For some reason, Kunming never makes the top of the list of China's "Best places to live," which is weird because it seems like the city should win hands down. The sun shines pretty much all year round, when it does rain it's refreshing, and the city's location on a plateau makes for a bright sky and a constant brisk wind. But people tend to take job opportunities and infrastructure into account, and in that respect I guess Kunming fails. But for hippies and layabouts, Yunnan's provincial capital is awesome.
Just a hop skip and a jump to southeast Asia, Tibet and great tourist spots like Dali and Lijiang. What's there to complain about? Nothing. So consider this little post an ode to the best sites in Kunming. Much of this info is courtesy of the gentlemen over at Go Kunming, but a lot of it is also my memories of a really nice place to be. Before we dive into the next two "unknown gems," let's start with a standard....
What to See in Kunming
Green Lake Park
Cui Hu Park (Green Lake Park) is centrally located and almost always busy with strollers, performers, singers and lovers. The park is small and easily traversed in an afternoon, after which you can visit one of the many cafes along the lake’s edges and north of the lake toward Yunnan University. Every winter birds fly through here from Russia and every summer they fly back. Have bread crumbs on hand because the flocks be circling.
Golden Temple & Bamboo Temple
A great escape in the city of great escapes is the Golden Temple in the northeast of town, a quiet memorial to Wu Sangui, the Ming Dynasty general who opened the Great Wall’s Shanhai Pass Gate, allowing Manchu armies to conquer Beijing. Regardless of what you think of the general’s traitorous actions, while in Kunming Wu Sangui loved to relax and enjoy the easy life. The Golden Temple is a series of Taoist courtyards, one leading to the other, spaced by pavilions and small wooden buildings.
The Bamboo Temple in the hills west of town has one of the largest and best maintained collections of arhat figurines anywhere in China, stored in a memorial hall on the peaceful temple grounds. Arhats are beings who have attained nirvana. Once every Buddhist temple in the country had arhat figurines, but now only a handful can boast of 500 well-preserved statuettes like the Bamboo Temple.
Day Trips to the Kunming Countryside
If you are just staying within city limits, but require a bit of outdoor activity, the Jinzhi River is a good option. The river (actually just a small stream) was once an irrigation canal during the Nanzhao Kingdom that ruled this region 1,400 years ago, but now the old canal is being “re-greened” and made into a pleasurable urban hike. The best place to start the walk is on the northeast side of the Tuodong Stadium (Tuòdōng Tǐyùchǎng, 拓东体育场).
The countryside outside of Kunming is quite beautiful; some of the best trips are out to Dian Lake (Dianchi) west of the city and the Stone Forest (Shilin), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Stone Forest is an amazing tableau of upthrusted karst formations, brightly colored lakes and forested highlands. The site sees more than 3 million visitors a year and is Kunming’s most expensive attraction. Dianchi was once a playground for kings, but the lake has suffered a lot in the last 10 years of development. Recent efforts to create a bike-only green beltway around the park will help keep the scenic lake beautiful for the ever-growing number of urban tourists.
Other good side trips out of town include a drive out to Fuxian Lake (Fǔxiān Hú, 抚仙湖), a pretty area of forested hills and fishing villages 70km (43 mi) south of Kunming and Changchong Hill (Chángchóng Shān, 长虫山), the largest hill in the city.