Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Four weeks in Yunnan

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Aboard a sleeper bus

I’ve been in the sunny south of China, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, for about four weeks now. I’ve enjoyed the blue skies and warm weather — in contrast to gray, polluted Beijing where it’s been an unusually cold November.

I’ve been staying with a friend who lives just outside of Kunming, the provincial capital, in a one-street town. She works for a non-profit called Teach For China, who send American and Chinese graduates to impoverished Chinese schools in Yunnan and Guangdong provinces.

My friend is from Texas and last week we celebrated an early Thanksgiving dinner in the scenic old town of Dali, alongside two dozen or so of her colleagues who had all converged on Dali, traveling from their variously remote schools.

Yunnan province is larger than Japan and Germany, with hilly terrain, so a group of us have been traveling on sleeper trains and sleeper buses. It’s been quite the adventure.

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Yunnan is home to the most ethnic minorities of any province in China. Let me list some of the names of these minorities: Derung, Nahki, Pumi, Hani, Tibetan, Va, Jinpo, Dai. Another of these, the Naxi, use the Dongba script, which is the only pictographic writing system in use in the world today, according to Wikipedia.

Traditionally, Yunnan has never really been considered a part of “core China”, which was centred around the Yellow river basin, and then, later, the Yangzi river basin. Not until the Mongol invasion of China did Yunnan come under direct administrative control of central government. It’s a diverse part of the country.

There’s a book I want to read called The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by former China correspondent David Eimer (now Bangkok-based). Eimer spent months traveling the frontiers of China, from the frozen steppe of Manchuria in the north, to the dry Turkic far west, down to the jungly and drug lord-run far south. I’ve read several reviews of the book and there are quoted journalistically interesting passages.

I am hoping to spend time with some of China’s more remote peoples, when I get the chance.

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