Yunnan is a province of the People's Republic of China, located in the far southwest of the country spanning approximately 394,000 square kilometers (152,000 sq mi) and with a population of 45.7 million (2009). The capital of the province is Kunming. The province borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.
Yunnan is situated in a mountainous area, with high elevations in the northwest and low elevations in the southeast. Most of the population lives in the eastern part of the province. In the west, the relative height from mountain peaks to river valleys can be as much as 3,000 metres (9,800 ft). Yunnan is rich in natural resources and has the largest diversity of plant life in China. Of the approximately 30,000 species of higher plants in China, Yunnan has perhaps 17,000 or more. Yunnan's reserves of aluminium, lead, zinc and tin are the largest in China, and there are also major reserves of copper and nickel.
Yunnan became part of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) during 2nd century BC. It became the seat of a Tibeto-Burman speaking kingdom known as the Kingdom of Nanzhao in the 8th century AD. Nanzhao was multi-ethnic, but the elite most likely spoke a northern dialect of Yi, which became established as the prestige dialect (see Nuosu language). The Mongols conquered the region in the 13th century, with local control exercised by warlords until the 1930s. As with other parts of China's southwest, Japanese occupation in the north during World War II forced a migration of majority Han people into the region. Ethnic minorities in Yunnan account for about 34 percent of its total population. Major ethnic groups include Yi, Bai, Hani, Zhuang, Dai and Miao.
Administratively, Yunnan is divided into 16 prefectures. Some of those are autonomous prefectures for various ethnic groups. For the traveller, Yunnan can be divided into seven regions:
Kunming Prefecture : Without a doubt the heart of Yunnan Province. You will likely pass through here whether or not you want to in Yunnan (not that it is a bad thing!)
Central Yunnan : West of Kunming and where the hills start becoming more rugged. This is a very popular region for backpackers. It includes Dali Prefecture and Chuxiong Prefecture.
Eastern Yunnan: Filled with the gorgeous scenery of the rolling hills of neighboring Guizhou and Guangxi transforming into the high, hilly plateau of Yunnan. This area includes many tourist sites not regularly visited by backpackers. It includes Zhaotong Prefecture, Qujing Prefecture and Wenshan Prefecture.
Southeastern Yunnan : Amazingly diverse, in one day you could pass through arid badlands, lush pine forests, barren hills and tropical rainforests. The urban centres in this area of Yunnan are very compact and it is quite easy to get around from city to city to see the sights. It includes Yuxi Prefecture and Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture.
Southern Yunnan : Geographically and ethnically part of Southeast Asia, but politically part of China. Jungle covers most of the terrain and this is probably the best region of China to escape the winter. It includes Simao Prefecture and Xishuangbanna, a major tourist area.
Western Yunnan : Home to some very rugged, off-the-beaten-path terrain. Once the location of the famed Burma Road, it is now one of China's most alluring destinations. It includes Lincang Prefecture, Baoshan Prefecture, Dehong Prefecture and Nujiang Prefecture.
Northwestern Yunnan: A chunk of ancient and historic Tibet within Yunnan's provincial boundaries. Many travelers come here to experience Tibet without having to enter the actual province and follow the road to West Sichuan. You will find towering mountain ranges and fascinating local culture here. It includes Lijiang Prefecture and Diqing Prefecture.