On the bus between Kunming and Dali, all travelers drive by a service area named after the nearby village of Yunnanyi (云南驿), located just a few hundred meters from there, behind a hill. Among the thousand of people who drive by this section of the highway, very few of them know about the historical legacy of Yunnanyi.
The legend of the "southern source of the clouds"
The story of the village begins more than two thousand years ago with Emperor Han Wudi (汉武帝) who wanted to know where the clouds formed. In order to satisfy his curiosity, he dispatched a group of his best men beyond the southern border of his empire. When they arrived in the village of Yunnanyi, they saw clouds forming over the Longxinghe mountain range. To them, the clouds (彩云) came into existence in the south (南现) and Yunnanyi was named the "southern source of the clouds" (云南之源).
The ancient Tea and Horse Road
Before Yunnan became fully integrated into the Chinese empire during the Yuan Dynasty, an extensive network of trade route linking tea-producing era in the south to Tibet and countries of South-east Asia known today as the ‘ancient Tea and Horse Road’ had emerged. Like other better-known towns in the region like Dali, Shaxi, Lijiang or Zhongdian, the village naturally became an important stop on the trade route and it’s in Yunnanyi that we find what seems to be Yunnan Province’s best-preserved horse caravan inn where muleteers stopped over night.
The Second World War
A less tangible part of Yunnanyi history takes place in the late 1930s, as China was in need of supplies in its counter-attack against Japanese forces, allies built a road that linked Yangon in Burma to Kunming in Yunnan. Yunnanyi became an important stop on the Burma Road until it was interrupted by the Japanese invasion of British Burma.
In the fields south of the village, a military airfield was built and Yunnanyi became a landing point for the ‘Flying Tigers’. British, American and Chinese daredevils were taking off from British India, in Assam, were flying the ‘Hump’ over the Himalayas to avoid Japanese-controlled Burmese airspace and landed in Yunnanyi, Baoshan and Tengchong.
The Long March
Outside the village, a stele commemorate yet another important episode of China’s modern history when, in 1936, soldiers of the Red Army rested in the village for one night during the episode of the Long March.
Visiting Yunnanyi and its history
On the outside, Yunnanyi looks like any other impoverished village of Yunnan’s countryside and on the quiet cobble-stone street, the main street that runs through the village, nothing really indicate the historical importance of the place.
Yet, in Yunnanyi, there is a small museum well worth a visit and well worth the 40 RMB entrance fee.The first part of the museum is dedicated to the ancient Tea and Horse Road and gives visitors access to an ancient well-preserved horse inn. On the first floor, travelers can visit the stables for the horses and on the second floor, we can still see where the muleteers spent the night and a small altar where they prayed to the gods of the roads, the gods of the mountains and the god of the bridges.
The second part of the museum is dedicated to the Burma Road and the Hump. There is a unique collection in rural Yunnan of artefacts left behind by British and American soldiers: communication devices, helmets, guns, and empty ammo boxes as well as large-scale maps and black and white pictures with captions in English.
It is very easy to find the museum. Just walk up the main street of the village and you will see a sign in English and Chinese. If you plan on visiting the museum, know that there is no reliable opening time, but just call and give the curator a heads up: 0872-338-2007 or 338-2023.
Because the village is so close to Dali by bus, rich in history and virtually unknown to domestic and foreign tourists, a visit to Yunnanyi is the perfect day trip for anyone who wants to experience the road less traveled and understand local history.
How to get there
There is no direct access to Yunnanyi from the highway and getting there from Dali requires changing buses several times, but the explanations below will help you.
From Dali old town, you should head first to Xiaguan and find Xiaguan Southwest Station (Xīnán Kèyùn Zhàn; 西南客运站), where you take a bus to Xiangyun (祥云). There is a bus every 15 minutes and the ride to Xiangyun takes 30 to 40 minutes.
Once in Xiangyun Main Bus Station (Xiángyún Kèyùn Zhàn; 祥云客运站), you will have to transfer to the local bus station (Chéngxiāng Kèyùn Zhàn; 城乡客运站). Take a rickshaw; it will cost 5 or 6 RMB per person.
At the local bus station, you can take either a green mini van for 8 RMB or a regular small bus that heads to Xiazhuang Township (下庄镇). Tell the driver you get off at Yunnanyi (云南驿). It takes around 30 minutes on the countryside road. The driver will let you off on the side of the road, just walk straight and you will see the gates of the village.
On the way back, just wait by the side of the road for a bus to come. They all go to Xiangyun. You will probably see the characters "县城" on the bus, which means county seat (i.e. Xiangyun).
Born in the mountains of Switzerland, Gaetan Reuse has spent 10+ years in China where he studied Mandarin, conducted academic research in ethnic borderland and worked in the manufacture industry. He holds a BA in Chinese Studies from Geneva University and a MA in Geography from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, Canada. During his extensive travels in China, he has developed a passion for historical villages and how modernization and the travel industry are transforming them. He writes about his travel in China on his blog TravelCathay.com. He is now designing and leading tours in Yunnan Province and China’ southwest as well as developing the high-end Chinese inbound travel market in Europe.