Located in China’s most ethnically diverse province – Yunnan, Kunming is laidback but bursting with history, culture and creative energy.
As capital of Yunnan, China’s most ethnically diverse province, and located on a geographical crossroads bordering Tibet, Vietnam, Laos and Burma, Kunming is bursting with history, culture and creative energy. The city grew to importance as a garrison town during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, but humans have been settled in the area for thousands of years, leaving some rich historical traces behind.
Regardless of whether you’re a foodie, a shopaholic or a history buff, Kunming offers enough to easily pack a weekend schedule. And that's before you even consider the incredible sights outside the city, which make Kunming one of China’s top tourist destinations. Yunnanese food, for those who’ve never tried it, always proves to be an incredible revelation, which is unsurprising given the province’s numerous different climates and influences.
Kunming is a well-kept secret, but won’t be for long. Its high altitude means it has a near perfect climate, while the laid-back vibes of the locals make a welcome change from the noise and intensity of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Even better, traveling here won’t break the bank, either. But shh, don’t tell everyone.
Kunming is known as the Spring City for its pleasant climate, which is generally dry and neither too hot nor too cold. It is a good year-round destination. December and January are coldest, and August tends to be slightly wetter.
Singaporean citizens can visit China for a period of 15 days without a visa, while most other nationalities require a visa in advance. Ensure your passport is valid for at least six months and that you have a return or onward ticket.
China's currency is the yuan (Y), also known as renminbi, or colloquially as kuai. There are currency exchange booths and ATMs at Changshui International Airport and there are a number of ATMs in the city itself. Most of the large Chinese banks (including Bank of China and Construction Bank of China) accept international credit and debit cards.
The airport lies 25km (16 miles) northeast of the city. A taxi to downtown costs around Y100. Despite recent efforts by the city government, public transport remains patchy and difficult to use - the metro system is being expanded, but coverage is poor. Taxis are to be found in abundance throughout most parts of the city. The city's pleasant climate makes walking a good option.
Kunming is generally safe, though as with all cities in China travellers should remain vigilant. The nightclub area close to the city centre is best avoided late at night. There are numerous hospitals throughout the city though service and cleanliness levels can be inconsistent and fees high.
Dial 110 in an emergency. Police stations and police officers are a relatively common sight especially in and around the city centre. English-speaking walk-in inquiries should be directed to Kunming Public Security Bureau, #525 Beijing Road, Panlong District (tel: (86) 871 3017 001).
|How are you?||Ni hao ma?|
|Fine, thanks||Hen hao, xie xie|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention)||Qing wen!|
|Thank you||Xie xie|
|What's your name?||Ni jiao shen me ming zi?|
|My name is…||Wo jiao…|
|Nice to meet you||Jian dao ni hen gao xing|
|Are you on Facebook/Twitter?||Nin zai shi yong Facebook/Twitter ma?|
|Where’s an internet café?||Wang ba zai na li?|
|Where can I get a taxi?||Wo ke yi zai na li zhao dao chu zu che?|
|Where is the bus/train station?||Qi che zhan/huo che zhan zai na li?|
|A one-way/return ticket to…||Yi zhang dao…de dan cheng/shuang cheng piao|
|Do you have a room for one/two?||You yi/liang ren de fang jian ma?|
|When's check out?||Ji dian tui fang?|
|Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar?||Ni neng tui jian yi jia hao can guan/jiu ba ma?|
|A table for two, please||Qing gei wo liang ge ren de zhuo zi|
|A menu, please||Qing gei wo cai dan|
|The bill, please||Qing gei wo zhang dan|
|Where's the toilet?||Xi shou jian zai na li?|
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Lake Dianchi & Western Hills
Lake Dianchi and the Western Hills, visible from many parts of the city, rise to 2,350 metres (7,710ft) and are a short ride away from downtown. Crowds during weekends and holidays can be overwhelming, but a weekday walk when the weather is good makes the magic of the hills come alive. Take a taxi or bus to the base and hike to the top, passing Buddhist and Taoist temples along the way. From the top the views of Lake Dianchi, a huge body of water stretching some 40km (25 miles) from tip to tail, can be breathtaking.
