By Debra Bruno
A viewing platform looks out onto Yunnan’s Hani Rice Terraces in Yuanyang County.
Home to many of China’s 56 ethnic minorities, the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan is known for its diversity in food, dress, language and geography. Here, four things to do in the off-the-beaten-track Red River valley, due south of the province’s capital, Kunming:
1. Get a feel for Yi minority life in a Qing Dynasty village before it disappears.
About 220 kilometers south of Kunming, Tuanshan is the country’s only intact traditional walled Qing village where the Yi people still live. Blending gray brick courtyards with earth-rammed homes, it was founded in the late 14th century by the Zhangs, a wealthy mining family that was later connected to the Communist Party, which meant the village escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution. Today, some 80 percent of residents are named Zhang, and older women with bound feet sell trinkets in the alleys. The World Monument Fund says Tuanshan is “threatened” by redevelopment.
2. Sip the world’s highest-elevation red wine.
Yunnan Red, made from the Rose Honey grape that is extinct in France, is said to have been first made by a 19th-century French missionary who was nostalgic for a taste of home. Sample it with traditional Yunnanese dishes such as grilled goat cheese and wood-ear mushrooms braised in vinegar at the restaurant of Yunnan Red Chateau, about 14 kilometers from the town of Mile, while looking out over 4,000 hectares of vineyards, touted as the only wine-producing area above 1,500 meters. Don’t miss the historic church on the grounds.
3. Watch a traditional bullfight, minus the gore.
The autonomous county of Shilin – literally “stone forest” – isn’t just known for its Unesco World Heritage-listed forest of eye-popping karsts. It also draws visitors to its annual Torch Festival (Aug. 11 to 13 this year), marked by bonfires, traditional dances and a twist on bullfighting. The festival is celebrated by the Sani people, a sub-category of the Yi ethnic group, and unlike Spanish-style corrida de torros, in which the bulls are baited and killed by human matadors, here two bulls ram each other until one gives up and runs off.
4. Visit rice terraces that soar up to 3,000 meters above sea level.
Spanning more than 11,000 hectares on the southern slopes of Ailao Mountain, the Hani Rice Terraces in Yuanyang County are the work of the Hani minority. According to Frank Hitman, a locally based guide, each Hani group has its own story of their formation over 1,000 years ago. One tells the tale of a young girl who turned into a tree after dying unhappily and brought sorrow to the Hani people. When her mother asked her to help, she taught the people how to make rice terraces. Today the water-filled terraces reflect the sky from November through April, and turn green in spring as the rice plants grow tall.