Yunnan notes

by on July 18, 2015 at 12:48 am in Food and Drink, Travel, Travels | Permalink


In the summer, up to half of a multi-course meal may consist of mushrooms, the best I have had.  Fried goat cheese is served, and the ham exceeds that of Spain in quality.  I had not thought that buckwheat flour pizza, dipped in fresh honey, would be a staple in Chinese food.  There is also flower soup of numerous kinds, corn dishes, pumpkin, and donkey.

Even the largest city in Yunnan — Kunming — has fresh air, a rarity in China.  The weather is perfect year round, and the faces have Burmese, Tibetan, Thai, and Mongolian features.  About one third of the population is explicitly classified as “ethnic minority,” and most of the others look like a blend with Han Chinese.

Dali, the second largest city, is nestled into a lake and mountains as a Swiss city might be.  You could explore the neighboring villages around the lake for months.  I recommend Xizhou, stay at Linden Centre.

The population is pro-American, not always the case in China, and the Flying Tigers, who flew bomber missions against Japan from Yunnan, are cited frequently, including in dinner toasts to visiting scholars.

Yunnan University has a significant program in cultural economics, and as my hosts I thank them for the invitation and for their extreme hospitality.

Yunnan is arguably the nicest province in China to visit, and one of the best trips in the world right now.  The quality of infrastructure and accommodations is good, but exoticism and surprise remain high, the perfect combination.  Go before it’s too late.

1 Steve Sailer July 18, 2015 at 12:57 am

I’m also under the vague impression that it’s a literal garden spot in that a lot of Western gardeners’ favorite ornamental plants come from southwest China at medium altitude: Kunming is at 1,892 m (6,207 ft).

2 E. Harding July 18, 2015 at 1:12 am

Makes sense. It is said to have good weather year round.

3 IVV July 20, 2015 at 11:14 am

My understanding is that the flowering plant is generally accepted to have first evolved in Yunnan before diversifying and spreading to the rest of the world.

(But I don’t have a source on that.)

4 Arjun July 18, 2015 at 12:57 am


With any luck, the general trajectory of China (depletion of the environment combined with expanding exploitation of the masses) will be curtailed before these nice features of Yunnan get ruined. I’m not sure whether to be optimistic or not; it seems like both environmental regulations and general class struggle are surging in China, but its hard to predict how sustainable these trends are, given pressures on the Politburo by the newly risen bourgeoisie for economic growth, the general pressures of the global marketplace, and the ability of local elites to foster nationalism as a distraction.

5 Alain Badiou July 18, 2015 at 9:51 pm

If only we could return to the glorious days of the cultural revolution.

6 Arjun July 18, 2015 at 12:58 am

Ugh, damn you to hell Steve Sailor

7 Careless July 19, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Not usually why people say that to him

8 E. Harding July 18, 2015 at 1:12 am

It’s also home of the origin of the Third Plague Epidemic due to its concentration of rats.

9 Adrian Ratnapala July 18, 2015 at 1:28 am

Well if the rats like it, that just proves its a nice place.

10 Mark Thorson July 18, 2015 at 1:44 am

How is it that Tyler never seems to suffer from the gastrointestinal tract distress that frequently afflicts travellers to exotic locales?

11 Tyler Cowen July 18, 2015 at 2:27 am

I was not in the slightest queasy or irregular…

12 honkie please July 18, 2015 at 3:23 am

Do you have information the rest of us don’t regarding Tyler’s bowels? I’m starting to think there’s an MR Insider subscription.

13 Jan July 18, 2015 at 6:30 am

I think he must have UBS (unirritable bowel syndrome).

14 Jacob Aaron Geller August 6, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Spend a couple months in a far off place and you will develop immunity/tolerance for a lot of bugs.

Spend a few years traveling many such places and you will develop many immunities/tolerances, but also probably a nasty semi-permanent parasite or two or three.

