Kunming, the “Spring City,” has a reputation for being one of the most likeable cities in China and a place where people go to chill out. Locals operate at a more leisurely pace than in Beijing, you can walk the streets without feeling like you’re going to be run over, there are plenty of green parks in and surrounding the city, the food market is relatively small and manageable, and prices are easy on the wallet.
The nearby mountains, temples and gardens outside the city are easily accessible for bike rides, camping, hiking, and general relaxing, and the expat scene here is filled with entrepreneur types running bars and restaurants, shops, tours and online sites, as well as the usual crowd teaching English, compared to the more corporate-centric expat crowds in Beijing. Favorite activities of the locals I met often involved drinking and getting high. Fine by me.
The city’s laid-back atmosphere is akin to the West Coast’s, and in fact, the guys behind Go Kunming, an excellent English-language online source for what’s going on in the city, have recently launched Green Kunming, which just might be the country’s first organized organic food delivery service.
But don’t be deceived by this laid-back reputation. Kunming may be a medium-sized city, but that’s by Chinese standards, meaning it has a “mere” 7 to 8 million people in the city and surrounding area compared to the mega cities of Beijing (17.5 million), Shanghai (19 million), and Chongqing (8 million in the main city, but 33 million in the region). And a favorite statistic quoted by locals is that about 600 cars per day are being added to its increasingly crowded streets. Still, it’s a pleasant stop and great starting point for exploring Yunnan province.
We spent just 48 hours here, and much of that time I needed for getting caught up on sleep and, yes, actually doing some work, so I didn’t get to explore Kunming and its surroundings as much as I would have liked. But here are a few highlights.
Salvador’s and LongMay Youth Hotel
The place to stop for traveler information, good coffee, a nice bar scene and vibe at night, and free Internet is Salvador’s Coffee House, on Wenhua Xiang. Owned by three American’s, it makes decent Western food as well (although the local food in Kunming is so good, why bother with Western fare?). It unfortunately was the site of a terrorist bombing last Christmas, which closed the place for five weeks. “We thought we were through, but we rebuilt and business slowly came back,” said Kris Ariel, one of the owners. The place was busy each of my three visits, and I never felt unsafe there. An update from Colin, another owner, which ran in the Denver Post, describes the first few days after the incident.
Instead of staying at the backpacker favorite Kunming Cloudland Youth Hostel, which isn’t in a particularly convenient location (you need a taxi to get just about anywhere you’d want to go), we stayed at the relatively new Long May Youth Hotel, up a quiet alley, just of few blocks from two of the city’s best sites—Yuongtong Temple and Green Lake Park. For Y138 per night (≈US$20), we had a clean, cutely IKEAish-furnished room, big private bath, towels (not always standard here, even in hotels), two comfortable beds and Wi-Fi. The information from staff, however, wasn’t reliable, according to Maggie, who speaks Mandarin and lived in the city for a year.
This sprawling complex of walkways, dining halls, temple rooms, gardens, ponds and shops is well worth a visit. Admission to the temple only is Y4, Y10 for the surrounding park. I arrived during the lunchtime meal service when hundreds of locals gathered to eat and chat along the sidewalks and courtyard areas.
Yuangtong is more than 1,000 years old, is the largest Buddhist complex in Kunming, and is in a continuing state of renovation. You can’t actually enter any of the halls, but you can get a decent glimpse of the statues inside.
In front of the temple entrance are various beggars/street vendors, from Chinese fortune tellers to disabled individuals to the homeless. They’re a tad more aggressive here than I’ve experienced elsewhere in China, though nowhere near as persistent as those I’ve seen in Kathmandu, Hanoi or New York for that matter.
Just before reaching the temple, if walking up Yuangtong Jie, is a lovely Tibetan Buddhist temple down an alleyway to the left. The women taking care of the place are diligent about no photos allowed, but you’re free to roam the building. Don’t miss the colorful rooftop buddhas.
Green Lake Park
By far my favorite experience in Kunming was strolling through Green Lake Park. It’s the place where the city comes out to play—literally and figuratively. In the mornings, groups of folks gather for their daily tai chi or other exercise practice. It quiets down during the day but picks up after work when musicians and dancers, including many from local ethnic tribes, gather to practice and/or perform; families enjoy the (relatively) fresh air with paddle rides on its multiple ponds and canals; and couples find little nooks and crannies for some private time.
It’s easy to get disoriented in the park, as the lakes and lotus ponds are separated by curving bridges and walkways, none of which provide a direct route from one end to the other, and some of which lead to islands. But getting lost here is a treat.
Yunnan Provincial Museum & Chuang Ku
The Yunnan Provincial Museum has enough English descriptions in its exhibits to give you a good introduction to the history of the region, including Dali’s Nanzhao kingdom and the prehistoric Dian kingdom, the ruins of which were discovered in 1955. Bronze was the metal of choice for this culture and there’s a good collection of its drums and weapons. My guidebook said admission was Y10, but I was waved in and told the museum was free.
Chuang Ku, aka The Loft, is a former factory area that until recently was a popular artists’ center, but just a couple galleries and left and the painter friend of Maggie whom we visited was about to move to a new center being built specifically for artists in another part of town. Nordica gallery is still the biggest draw.
The rest of my time I hung out in cafes writing and doing research. I’ll save my take on dining in Kunming for a future post, and the places on my must-visit list for next time include Guandu, the old section of the city to the southeast, and the Bamboo Temple about 12 kilometers outside the city.