From the emperor’s vantage point, Yunnan was best relegated to the barbarians, exotic tribesman and desperados of China’s wild southwest. Even ten years ago during my first visit to the province, the well-worn Lonely Planet guide in my hand called Yunnan “as diverse and defiant of labels as the people who call her home,” far more suited to the intrepid backpacker than the kind of Chinese tourist who now flocks to the self-billed “Tourism Paradise of the World” in the hundreds of millions.
The state has devoted unprecedented resources to build Yunnan’s infrastructure over the last two decades. What began with “the five connects” (五通)—roads, electricity, water, sewage and telecommunications—aimed at providing basic living standards across the province, has expanded into large-scale infrastructure programs: an integrated highway system, high-speed rail and hydroelectric projects. As recently as ten years ago, 40 percent of Yunnan had no access to paved roads. But the government allocated over $80 billion to the region’s road and waterway infrastructure between 2016 and 2020 alone, promising to connect every county by highway by 2020. Some 80 percent of the planned roads have been completed “and the government is committed to finishing the job,” one official told me. “It’s not a question of if or when, just how.”
The government’s focus isn’t merely domestic. According to Yunnan’s Seven Interprovincial and Five International Highways Plan, roads will link not only every county in the province but also neighboring countries. Construction has already begun on a Pan-Asian railway that will connect Yunnan with all Southeast Asia, running all the way to Singapore. And hydropower projects send electricity eastward to power-hungry megacities. With an elevation drop of more than a mile from its mountainous border with Tibet to its tropical border with Vietnam, Yunnan is “a dam builder’s dreamscape,” China expert Brian Eyler writes in his new book The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong. No surprise, then, that Yunnan boasts 30 dams, the most of any province, with all but three having been constructed in the last 14 years.
The road less traveled is under construction. Once a backwater, Yunnan has transformed into not merely a tourist destination, but a critical bridge linking China to Southeast Asia and the world. The new infrastructure is bringing opportunities to remote places and “backward” people previously untouched by the modern economy. And with those opportunities come challenges unthinkable to previous generations. This photoessay provides a glimpse into the changing lives and landscapes of rural Yunnan.