Beijing Getaways: Kunming 昆明
Captivating Kunming: The seasonal charm of a city south of the clouds
As I emerged from Kunming airport under a dazzling sky and rows of elegant palms, two things struck me.
Firstly, that I was wearing too many clothes. Secondly, a distinct, earthy aroma hanging in the air, with a subtle suggestion of tropical fecundity. A world away from northerly Beijing's desiccated drabness, this city - capital of China's land "south of the clouds" - promised warmth, vitality, and more than a touch of the exotic. I was ready to explore.
Widely hailed as the "City of Eternal Spring", Kunming is a sun-kissed metropolis, nestling at 2000 meters among lakes and terraced hillsides of tea and tobacco.
"This city has the best weather in Yunnan and all of China," said my taxi driver with good-natured pride, as we drove down empty boulevards toward my well-appointed hotel, the Grand Park Kunming. "It has the freshest air and the most beautiful girls. Some people say Chengdu girls are more beautiful, but I think they're wrong." I assured him I'd conduct my own careful survey.
Itinerant Italian Marco Polo once described Kunming as a "very great and noble city". Staring out of my taxi window over seven centuries later, I couldn't help but agree. Shimmering towers of glass and concrete overshadowed side streets edged with magnolia, while carefree couples strolled along sidewalks decorated with luxuriant camellia blooms. With roadside verges chipping in with profusions of scarlet azalea, March in Kunming was starting to seem more like summer.
I wandered down to Jinbi Square to get my first taste of Kunming life. With the ornate tiles of the impressive Golden Horse Memorial Archway warmed by a setting sun, it seemed as though the entire city had turned out for a spot of Sunday evening socializing.
Teenage hipsters with iPods shared benches with chess-playing octogenarians, while young mothers gossiped over impromptu nurseries. Sidewalk salesmen offered everything from a head massage to shoe polish, and tonight the trade was brisk.
"Where are you from?" I took my eyes off the crowds and turned to see a smartly dressed young Chinese man standing beside me wearing a diffident smile. As we introduced ourselves, I found that Ling was a student at a local university, eager to test his language skills. "Do you like Kunming food?" he enquired in faultless English, and proceeded to offer the services of his favorite restaurant.
"As this is your first time in Kunming I think we should eat 'across-the-bridge noodles'," Ling declared firmly, as we arrived at a clean but spartan café just off the square. "This is Kunming's most famous dish with a long history. It's a love story about a devoted Yunnan wife who wanted to keep noodles warm for her studious husband."
Clearly the recipe was a success - my brimming bowlful of noodles was both piping hot and delicious. I thanked Ling for his hospitality, promising to return the favor if he ever came to England. A few hours later, as my head hit the pillow, I'd yet to decide which dish best epitomized London cuisine. I was sure, however, that none could beat Kunming's trademark offering for either flavor or romance.
Kunming has a liberal sprinkling of green spaces, and one of the finest is Green Lake Park. Up at dawn, I wandered along the lake's leafy shoreline, blossoming cherry trees contrasting exquisitely with delicate lotus flowers at the water's edge. Under a small pavilion massed ranks of elderly locals performed a soothing, slow-motion display of tai chi, while the strains of a single erhu filled the air. It was a beautiful way to see the city come alive.
After the tranquil confines of Green Lake and a hasty breakfast, it was time to hit the road. Yunnan is dotted with karst topography, but the Stone Forest (Shilin), a two-hour luxury bus ride from Kunming - is surely the most spectacular. An expansive limestone statuary of 400 square kilometers, carved eons ago by a retreating sea, this is widely touted as one of Kunming's premier attractions.
For two hours I walked through the Stone Forest, enthralled by the increasingly bizarre geology of this labyrinthine landscape. Many of the most eccentric formations had their own titles. My favorite was the "hanging rock" - an aptly named oblong boulder delicately balanced between two pillars. Those of a stout heart are encouraged to take a break under the rock to demonstrate their love for a partner. Holding an expensive camera, and with nobody around to witness my bravado, I moved swiftly on.
Returning to Kunming, I decided it was time for another Yunnan specialty - coffee. In a land of tea, coffee grown China often gets overlooked, but with the likes of Starbucks now buying Yunnan beans, I was eager to sample the city's finest cup of joe. Lying at the heart of the Wenhua Xiang neighborhood - a bustling enclave of Bohemian boutiques and student hangouts - Salvador's Coffee House was the place to satisfy my craving.