Kunming's city centre is still home to a small Muslim Quarter despite recent large-scale redevelopment. The community is descended from a military garrison dating from the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and the area around Shuncheng Street contains a lively mix of mosques and halal restaurants, making it a great place to see both Hui architecture and sample some delicious beef noodles.
East and West Pagodas
The city’s most ancient landmarks, the two 13-tier East and West Pagodas, in the southeast quarter, date back to the Tang dynasty. They stand opposite one another at either end of Sima Alley, which is lined with numerous restaurants and souvenir shops. Maintaining a graceful watch over Kunming, these two stone towers are beautiful, mysterious architectural examples of Yunnan's place at a geographical crossroads.
Green Lake (Cui Hu) sits in the centre of Kunming; with ornate boats on the water and bright pavilions on its shores, it makes for a pleasant stroll. The grounds form the city’s major park, occupied every morning with Chinese tai chi enthusiasts and joggers, as well as those practising their ballroom dancing. The islands in the centre of the lake were once home to the provincial governor and his entourage, though little trace now remains of those once elaborate buildings.
Yunnan Provincial Museum
The Yunnan Provincial Museum has a collection of 198,000 artefacts from across history and across the province, including 500 pieces which have been given the highly coveted 'national treasure' status. Highlights include intricate local bronzeware and exhibits on the province's ethnic minority cultures. The Museum will transfer to a new, larger building near Guangfu Lu in the city's southern Guandu District in May 2014.
Kunming’s geographical location means that it has more diversity and culture than the average Chinese city. Begin at Green Lake, the historical heart of the city. This was once home to the provincial governor, who lived in style on the islands in the middle of the park. In winter the lake’s most famous residents are no longer high officials but Siberian seagulls who migrate here for the warmer climate. The park surrounding Green Lake is a hive of activity, with families on afternoon strolls, retirees practising calisthenics, and groups of middle-aged housewives line-dancing.
From the lake head south past the hyper-modern steel and glass tower that is home to the Wuhua District government, towards the Yunnan Provincial Museum. Housing tens of thousands of artefacts from around the province, the museum provides an insight into the area's history. Only a couple of streets away to the east is what was once the city’s Muslim Quarter; the Shuncheng Mosque is worth seeing for its blend of Islamic and traditional Chinese architecture. A number of halal restaurants in the neighbourhood make it a good place to stop for lunch.
South of the Muslim Quarter is Jinbi Square, a gaudy commercial complex built in a traditional style, with an ice rink and a number of bars. Continuing south, the next historical sight is one of the two East and West Pagodas, dating back to the Tang Dynasty. Round your day off at a coffee house on Wenlin Street near the university, where good conversation and, often, live music abounds.
Green Lake, Yunnan Provincial Museum, Muslim Quarter, East and West Pagodas.
Grab breakfast at Salvador’s for a taste of delicious backpacker food and sustainable Yunnan coffee that won’t break the bank.
After burning off the breakfast calories with a walk around Green Lake and the old town, head further south to Jiangshi Brother Across-the-Bridge Noodles. These rice noodles are a Kunming staple, and can be eaten at any time of the day, but make a good lunch. For the story behind the unique name, ask a member of staff to explain the history. A layer of oil keeps the soup underneath very close to boiling point, and you are expected to tip in the noodles and other side dishes yourself to be cooked in the soup. Kunmingers like their noodles ultra spicy, but thankfully the spice comes on the side too.
Energised (or scalded) by the noodles, you’re only a stone’s throw from the city’s shopping district across the road. Indulge in some retail therapy before dinner at 1910 La Gare du Sud, a few streets southeast of the shopping district. This place is consistently named best Yunnanese restaurant in Kunming, and the menu is an extensive guide to the region’s amazing creations. Ask for mushroom and vegetable dish recommendations, many varieties of which are only found growing wild, and are unique to Yunnan. Drink the pu’er tea to aid digestion – you’ll need it after a day of eating this much.
Salvador’s, Jiangshi Brother Across-the-Bridge Noodles, 1910 La Gare du Sud.