15 Melmoth July 18, 2015 at 3:31 am

The best documentary about Yunnan and a damn good film in itself is the BBC’s Beyond the Clouds from 1994, covering the town of Lijiang over ten years, before it was completely swallowed by backpackers and domestic tourists:

A lovely blog and book-in-progress covering the journeys of an Englishman to Tibetan areas of northwest Yunnan and western Sichuan over the last 25 years (see the 10 chapter links on the right of the page):

An interesting or possibly forgettable book about directionless foreigners dropping out in Dali, by a former travel guide writer:

When I last visited in 1996 Yunnan had a weird sense of dislocation compared to the rest of China, words like ‘laid back’ and ‘exotic’ come to mind but the cliches didn’t capture the sense of the place. The sun was bright, the air was fresh, the eucalypts shone. Kunming seemed quieted and slowed down compared to other cities, and we felt we had escaped the iron grey grip of urban China. The minority women with their head dresses and colors seemed to maintain a haughty, distant feminity which was beguiling to this 20 year old male. My fellow students grabbed leaves of hemp bushes from the paths around Dali which they tried to dry and smoke, to little effect. The train from Chengdu passed through hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, flashing in an out of darkness, over and over revealing glimpses of tiny hidden valleys and gorges, where a peasant worked solitary terraces. I haven’t gone back because I know there will be a flood of domestic tourists and even more backpackers and more privileged foreigners now, and I’d rather keep those original impressions.

16 zty July 18, 2015 at 4:09 am

No, the ham isn’t better than Spain’s. Not by a long shot. Yak meat though is excellent, and I’m surprised you didn’t try it. Or perhaps you did, but thought it made for better signalling to brag about mushrooms and strange pizzas.

Yunnan is great, and its sub-100 IQ population means it will remain blissfully undeveloped for the decades to come. The Chinese also have a good eye for tourism; they get whole villages set up as tourist parks, and pay the villagers to remain in their old houses with their livestock and traditional attire.

17 Tyler Cowen July 18, 2015 at 4:30 am

the yak I liked too.

18 Jan July 18, 2015 at 6:37 am

This says Yunnan avg IQ is above 100, though below the national average.

19 zty July 18, 2015 at 11:36 am

Something tells me the scores of all the hill tribes aren’t being counted properly.

20 E. Harding July 18, 2015 at 3:56 pm

Yeah. I believe it to be in the 90s.

21 Bradley Gardner July 18, 2015 at 5:51 am

Every time I go to Beijing I go to the Yunnan stores that are springing up everywhere and pick up a half dozen jars of mushrooms. Easily the best tasting thing I’ve ever eaten. I also trend towards the Yunnan chili powder over the Sichuan stuff.

I’ve heard reported that Yunnan has some 50% of the biodiversity in China due to its favorable climate and varied terrain. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I believe it. The cuisine is filled with things like flowers, ferns, moss and unnamed mushrooms. It’s also got numerous subregional cuisines, like the more sichuan inspired Lijiang food, and the more Myanmar inspired food in Xishuangbanna. It’s among the most productive regions for growing tea, coffee and tobacco.

I have also read that China produces more mushrooms than the rest of the world combined. On several occasions I’ve run into mushrooms only produced in one valley (The Wutaishan mushrooms are great).

Chinese cuisine is still remarkably underexplored. Glad Tyler is on the job.

22 Jan July 18, 2015 at 6:31 am

Thanks for this. Determining whether to do a China or Southeast Asia trip next year and I had not even considered this corner of the continent.

23 Dan Wang July 18, 2015 at 7:57 am

I’ll share a note about my favorite aspect of Yunnan: the food.

The mushrooms are the best. I remember every instance of when I had ganbajun (small, black slivers) with fried rice. They’re my most savory food memories.

You can find wheat noodles (mian) and rice noodles (mixian) in equal measure. I opt for the silky mixian almost every time. Also great is ersi, a noodle made of rice but with the tanginess of wheat noodles. I haven’t found that anywhere. All of these are delicious however they’re prepared (in broth, with sauces, cold…)

Mixian with eel I believe is fairly particular to Yunnan.

Slices of rice cakes (erquai) are delicious, especially when fried.

All of these above are excellent breakfast and lunch items. In addition you can find easily youtiao (fried cruller), mantou (steamed buns), baozi (steamed buns with filling), etc.