American Josh Pollock, an old acquaintance from Beijing who set up Salvador's with three friends in 2004, stood me my first frothy ca"ppuccino. "Business is booming," he beamed. We only use freshly roasted Yunnan beans, and even the locals have come to appreciate coffee from their own province."
Fueled by an energizing dose of Yunnan caffeine, Josh and I grabbed a cab to the local flower and bird market, and were soon amongst one of the most dizzying arrays of produce that I'd ever seen.
Fighting crickets in bamboo cages and bowls of baby terrapins shared stalls with bamboo hookahs and Mao memorabilia, while a confused medley of songs from caged birds filled the air. After an hour of gawking, and five minutes of ineffectual bargaining, I bought a jade necklace, and it was time to make a dignified withdrawal.
A few kilometers northwest of Kunming, on the side of Jade Table Mountain above Dian Lake, squats the city's Bamboo Temple (Qiongzhu Temple). Arriving early the following day, I found this Buddhist retreat bathed in bright spring sunshine. The smell of incense was heavy in the air, as a posse of young, saffron-clad monks chatted happily and swept leaves.
Despite the piety of its worshippers, it's not religious rituals that make the Bamboo Temple famous. As I wandered into the main hall, my eyes adjusting to the Stygian gloom, an astonishing tableau of surreal characters slowly revealed itself.
From the gory to the grotesque, angry to angelic, these incredibly lifelike creations are the work of 19th century sculptor Li Guangxiu. Intended as a light-hearted depiction of monks who'd attained nirvana, they took Li seven years to complete, and so offended his contemporaries that his career was finished soon after. Irreverent or not, this is certainly one temple visitors don't forget in a hurry.
Hugging Dian Lake's shoreline, I headed toward the Yunnan Nationalities Village, final destination on a thoroughly entertaining itinerary. A one-stop ethnic shop beside the lake, this colorful microcosm proved a fitting conclusion to my time in the City of Eternal Spring. Bai and Naxi, Dai and Mosuo, the cultural diversity of Yunnan's minority groups served to highlight how much more of this province there was to explore. The perfect excuse for a return to Kunming, gateway to this exciting land south of the clouds.
Many Chinese carriers have flights to Kunming, plus other regional Asian carriers such as Thai Airways, Korean Air and Malaysia Airlines. Wujiaba Airport is only four kilometers from the city center - the taxi fare is around 20 RMB each way. Sleeper trains from Kunming to Beijing (and vice versa) take around 40 hours, to Shanghai slightly less.
Kunming taxis are cheap (starting at 8 RMB) - only use metered cars. Bicycles can be rented at many locations for local destinations and sedate sightseeing.
Green Lake Park (翠湖公园 / Cui Hu Gongyuan)
Located on Cui Hu Nan Lu (near Yunnan University)
Open: 7am - 9pm; Admission: 2 RMB
Kunming Flower & Bird Market (昆明花 鸟市场 / Kunming Huaniao Shichang)
Centrally located, around the intersection of Dongfeng West Road (东风西路) and Wuyi Road (五一路).
Open: 9am - 6pm
Bamboo Temple (筇竹寺 / Qiongzhu Si)
Located 12 kilometers northwest of Kunming. Cheap minibuses (3 RMB) to the temple depart from Kunming railway station. Taxis are quicker and more reliable, costing around 40 RMB one way.
Open: 7.30 am - 5 pm; Admission: 10 RMB
Yunnan Nationalities Village (云南民族村 / Yunnan Minzucun)
Provides a colorful crash course on Yunnan's diverse minority groups - from the tropical regions of the south to the highlands of the north. Contains numerous smaller villages in individual ethnic style, plus regular singing and dancing events. A great range of ethnic handicrafts, jewelry and clothing for sale. Located seven kilometers south of Kunming. Taxis from the city center cost around 25 RMB one way.
1310 Dianchi Road (滇池路 1310 号)
Open: 8am - 7pm; Admission: 70 RMB
Stone Forest (石林 / Shilin)
Luxury buses depart regularly from the east side of Kunming railway station. The 90 kilometer journey takes around two hours and the fare should be in the region of 30 RMB.
Open: 8.30am - 6pm; Admission: 140 RMB
Salvador's Coffee House
In addition to great Yunnan coffees, this cosy cafe offers a wide variety of Western food and imported beer.
76 Wenlin Jie, Wenhua Xiang; www.salvadors.cn
Across-the-bridge-noodles (过桥米线) can be sampled at a wide range of Kunming restaurants. For more upmarket fare there is a wide range of Chinese and international restaurants on Wenlin Jie (文林街).
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