The city of eternal spring offers many cultural and natural excursions, a pleasant weather all year round, and an orderly city life. Here is an itinerary for a two days visit.
For my first time in China, I have picked Kunming, in the Yunnan province, as the landing spot. The place is known as the city of eternal spring for the mild weather conditions all year long. So, I was expecting some sun, blue skies, and lots of flowers all around, right?
Wrong! Even here there’s a monsoon season, and this year it started late, so it’s kind of dragging on. It’s half September, normally one of the best times to go to Kunming, and the weather was cloudy and capriciously rainy. This hasn’t stopped me from visiting of course, but perhaps not with the voracity I would normally apply.
At any rate, the city has a nice vibe, it is clean and orderly, with some lively nightlife. There is a kind of expat community as well, very small; people living here mostly as English teachers. It’s about 6,5 mil inhabitants, which isn’t much for a Chinese city, but it is much if you consider it has developed mostly after 1990.
Kunming’s population, as the rest of Yunnan province, is composed of some 26 ethnic groups, among which the Yi people represent the biggest minority in the area. This cultural differences also mean different lifestyles, customs, art and culture. And of course, a variety of food to try. Yay!
As for the sightseeing, here is a nice itinerary for two full days, and further down some extra points of interest that I know could be nice, but I haven’t visited myself.
DAY 1: PARK, MARKETS, AND A NICE BUDDHIST TEMPLE
Wherever you book your guest house, hostel or hotel, it is likely that you are going to be somewhere around the city centre. It is as likely that you’ll be able to go for the following loop, covering several spots. You can pick the closest to your location. I’ll start with one at random:
Green Lake Park
A lovely park, once a water reservoir, divided in several sub lakes linked by traditional bridges, and with traditional pavilions, porches, and mansions scattered all around. One of the lakes contains many big carps and goldfish, and some ducks, and swans. I saw my first black swans here. Apparently in winter black headed seagulls migrate from Siberia to this park to entertain the visitors.
Other lakes are covered with lotus flowers, plants, or bamboo. All in all it is a nice walk around this green area, and you might come across some elders doing tai chi or dancing. Yes, Chinese love dancing in the open air. At least the old generations do. In the middle of the park there are many shops, mostly to get some snacks.
Importantly, it is FREE. And I must highlight this because apparently in China everything has a price.
The second step for this first day could be the Yuantong Temple. It is one of the oldest and possibly the most important Buddhist temple in the whole Yunnan province. Built in the late 8th century, it went through various restorations with the passing of time, and dynasties.
The peculiarity of this temple is that it is built on a descending slope. Usually, it is the other way around for Buddhist temples. So, when you enter you don’t actually see that there are four temple structures, one hidden behind the other. The last one built with white stones. Inside each temple, there are golden Buddha’s statues (featured image), in a colourfully painted frame, often with representations of other folkloristic figures or mythological creatures, such as dragons.
It is a beautiful and peaceful place, surrounded by ponds and gardens, in the middle of the city. Many people go there for their prayers.
The entrance fee is only 6 YUAN.
Bird and Flower market
This “market” is actually a nice pedestrian area, in an old, kind of medieval part of the city. It isn’t very big and you can find here some nice, and some fancy, cafe and restaurants. Perfect for a break.
There is a wildlife market too (every time I come across something like this I feel kind of sad, even for the fish). I have seen a huge space with aquariums and all kind of fish, including tropical species of all kind, even a small blacktip shark and a stingray. Some shops also sell puppies, different species of water turtles, scorpions, lizards, and some bugs. There should be an actual bird and flower markets, but I guess it wasn’t on the day I was there, or I just haven’t seen it.
This is just a normal market with fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and a lot of street food. If you have just arrived in China and you want to have a taste of local life, then spending some time at the farmer market is a great way to do so. And to taste some weird food your palate has never even imagined before. A warning for the vegetarians: there’s a loooooot of meat in Chinese markets.
The four points above make for quite a nice loop, and a busy day.
DAY TWO: WESTERN HILLS
The nice thing about Western Hills, resting on the shore of Dianchi Lake, is that they are reachable by metro. Last stop of the violet line in fact. Once out, just follow the crowd, the place is well frequented, and you’ll get to the entrance. From here you have two options in order to get to the gate of the park. One, you can walk uphill for about 1 ½ hour on a tarmac road, or, two, you can take the bus that goes the same way for 12 Yuan.
Keep in mind that once you get to the entrance at the top, then you’ll have to walk up and down a lot of stairs to visit the actual nice part of the park. Indeed, there’s even a chair lift to go up and start from further above. Then there are several spots to visit scattered around the hill: pavilions, temples (Buddhist and Taoist), viewpoints, even a small stone forest. On these ups and downs, you get to see also a quite nice view of Kunming and Dianchi Lake from above.
Unmissable is the Dragon Gate, which is a big stone carved structure on the edge of a high cliff. No worries, from the path it never gives a sense of vertigo. So, you pass through carved stairs, paths and grotto, that take you through several hand-carved Taoist temples overlooking the lake. Really impressive considering Taoist monks made all of that about 500 years ago all by hand.
Between the metro, bus, entrance to the park etc. be ready to spend about 100 YUAN (about 12€) for this day trip.
DAY 3, 4, 5…
Alright, I have been a lazy ass, the bad weather really demotivated me, and I am not the kind of traveller that needs to do everything, especially for city visits. I focus more on the general vibe than on sightseeing. However, here are some extra things to do in Kunming and surroundings, which I haven’t seen with my own eyes, but people I talked to told me about. Who knows, I might go back and visit some more, when spring starts 😉
√ Golden Temple and Bamboo Temple: they are both at the edge of the city, so it takes about an hour to reach them by bus or taxi. They are at the antipodes though, not easy to see both on the same day. The Golden temple is also situated in a park
√ Yunnan University: it is apparently beautiful, with a lot of green gardens and all.
√ Stone forest: this is a one-day excursion outside Kunming. Certainly a nice place but I didn’t go because of the price. The entrance to the park cost more than 20€, plus the transportation to get there. For a long-term traveller it isn’t possible to start paying for every single thing to do.
√Jiaozi Snow Mountain: for the hikers with some more time to spend in the area, this could be really nice. I believe also possible with a one-day excursion. I preferred to move further north.
√ Dongchuan Red Land: I have been told about this, as well as everything else really, by a man I met on my first night in China, who lives in Kunming for a long time. Nice encounters in Kunming. Anyways, they are red lands extending for nearly 50 Km, with the most striking and distinctive red colour. Possibly a great spot for photography lovers. However, Dongchuan Red Land is about 250 Km northeast of Kunming. It might be necessary to stay overnight in the area.
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