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.


“Each family had only one light bulb,” Kang Jiaxin says, describing life just 20 years ago during a current-day power outage. “It wasn’t even as bright as this candle.” Bangdong village, Lincang, 8 April 2019


Electrification brought the first dramatic changes to village lifestyles, including less dependence on wood, as well as later bedtimes and, eventually, television. Even today, many still have only one basic light bulb per room. Jiangjiapu village, Lincang, 25 February 2018


Volunteers lay a new water pipe to connect the entire village to a central source and install water meters. For the first time, residents will have to pay for water. Bangdong village, Lincang, 7 January 2018


Smartphones and digital payments are ubiquitous in rural areas. These friends of the groom play Glory of Kings the night before a wedding. Others prefer betting on Mahjong or singing “mountain songs” over WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. Liming village, Lijiang, 29 December 2018


Yunnan is filled with new roads and new drivers, and accidents like this one are frequent. The Yunnan-Tibet Highway runs through the northernmost county in Yunnan, crossing through the Hengduan Mountains, mostly above 12,000 feet. Interprovincial highways have been central to the government’s infrastructure development strategy even through hard-to-access and underpopulated areas. Deqin county, Diqing, 22 April 2019


For the first time, Bangdong village is getting paved roads, critical to getting crops to market during the five-month rainy season. Bangdong village, Lincang, 20 December 2017


A network of high-speed rail lines is connecting across Yunnan. Tourism is one of the province’s main industries, with $125 billion of revenue in 2018, which is only expected to grow as travel infrastructure improves. Weishan county, Dali, 15 January 2018         


A work crew tunnels about four meters per day through a mountain for the new Yuxi-Lincang highway. Tunnels are key to Yunnan’s development boom. Its mountainous terrain previously meant travel was only by airplane or slow, winding roads. Xiushan town, Puer, 28 April 2019


Dams and reservoirs are responsible for some of the most dramatic changes to lives and landscapes. Relocation and compensation for families affected by upriver flooding is a common and not-easily resolved issue across Yunnan. Yun county, Lincang, 7 January 2019


This man just returned from over a decade working on dams in Malaysia, Nepal and around Africa. He now works on the Wunonglong Dam on the Lancang (Mekong) River that went operational in 2018 and sells power to Shenzhen city, opposite Hong Kong. “There are only positives to hydropower,” he told me. “The Belt and Road is our shared destiny with the world.” Wunonglong Dam, Diqing, 20 April 2019   


Before and after:

Cizhong village, Diqing, 15 February 2016 (courtesy Luc Forsyth)


Cizhong village, Diqing, 21 April 2019 Cizhong village is now home to relocated residents of villages that were flooded when the Wunonglong Dam went operational in 2018. Its main industry had been tourism and wine, thanks to 19th-century French missionaries who built a Catholic Church and brought French grapes and wine-making to celebrate the Eucharist. But the relocation effort has wiped out Cizhong’s agriculture—virtually all farmland was converted to housing—not to mention its idyllic feel. “Tourists don’t stay in Cizhong anymore,” one guesthouse owner told me. “They just take some photos of the church then leave. We don’t know what we’ll do.”


A family prepares for Chinese New Year dinner where their home has been torn down for reconstruction. As part of a nationwide poverty elimination campaign, the government provided subsidies of up to $8,000 per family in some areas to improve substandard housing. “Another 125 poor counties and 10 million poverty-stricken rural residents were lifted out of poverty,” Xi highlighted during his last New Year address to the nation. “Construction has begun on 5.8 million new homes for people living in dilapidated houses.” Bangdong village, Lincang, 17 February 2018


Relocation housing projects can be seen all over Yunnan. Most efforts resettle remote residents with no access to roads or markets into government-built housing communities. Quanhe village, Lincang, 22 September 2018


Tourists take photos with performers at Jinuo Mountain Village, a park showcasing the culture of the Jinuo, China’s 56th and last officially recognized minority group. The banner reads: “Great unity of the ethnicities, One family in the Mother country ~ I’m at Jinuo Mountain Village!” Jinuo Mountain Village, Xishuangbanna, 11 October 2018


As rural infrastructure improves and incomes rise, myriad new products—along with the waste they create—are flooding the markets. Rural garbage in China reached over 500 million pounds per year in 2010, exceeding urban waste for the first time. Still, no successful model for rural trash management exists today. Potou town, Lincang, 14 July 2018


Highway and high-speed rail punch through the mountains at Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest in the world and a popular trekking destination. “It will bring more money to us,” one local vendor told me, her baskets of apples, Snickers and marijuana arranged neatly on the edge of a trail. A Tibetan guesthouse owner tempered the enthusiasm: “Good for business, bad for the mountain.” Tiger Leaping Gorge, Diqing, 27 March 2019


As roads and electricity reach new territories, so does security infrastructure. This camera from Hikvision, whose products were banned from purchase by the US government over national security concerns, watches over a hiking trail in the Three Parallel Rivers scenic area in remote northwestern Yunnan. Three Parallel Rivers, Lijiang, 31 December 2018


Little stands in the way of progress. Eminent domain is frequently invoked, prompting some to hold out for all they can get from the government. Others receive minimal compensation, for which there is little legal recourse. This house was gone ten days later. Lincang city, Lincang 4 Apr 2019


When economic reforms began 40 years ago, then-leader Deng Xiaoping famously warned the county: “Some will get rich first.” The wealth created on China’s prosperous east coast is now stimulating economic development in China’s “backward” areas in an effort to achieve widespread prosperity, a fulfillment of the Party’s mandate. The characters on this government building read: “The radiance of the Party shines on the frontiers, the people of the frontiers turn their hearts toward the Party.” Mangang village, Lincang, 3 March 2018


To live amid such drastic change requires uncommon mental and emotional capacities. But people seem to possess a limitless strength of spirit and ability to adapt, combining their old ways of life with their new surroundings, even if that means drying meat on new electricity poles. Mojiang city, Puer, 1 February 2019