Yunnan Travel Guide

Kunming

 
Sutra Pillar, City Museum
Sutra Pillar,
City Museum

The capital of Yunnan province, Kunming rests at 6,500 ft (2,000 m) above sea level. Its clement weather and floral wealth have earned it the nickname “City of Eternal Spring.” An ancient city that first came to prominence as part of the Nanzhao Kingdom, Kunming had grown into a thriving city with a cosmopolitan character by the 13th century. Kunming is fast becoming indistinguishable from the redeveloped metropolises found throughout the country, but it is still considered one of China's more laid-back cities, with lakeside vistas just to the south.

Kunming City Center

Visitors' checklist

  • 208 miles (335 km) SE of Dali
  • 3,900,000
  • Kunming Wujiaba Airport
  • Kunming Train Station, North Train Station
  • Kunming Bus Station, Western Bus Station
  • 285 Huancheng Nan Lu, 0871 356 6666

Kunming city center

  • Bird & Flower Market 3
  • City Museum 7
  • Cui Hu Gongyuan 1
  • Muslim Quarter 5
  • Provincial Museum 4
  • Xi Si Ta 6
  • Yuantong Si 2
Pavilions on the fish-filled waters of Cui Hu Gongyuan
Pavilions on the fish-filled waters
of Cui Hu Gongyuan

Cui Hu Gongyuan
Northwest of the city, this park has pavilions and bridges, and its lotus-filled ponds are visited by migrant red-beaked gulls in winter. Just west of the park, the old French Legation now holds temporary exhibitions. To the northwest is the university district, with its student cafés.

Yuantong Si
At the foot of Yuantong Hill lies Yunnan's largest Buddhist complex and a popular pilgrimage spot. Renovated and rebuilt many times, it has an imposing Ming gateway, while a bridge over the central pond crosses through a Qing-era pavilion. Enshrined here is a 6-ft (3-m) golden statue of Maitreya Buddha. Behind the pavilion, the Ming-dynasty Great Hall of the Buddha has two wooden dragons on its main pillars, referring to a legend that the temple was built to pacify a dragon living in the pond. A new Thai-style hall behind holds a marble statue of Sakyamuni, donated by the King of Thailand. At the back of the temple is a cliff cut with steps allowing a view of religious poems and sayings carved into the rock.

Bird & Flower Market
The many stalls lining the crammed alleyways off Jingxing Jie sell an eclectic variety of goods. Splayed out in colorful rows at the huge pet market are a wealth of bird, fish, and animal species, while the antique and curio booths sell souvenirs such as tai ji quan swords, jewelry, old coins, bamboo pipes, and Cultural Revolution mementos.

Provincial Museum
The second floor of this museum houses splendid bronze drums excavated from tombs on the shore of Lake Dian and dating back more than 2,000 years to the Warring States and Western Han periods. The drums are embellished with relief dioramas, largely showing typical scenes of rural life, although there are also wrestling scenes, a dramatic image of an ox battling a tiger, and a strange picture of a bamboo house transformed into a coffin. The most ornate of the drums were used to store cowry shells, then a form of currency. The others served as musical instruments or elements in sacrificial rites. Even today, bronze drums play an important role at weddings, festivals, and funerals for some of Yunnan's minority groups. Another hall holds bronze and wooden Buddhist statues from various periods. Upstairs, an exhibition on pre-history displays human remains and plaster models of armored fish.

Barbecuing lamb, Muslim Quarter
Barbecuing lamb, Muslim Quarter

Muslim Quarter
Kunming's last old street lined with shops selling raisins, pita bread, and wind-dried beef, Shuncheng Jie, constitutes what's left of the old Muslim Quarter. The Nanchang Qingzhen Si, the city's 400-year-old mosque which once stood on Zhengyi Lu, was demolished several years ago, and a garish modern replacement, faced with white tiles and topped with bright green domes, was erected in its place. More interesting than the new mosque are the alleyways that surround it, packed with shops selling religious accoutrements such as skull-caps and images of Mecca. The noodle makers in the small Muslim cafés are fascinating to watch as they toss dough, teasing it out into ever-increasing numbers of strands. Numerous stalls sell mouthwatering lamb kabobs sprinkled with cumin. Nearby another mosque lies between Huguo Lu and Chongyun Jie.

Xi Si Ta
The 13-storied Tang-era Xi Si Ta (Western Pagoda) has statues in the niches of each story. Close by, Dong Si Ta (Eastern Pagoda) is a more attractive replica standing in a garden. Although visitors cannot enter the temples associated with both pagodas, a small fee permits entry into Xi Si Ta's courtyard, where people come to relax on sunny afternoons.

Skeleton of Dilophosaurus, City Museum
Skeleton of Dilophosaurus, City Museum

City Museum
Though less interesting than the Provincial Museum, this museum houses a few relevant artifacts. The most striking is the Song-dynasty Dali Sutra Pillar, a 20-ft (7-m) sculpture in pink sandstone, commissioned by the Dali king, Yuan Douguang, in honor of General Gao Ming. Seven tiers swarm with lively images of guardian gods and captive demons, and at the top is a ring of Buddhas holding up the universe. On the upper floors are bronze drums, a display on Kunming, and five locally-found dinosaur skeletons, including an allosaur and a Yunnanosaurus robustus.

