In the southwest of China lies Yunnan, a province known for its high peaks, steep valleys, lakes, rivers, and unique cultures. Yunnan is a part of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau to the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau. The province sits on the eastern boundary of the Himalayan uplift and was shaped in the Pleistocene. In the heart of Yunnan sits Kunming, the province's capital and largest city. Many cities in China can claim to be home to or near iconic geography and culture. However, Kunming stands out as a unique urban area, which allows its residents and visitors ease of access to a multitude of topography and traditions.
Kunming is a hilly city nestled along Dianchi Lake, Xishan, and other mountains. Due to its position, pollution rarely lingers for mountain winds blow it away. It's not surprising that the city's scenery and mild climate have led to a sister city relationship with Denver, Colorado. Residents and visitors alike stroll through its scenic streets, up its absorbing alleys, and along its charming canals. Folks can hike or cycle easily from the city to the surrounding countryside. Within a a few hours' drive, bus ride or train ride, one can experience the limestone plateau of the east or the high mountains in the northwest.
On a recent visit I stayed at Moon and Chalice Hotel – an absolutely lovely boutique hotel situated close to the Yunnan Monument to the People's Heroes (抗战胜利纪念堂) near Wuyi Lu (五一路) and Guanghua Jie (光华街) in downtown Kunming. I had a much-needed and fulfilling sleep on the comfortable bed and woke up with the complimentary tea, coffee, and water. With a modest group of travel companions, we had a scrumptious meal at Heavenly Manna (吗哪) on Wenhua Alley (文化巷) beside the rather famous Salvador's Coffee House. Around the corner lies Wenlin Jie (文林街) – a famous bar and restaurant street in Kunming.
Our group went on to visit a well-known tourist attraction in central Kunming – Green Lake Park (翠湖公园). Yunnan as a whole is enveloped by water. It is after all on the downslope from the glaciers of the Himalayas. In the west of Yunnan, rivers flow north to south and in the east, rivers flow west to east. The province is known for its greenery. By extension, Kunming has a lot of water. Green Lake itself used to be a reservoir for the city. Now, it is a picturesque urban park with bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and hotels nearby. Yunnan University and Wenlin Jie are at walking distance from the downtown park. Locally, one of its yearly attractions is the wintering gulls who migrate from Siberia. Folks flock here to feed the birds and take pictures. Visitors and residents alike exercise and relax to take in the many sights and sounds of the area.
The Yunnan Military Academy (陆军讲武堂) is another famous place near Green Lake. It is one of the architectural wonders of Kunming and it is easily recognizable by its unique yellow color. From 1909 to 1935, over 9000 students were trained there. Along with the Baoding Military Academy (保定军校) and the Huangpu Military Academy (黄埔军校), the Yunnan Military Academy was one of the top centers of strategy in modern China. The school was established by the Qing government and had three graduating classes from 1909 to 1911. From 1912 to 1928, 16 classes graduated during the first 16 years of the Republic of China. Three graduating classes occurred in its last six years. Due to the strong demands brought on by the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Academy had to close its doors.
Xishan (西山) is undoubtedly the most iconic geographic landmark in Kunming. The "Western Hills" is a spectacular forest park that has been dubbed "Sleeping Beauty," "Sleeping Buddha Hill," and the "Pearl of the Plateau." Xishan is covered with firs and pines and when the conditions are right, there is a mysterious mist that blankets the mountains. The Western Hills Forest Reserve contains grottoes, pavilions, and temples. Visitors see the synergy of Taoist and Buddhist influences on top of the Ming and Qing styles.
The Longmen Grottoes, meaning Dragon Gate Grottoes, sit at 2,300 metres above sea level. It took from the time of the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆) in 1782 to the time of the Xianfeng Emperor (咸丰) in 1854 to complete the Grottoes. In a single view, visitors can see the cliff face on one side with Dianchi Lake on the other side. Dianchi Lake is a freshwater fault lake which sits at over 500 metres below the Grottoes at 1886 metres above sea level. The lake was home to the Cuan (爨), an umbrella term for the various local groups that lived there from the time of the Three Kingdoms to the Tang Dynasty. The character for "Dian" shares its meaning with the Dian culture that lived there long before the Han annexed the region in 109 BCE.
That day, after our climb, we had a delicious Dai dinner nearby Dianchi Lake at Dai Family Yard (傣家小院). Dai cuisine originates from the Dai people in the south of the province and can sometimes feel like a delicious fusion of Thai and Yunnanese food.
The next day, we traveled east of Kunming to Naigu Stone Forest (乃古石林), the lesser known and arguably more pleasant cousin of the Stone Forest scenic area. Naigu and the main scenic area are dolomitic formations, which standout as the most prominent features of Yunnan's limestone plateau. Naigu means "old" and "black" in the Sani (撒尼) dialect of the local Yi people. Naigu was formed during the Permian geological period. After the aforementioned period of uplift, sandstone and limestone deposition took place. Water and wind later shaped and created the limestone pillars we see today. Every formation is unique and some of the more particular karst figures have romantic and epic names indicative of a mythical past.
For the rest of the day and evening, we visited two markets. Yunnan's geography not only means alluring vistas, but a prosperous agricultural industry, too. The first market we went to was a food market called "Zhuanxin Market" (篆新农贸市场). Products ranged from fresh produce to prepared snacks and meals. Regardless of one's dietary preference, one should be able to find something they like. Yunnan's climate and topography allows for vibrant food production and is home to many of China's organic food producers.
The ground floor of the market is an array of stalls and vendors selling a wide range of fungi, plant and animal food products. Business carried on even as torrential rain came down. In the evening, we went to Dounan (斗南鲜花市场), a flower market in Chenggong, an urban region south of Kunming, which is also situated alongside Dianchi Lake. Dounan is the largest flower market and auction in Asia. Vendors sell individual flowers and packaged arrangements and export Yunnan's flowers to other countries, as well as distribute them across the whole of China. The people scurried about vigorously on foot and tuktuk like the bees that help make this industry a reality.
The following day, we went to the Fengbai Mountain (风摆山) which sits in the northwest of Kunming. We set out on foot from the base of a row of windmill turbines on top of the mountains. Wind energy is the second largest power source in Yunnan (hydropower is first while thermal is third). We hiked down to a tunnel that had been blasted out and it served as a nice shortcut to a very enjoyable view of the other side of the mountains.
On this trip Jiaozi Snow Mountain (轿子雪山) was our last stop. Suprisingly, with its highest peak at 4,247 metres altitude, it is not even close to being the highest mountain in Yunnan. It is, however, the highest in the central region of the province and it is not far at all by modern transportation from downtown Kunming. In winter Jiaozi is generally covered in snow, while in summer one can still enjoy its lakes and blossoming alpine meadows. Depending of what you want from a mountain, you have to pick the right time to visit. For the best azalea flower views, spring and summer are the best times to visit Jiaozi Snow Mountain. The autumn and winter are the best times to see cascades and glaciers.
It goes without saying – these four days in Kunming were a wonderful experience. Whether you are a fiend for geography or culture, or whether you are a foodie, Kunming has something for you. And you will surely want to come back to see what else China's New Tier One city has to offer. On top of its temperate climate and modern amenities, it is conveniently situated within a short distance in every direction of something different and majestic. If you are looking for a vacation when you have less than a week to spend and where you can experience a lot, Kunming should be at the top of your list.