On lakes you can catch a carp, take it to a local restaurant, and they’ll clean, gut, and prepare it deliciously for you. Many of them will give you also the house rice, steamed with ham and potatoes (yangyu menfan).

There are lots of excellent tofu products, e.g. shao dou fu.

Donkey meat is very tender. Yak is savory. The hams are famous in China.

I like the “bbq” or shaoqao I’ve had there. You sit around a pot of charcoal with a thin grate above, order a dozen small plates of meat morsels (every type of meat from every part of the body), and handle all of them with your chopsticks.

Yiliang county specializes in roast duck, doesn’t taste quite like the Peking kind. Hotpot (huoguo) is popular, including with mushrooms! You can easily find lots of Sichuan, Muslim, Dai food.

24 Tom Warner July 18, 2015 at 8:14 am

I’d love to go, I’ll have to look into the flights from Yangon.

This is my favorite Yunnan story, about a con-artist who bluffed jade buyers out of $150m.

25 Anon. July 18, 2015 at 8:56 am

As someone who doesn’t appreciate mushrooms, this place sounds like a nightmarish dystopia.

26 PD Shaw July 18, 2015 at 9:00 am

When asked what he did during the War, my grandfather would say ‘drank coffee in Kunming.’ He would just get odd looks from those with more conventional service duties in Europe or the Pacific. He rode in supply planes over the hump with his legs dangling from the open cargo bay doors, oversaw the unloading of supplies and picked up eggs to take back.

27 dearieme July 18, 2015 at 9:44 am

I’m fascinated that Mr Cowen keeps turning up in parts of the world that my daughter visited in her early twenties or late teens. Have you visited the Cook Islands yet, Mr C?

Anyway, she says the Yak Strogonoff in Kunming is good.

28 Scott Sumner July 18, 2015 at 9:51 am

When I was there in 1996 the infrastructure and accommodations were poor. Glad to hear they are much better. The food was great and there is an incredible diversity of scenery–from jungles down near the Burma border to high snow capped mountains in the northwest. See Lijiang and hike Tiger Leaping Gorge.

In the north there is a minority culture where the women have traditionally been in charge, one of the few such cultures in the entire world (the Na?)

Western Sichuan province has some of the same qualities, but perhaps less ethnic diversity. As I recall it’s mostly Tibetan.

They are building a high speed rail from Shanghai to Kunming, which will be incredible. Some of Yunnan’s neighboring provinces to the east are also full of great scenery and lots of minorities.

Overall, China has some of the best scenery that I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

29 Dog July 18, 2015 at 7:50 pm

Infrastructure & accommodations were poor in 2006 as well… buses were rusted and ancient (no subway/metro obviously), vehicles belched visible black smoke (so a thick layer of dust on the streets), the few trains out of the city were crowded 3rd world things… I saw a few kids defecating on side of the street and another walking around with the seat cut out of his pants, albeit in poorer part of town.

The place is barely recognisable now. The major infrastructure changes began post-2007 I think.

30 Duke of Qin July 18, 2015 at 10:44 am

Yunnan along with neighboring and similar Guizhou are the poorest provinces in China. I for one prefer air conditioning and a nice iced drink available anytime I so desire. Why certain poverty ridden holes are so popular with tourists I will never understand.

31 Hoosier July 18, 2015 at 11:33 am

Did you read the post? He explains in quite detail why he likes it. You may disagree, but you can hardly say you don’t understand unless you can’t read.

32 Duke of Qin July 18, 2015 at 11:49 am

All those “amenities” he mentioned can be found elsewhere. In places that aren’t as poor and underdeveloped. The only detail unique to the area are the native inhabitants. So unless you are fond of human zoo exhibits, I don’t particularly see the point of going. The reason the domestic tourists are there is because they are both poor and fond of human zoo exhibits of the “dancing colorful natives” variety. Since Tyler isn’t impoverished, I don’t see what the advantage of Yunnan would be compared to Hawaii.

33 Ray Lopez July 18, 2015 at 12:03 pm

@Duke of Qin: lame trolling. TC is there for work, but he posts on the tourist parts for his readers. As for human zoo, I see no problems with that, humans are curious. Even the Nazis used to give visitors a tour of the front lines and of the concentration camps, by way of analogy, not that I approve of aggressive war nor concentration camp tactics (first used by the British in the Boer Wars).