Jin Dian
Well-kept flower gardens and leafy pine woods are reason enough to visit this secluded spot in the city's northeastern suburbs. However, the park's ostensible focus is the Jin Dian (Golden Temple) located on top of its central hill. Originally built in 1602 during the Ming Dynasty, and rebuilt in 1671 as the summer residence of the Qing rebel general, Wu Sangui, this unusual two-tiered shrine is made entirely of bronze. Its overall construction imitates the more conventional wooden temples, with screens, columns, and flying eaves. Just over 20-ft (6-m) high and weighing nearly 300 tons (272,155 kg), the temple sits atop a base of Dali marble and is almost completely black with the patina of age. In the courtyard stand ancient camellia trees, one of which is 600 years old. The main hall, with bronze lattices, beams, and statues, houses two magical swords used by Daoist warriors. Fragrant with camellias, the gardens here serve as popular picnic spots. Visitors can either take a bus or hire a bike to reach the base of the hill, from where it's an easy hike uphill to the temple.

Haigeng Park viewed against the expanse of Lake Dian
Haigeng Park viewed against the expanse of Lake Dian

Situated on the hill behind Jin Dian is another Daoist shrine with a tower that houses a 14-ton (12,700-kg) bronze bell. Dating to 1423, it was retrieved from Kunming's demolished southern gates

Qiongzhu Si
The Tang-era Qiongzhu Si (Bamboo Temple) was burned down and subsequently rebuilt in the 15th century. Today, this elegant Buddhist structure, with fine black and red woodwork, stands on Yuan-dynasty foundations. Besides housing three impressive Buddha statues, the temple is famous for its dazzling array of life-size clay sculptures, created over ten years toward the end of the 19th century by a supremely talented Sichuan sculptor, Li Guangxiu. The sculptor and his five assistants were commissioned to produce clay figures of the 500 arhat or luo han (those freed from the cycle of birth and death) for the main building. Today, these sculptures are the highlight of the temple, though at that time they were regarded as so distressing that Li Guangxiu was forbidden from ever working again. Along one wall a set of snarling, outlandish figures – one with arms longer than his body, another with eyebrows to his knees – ride foaming waves swarming with sea creatures. Elsewhere, three shelves of figures depict Buddhist virtues and faults. Many aspects of human life and folly are depicted in these beautiful characters: reaching for the moon, playing with a pet monster, yawning, debating, and eating a peach. While Li Guangxiu's skill at rendering facial expressions and gestures makes these figures unique, many are thought to be caricatures of his contemporaries, probably the reason they were so disliked at the time.

Also worth a glance is a 14th-century stone tablet, housed in the main hall. It records imperial China's dealings with Yunnan in Chinese and Mongolian scripts. A good vegetarian restaurant lies within the temple grounds.

Lake Dian & the Western Hills
The 25-mile (40-km) long Lake Dian (Dian Chi), just south of Kunming, is lined with fishing villages and is very pretty. Plying the waters of the elongated lake are fanchuan, traditional junks with bamboo masts and square canvas sails, used for fishing. Daguan Pavilion on the north shore has good views of the area, while a few miles south is Haigeng Park with green willows and eucalyptuses.

A picturesque pavilion with a pond and garden, Taihua Si
A picturesque pavilion with
a pond and garden, Taihua Si

The most rewarding way to see the lake is from the Western Hills (Xi Shan), about 10 miles (16 km) southwest of Kunming. The undulating contours of the “Sleeping Beauty Hills” are said to resemble a reclining woman with tresses flowing into the lake. The path leading to the summit holds a treasury of temples. Visitors can either climb up or take a minibus. The first temple, a mile (2 km) from the entrance, is Huating Si. Designed originally as a country retreat for Gao Zhishen, who ruled Kunming in the 11th century, it has been rebuilt several times. The attractive gardens, dotted with stupas and ponds, contain interesting figures, including the four fierce-looking Guardians of the Directions, the gilded, blue-haired Buddhas, and a set of 500 arhat.

From Huating Si, a steep, winding road leads deep into the forest for 1 mile (2 km) to Taihua Si, established by Xuan Jian, a wandering Chan (Zen) Buddhist monk in 1306, and dedicated to Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion. It is well known for its garden of camellias and magnolias, and excellent views. Another 20-minute walk up the hill leads to Sanqing Si, a complex of temples, halls, and pavilions, which formerly served as a summer palace for a 14th-century Mongolian prince. It was converted to a Daoist shrine in the 18th century.

The Burma Road in the 1930s, snaking through the hills
The Burma Road in the 1930s,
snaking through the hills

Just half a mile away is the Dragon Gate Grotto, a set of chambers, steps, and tunnels excavated from the mountain. The mammoth construction task, which involved swinging from ropes and hacking at the rock with chisels, was begun by the late 18th century monk Wu Laiqing, and took 70 years to complete. Worth exploring along the way are niches with several fantastic statues, including those of Guanyin and the Gods of Study and Virtue. A cable car runs from near Sanqing Si to the summit at Grand Dragon Gate, a balcony perched at 8,200 ft (2,500 m), from where there are fine views over Lake Dian.

The Burma Road
For 1,500 years, the southern Silk Route ran through Yunnan, across Burma, and into India, traversing thick jungle and bandit-ridden mountains. In the 1930s, the Chinese government, driven west by the invading Japanese, reopened the route to use as a supply line into China from Burma. The 684-mile (1,100-km) road was built by 300,000 laborers, with primitive tools, and connected Kunming with the British railhead at Lashio in Burma. After the beginning of World War II, it became a strategic lifeline for the Allied troops, bringing in food, arms, and medical supplies. Provisions arrived by rail from Rangoon, and were then trucked to China on this route. After the Japanese occupied Lashio in 1942, another road, built under the command of US General Stilwell, linked Ledo in India to the Burma Road at Bhamo.

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