Dianchi Lake from Western Hills Kunming 1995. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]
When I first visited Kunming in 1995, I quickly realized it was a city for both relaxing and people watching. At the time, Kunming was the railhead for Yunnan, with people coming from all over the province to travel onwards across China by train. Sitting at an outdoor cafe on Beijing Lu, near the railway station, I saw a wide variety of ethnic dress. I would wonder about who people were, which ethnic group they came from, and where their home in Yunnan was. It was fascinating and captivating.
To discover more about the province's ethnic groups, I headed by bus to Yunnan Nationalities Village (Yunnan Minzu Cun), close to the shores of Dianchi Lake. While such parks don’t portray the harsher aspects of life in a Xishuangbanna forest or remote village high in Yunnan's northwestern mountains, they are educational. They allow visitors to appreciate the human diversity of the province along with the architectural styles, costumes, beliefs and folk customs of its 25 ethnic groups. Within China there are 56 nationalities. Some of Yunnan's groups are relatively small in number, and often live in areas difficult to access. The park provides possibly the only opportunity to meet their people.
Yunnan's ethnicity has long fascinated me and while in Kunming I would regularly visit the park. It is best to take time to simply sit in the many recreated villages while absorbing some of the local culture. Although folk dance performances are put on for visitors, often the villages are quiet places to mingle with people from the many diverse parts of Yunnan. With my initial plans to head north to Dali and Lijiang, it was an opportunity to discover something of the background of both the Bai and Naxi people. It gave me an insight into the lives of the Dai with their unique temples, pagodas, bamboo houses on stilts and their peacock dance performed to music played on cucurbit flutes.