34 Thomas July 18, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Part of the appeal is novelty and difference. If every place were the same, there’d be no reason to go anywhere. This is obvious so I don’t know why you’re trolling.

35 Peter Akuleyev July 19, 2015 at 11:21 am

This is why Japan is the most underrated tourist destination in the world. Japan is a wealthy nation that has preserved many traditional customs, including colorful clothing like kimonos which women still wear on many formal and celebratory occasions. The Japanese remain very insular. Especially in small towns Japan is one of the least “spoiled” spots on the planet. I assume the reason that Japan is not more popular with the “human zoo” set is because in Japan you don’t get to feel superior to the natives.

36 Jacob Aaron Geller August 6, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Japan is also expensive.

37 zty July 18, 2015 at 11:40 am

Mostly to escape from the nightmare of modern brutalist architecture. Which China has learned to adopt all too quickly.

38 Sam Haysom July 18, 2015 at 1:24 pm

Kunming is heavy on the post-Stalin soviet-style modern apartment complexes. It’s not like it’s a bunch of yurts and pagodas. I mean yes there aren’t that many sky scrapers but it’s architecture is almost entirely modern. In fact what distinguishes it most from a city like lets say Ulan Bator is precisely its contemporary skyscrapers.

39 zty July 18, 2015 at 1:52 pm

I was going to add that Kunming indeed sucks; but nobody visits Yunnan to see Kunming; you go to the old towns in the fringes.

40 Matt Buckalew July 18, 2015 at 1:10 pm

This whole post reminds me of a comment I read somewhere arguing that things were definitely better now than in the past because even Middle Class people get to visit more countries than JP Morgan did. Putting aside the fact that JP Morgan went to college in Germany and died in Italy I really doubt JP Morgan was too bummed he never made it to Bolivia or Namibia.

The best places to visit are the best places not places you haven’t visits before and you could spend a lifetime finding fascinating things in France far more fascinating than anything in Kumming.

41 Bob July 18, 2015 at 2:29 pm

Most middle class people go to Germany and Italy, not Bolivia or Namibia. So to the extent that more people can visit Germany and Italy or see more of Germany and Italy than in JP Morgan’s time, presumably, at least on that measure, things are better.

There seem to be two broad camps among travelers: those who travel to directly encounter the best places, certain cultural artifacts, or their favorite places, and those who travel to encounter places that they haven’t visited before, that are different, exotic, alien, etc.

42 msgkings July 18, 2015 at 2:43 pm

And then the two camps spend much of their time bitching about the other camp to signal how cool they are, right Duke of Qin?

43 Matt Buckalew July 18, 2015 at 3:01 pm

I don’t understand this criticism. I’d put myself in the Duke of Qin camp, but I’m certainly not signaling how cool I am, but how cool France is or Italy is etc. In fact I realize that for the most part my position is seen as the unhip and square one. Certainly someone as obsessed and status and singaling as Cowen has thrown his lot in with the opposite camp. That’s an indication that my camp probally isn’t preceived as very cool.

44 Bob July 18, 2015 at 3:47 pm

I don’t think Cowen is in that camp in order to be cool or have status. People in that camp generally don’t think Cowen and people like him are cool, no matter what he says or does or how hard he tries. And I think he’s fully aware of this and doesn’t care. I think Cowen just likes exotic places and food, and probably has been to the major touristy places already.

45 Jacob Aaron Geller August 6, 2015 at 5:11 pm

And then there is the camp that goes to far flung places to sit on a beach not so different from Florida.

I don’t bitch about that crowd, but I’m not going with them either.

46 Greg July 18, 2015 at 10:47 am

Well, I was there in 1985 (maybe 86), so all of you hipsters saying it is spoiled now but was great in the 90’s, I have to say that by the 90’s it was ruined.

The main city square had a lot of food stalls in the evening with excellent food. The fried cheese was particularly memorable.

47 Peter Akuleyev July 19, 2015 at 11:17 am

I was there in 1989 and agree with you completely. Dali was already in decline by then, but Lijiang was still cool.

