experience of encountering minority cultures and the fabulous scenery. We have deep canyons, mighty rivers, peaceful old towns, high mountains, flowers and beautiful treks.
What are the must-have experiences in Yunnan?
There are many old towns in Yunnan – some in the north-west and others in the east and south. Walking through these places helps us to understand the region’s history, architecture, economy and way of life. In the olden days, mountain people made paths so they could get around more easily, and these are now great hiking trails to take your clients along. Visiting shamans is also a fun way of getting to know the religions that have been practised here for hundreds of years. Other interesting experiences include learning Naxi script, visiting artisanal families, birding and looking at flowers.
What is your favourite thing to show our clients?
I love introducing clients to the most authentic things, such as temples and handicrafts. All the towns and cities have great markets, where you can hear local dialects and see ingredients. Also, almost all the major religions exist in Yunnan, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam, and visiting spiritual places helps us to understand the area’s history and people.
Tell us a bit about the different ethnic groups in Yunnan and their way of life.
There are 56 ethnic minorities in China, 52 of which are in Yunnan. Some reside in the mountains and others live near rivers. They all have their own dialects and some have their own written languages, such as the Naxi, Yi and Zhuang. Today, the minorities are facing challenges, with many of the younger generations moving to cities, attracted to an urban lifestyle and less interested in time-honoured dress or ceremonies. Luckily, the Tibetans, Naxi and Bai still have a strong faith in their past, and it is still common to see people in traditional clothing on the streets of Lijiang, Dali and Yuanyang.
What are the highlights for culture enthusiasts?
In my opinion, going to the Chenghuang Temple, cheese making, wool making and basket making in Dali, as well as visiting the Puji Temple, an embroiderer or a coppersmith in Lijiang. These experiences help clients to understand the religions and handicrafts of the province.
Yunnan is a spectacular place for hiking. What is your favourite trek, and why?
One of my favourites is the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, which starts in a town called Qiaotou and takes two days. Photographers will love the views of snow-capped mountains, red-soil farms, villages and rice paddies along the way.
What is the food like in Yunnan?
Yunnan food is unique. It has a spicy and sour taste – the sourness comes from lemons, quinces and plums. Dishes are prepared with fresh ingredients collected in the wild. We also use flowers in our cooking, such as taro, pumpkin, azalea and banana blooms.
What is your favourite regional dish?
Steamed chicken soup.
Are there any fun foodie experiences you would recommend?
Yes. In Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-la, walking through a local market to buy seasonal food or picking wild mushrooms, followed by a cooking lesson in a local home, is a great experience.
What would you suggest for families in Yunnan?
In Dali, they make wool mats, bamboo baskets and cheese; in Lijiang, they produce embroidery; and in Shangri-La, pottery is commonplace. It is fun for children to be taught and learn from local people.
Yunnan is very biodiverse. What are the best bird-watching spots?
Napa Lake in Shangri-La, Baihualing in Baoshan, Cangshan Mountain in Dali and the villages of Puji and Yulong in Lijiang. Baihualing and Cangshan are home to many sub-tropical birds, and Puji and Napa are famous for migratory birds, such as black-necked cranes.
Do you have any tips for our clients travelling to China?
Yunnan is on a plateau, so you should expect higher altitude, strong sun and dry air. Other provinces are lower and wetter, so be prepared for all climates. In smaller towns – and even bigger cities – locals might stare at foreigners because they are curious. Rest assured, they are friendly, though.
What aspect of the country has changed most in your lifetime?
There is more freedom now.
What do you think is next for China?
Even more freedom.