Despite the fact that Kunming is in the subtropical depths of deep Southern China, don’t fool yourself into thinking that this place is a winter getaway. Located at the lofty elevation of 6,600 feet (2,000 metres), it gets mighty chilly here during the winter months, with frequent cold rains and the occasional spell of snow.
The upshot during the rest of the year however, is that it is pleasantly cool and crisp in Kunming, while the rest of the subtropical lowlands are baking in oppressive heat and humidity. As such, it has earned the moniker of being the Chinese city of eternal Spring, as it is never gets as cold as it can get further north in the winter, while it is just warm enough at the peak of summer, while the rest of Southern China suffers in a bath of their own sweat.
As the capital of Yunnan province, there is an assortment of cultural relics, as well as a condensed selection of Yunnanese cuisine. Beyond the city limits, the mountainous terrain beckons, with plenty of potential for outdoor activities amongst its outstanding natural beauty.
Fans of Buddhism will feel at home in Kunming, as there are two notable places of worship located here. The first one you should check out is Yuantong Temple, which dates back 1,200 years to the days when the Yuan dynasty held sway in China.
Entering from above rather than below, you will know immediately that this is a unique and special place. This intuition will be confirmed once you see the main hall, which is surrounded by a moat, and the 500 sculpted arhats (meaning the one who has attained nirvana) contained in the walls within the temple, which are breathtaking in their composition and artistry.
The second temple that should be on your checklist for Kunming is Qiongzhu Temple, an ornately designed hall of worship located high up in the mountains above the city. As you walk through the wafting sweet incense on your way into the temple complex, you may think that this place is amazing in itself, given the mountainside setting. Your experience will get much more surreal inside though, as there are sculptures that border on the bizarre, with one depicting a man riding a giant fish, and another featuring a man with eyebrows so long that they droop to the floor, among others.
With the modernization blitz that is currently ongoing throughout China, and the cultural destruction of the Great Leap Forward back in the 1960’s, examples of older building stock are becoming harder to find in this historically ancient country. However, the Guandu Old Town, situated a mere eight kilometres from downtown Kunming, is a refreshingly breath of air for those seeking structures that are more inspiring than the eggshell concrete seen through much of the country.
Unlike other old towns found within Yunnan province, this one has yet to be over commercialized, and as such, it makes for a pleasant afternoon of visiting pagodas, sampling tea, eating from food stalls, admiring classical architecture, and people watching the new Chinese middle class as they come by the vanload to see some of their recent history for themselves.
In the general vicinity of Kunming lies some of the best sights to found within Yunnan province; chief among them is the UNESCO recognized Stone Forest, a massive karst formation located two hours from the city. These jagged spires of limestone will inspire you, as will the immaculate Chinese landscaping surrounding the site. Those who wish to stay to explore this place more in detail will be pleased to know that there is a reasonably priced hostel here … otherwise, plan on a full day with 4 hours of round trip travel, plus time spent amongst these jagged spears of rock.
If you wish to stay closer to the city, the Western Mountain Forest Reserve contains an ample dose of nature within easy reach of your accommodation. Rising from the western shore of Dianchi Lake (the sixth largest lake in China), combine a forest walk amongst fragrant firs, pines, and flowers with culture, as there are numerous small temples and shrines that can be found along the pathways here.
With Kunming serving as the capital of Yunnan, the Yunnanese cuisine is at its finest here. The first dish you should endeavour to try when you venture to this part of China should be Over the Bridge Rice Noodles, which is based on an ancient love story. It commonly consists of pork, chicken, squid, carp, and many vegetables in addition to the rice noodles that form the base of this treat. Apart from this, other dishes which should be sampled include Steam Pot Chicken and Yiliang Roasted Duck, both of which take a while to prepare, but the orgasmic flavour they deliver makes them worth the wait!