48 Barkley Rosser July 18, 2015 at 3:53 pm

Have not been there (would like to go), but the Yunnanese restaurants in other parts of China are distinctive and excellent.

49 Sam Haysom July 18, 2015 at 5:34 pm

I prefer semi-Yuannese food. And before you start trolling my great great grandfather was General Tso who surrendered personally to Sweet and Sour Sauce.

50 Mark July 18, 2015 at 8:00 pm

Are you sure your great great grandfather wasn’t General Tso Gei?

51 duxie July 19, 2015 at 12:23 am

The main minor ethnic in Yunnan is the Yi people as in the photo above.

An interesting Chinese TV history drama about the politics within and between the Ming Chinese, Yuan Mongols and the Yi, and how the female Yi chieftain managed to out-smart the Ming Imperial Envoy (a nephew of the Empress) and maintained the autonomy of the Yi people.

The main actress is half Chinese/Naxi (another southern ethnic group) and she was previously married to American actor Paul Persey.

52 Robert Lee Hotz July 19, 2015 at 10:58 am

The Flying Tigers — formally called the American Volunteer Group —- were a group of fighter pilots recruited in 1940 by Claire Lee Chennault to fight for China. It was folded into the U.S. 14th Air Force in 1943, under Chennault’s command. During my visits to Yunnan over the past decade or so, I found toasts to “The Tiger Team” quite common when Americans were present. I visited one remote village where the people still kept in good repair the grass runway used by U.S. aviators during WWII.

53 Peter Akuleyev July 19, 2015 at 11:16 am

I spent several months living in Yunnan back in 1989. It was far more interesting back then, the minority cultures hadn’t been commercialized yet, there were amazing local crafts and textiles, and the food was more authentic. It is a waste of time visiting Yunnan now, you are far too late unless you want to commune with the hordes of Australian backpackers in Dali. That might be a smart move if you are a young man looking to eat hash cakes and score with Australian and Kiwi girls, but the true local culture will remain hidden to you unless you are a fluent speaker of Mandarin or one of the local languages.

On a less trolly note, if Tyler is experiencing anti-Americanism in other parts of China, I suspect that is his problem. I spend a lot of time in China on business, and even in Beijing people are universally more pro-American than are most Europeans. Certainly making an effort to learn some Mandarin helps a bit. I would argue in fact that for tourists China is today probably one of most pro-American countries in the world – not politically, but in terms of average people being happy to meet and interact with Americans. Iran is probably the other one.

54 Lukas July 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm

It is one of the fundamental contradictions of travelling and backpacking that we seek the original and exotic, yet untouched by tourism, thereby destroying it.

55 IVV July 20, 2015 at 11:21 am

This is the great tragedy for me.

My wife has soy and peanut allergies, and is particularly sensitive to spices and mushrooms (certain varieties–we aren’t sure which, but they aren’t champignons or portobello–cause her severe cramping). These are all fine for her, given her Northern European upbringing, but they significantly limit where around the world she can be without significant accommodation. As a result, I’ve had to write off travel to wide swaths of the planet.

I would love to travel to Yunnan. I can’t go with my wife, though (and no, traveling alone is not an option).

56 Nat Olson July 20, 2015 at 11:28 am

Yunnan is beautiful, especially Kunming. I live here now teaching English and it’s a great place to base oneself out of if you want to get to know the rest of China, or SE Asia, on the cheap. My understanding is that the infrastructure has improved greatly in the last couple years (although I only arrived in March 2014). More and more foreign restaurants have started to make their way onto the scene as well, serving high quality western food for reasonable prices.

Standard fare for locals is MiXin, a rice noodle soup with pork, chicken, or beef. It’s supposedly the signature Kunming dish and I see people eating it every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The yak is also quite good, but more easily located in Dali or Lijiang. If you make it back to Yunnan, try to go to Shangrila. The heart of the old town burned down last year but they have several restaurants and an independent craft brewery.

I had no idea that Yunnan University had a cultural econ program. I’ll be sure to check it out when I get back from vacation. Also, if you were curious, MR is not blocked in Yunnan, I can read it every day. 🙂

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