With China now more open to foreigners than it has been over the last several hundreds of years, the tourist industry is booming across the vast country. One of the most popular provinces for its diversity, history and heritage is Yunnan, stretching from Tibet to the north to Burma in the southwest and containing many diverse ethnicities, cultures and traditions. Kunming is the capital of the huge province, and the gateway to its treasures and experiences.
The landlocked city itself, nicknamed the ‘Spring City’ for its temperate climate, is a fascinating mixture of historic and ultra-modern buildings and is still growing at an accelerated rate as the commercial hub of the region. Its traffic is notorious, but far less pollution is found here than in most Chinese cities, due to its location on the inland sea of Dianchi Lake and its many green spaces and parks. In the back streets, traditional courtyard homes still grace the central and suburban districts, overshadowed in the downtown area by high-rise apartment blocks and commercial buildings.
A variety of activities keep visitors occupied here, with temple visits, strolls in the parks, hikes in the surrounding Western Mountains, easily traversed large hills rather than stark peaks and holding many trails and spectacular views. Shopping and eating are favourite occupations here as well, with street markets and street food competing for attention with modern malls and upscale eateries. The interaction of so many minority cultures in the province makes the city a great place for handicrafts of all kinds, with ivory carvings, (watch out for customs and excise on your way home!), wood carvings, traditional ethnic jewellery, jade and hardstone carvings, intricate woven Dai brocades and bamboo products and much more set out in glorious array.
Bargaining is essential here, however inexpensive an item seems, but stay tough- the Chinese are experts at this! Clothing and fashion is cheap here as well, with shoeaholics in heaven due to wacky high-fashion rip-off designs at amazing prices. Eat your heart out, Jimmy Choo – however, those with extra-large feet may be unlucky. The closest market to downtown and the hotels in Kunming City Centre is the huge Nan Yao Market adjacent to the main rail station.
For indoor souvenir shopping set in a four-storey traditional building in Nanping Lu Street, the Curio Building is good place to try, with many other traditional outlets located nearby.
For everyday shopping, the massive new malls in the city centre are perfect and popular with visitors as much for their food courts as for their stores. Street food stalls and little eateries line the back streets, serving the spicy Yunnanese cuisine, a blend of Han Chinese and minority culinary traditions. Mushrooms feature strongly in many dishes as more than 100 varieties of the delicious fungus thrive here in the mild temperatures. Another characteristic of recipes here is their use of flowers as food. Soups, hotpots, honey-coated crispy duck roasted with pine needles and branches for extra flavour, fried goats’ cheese and pineapple rice are all typical Kunming treats, accompanied with flower teas such as jasmine.
Kunming’s nightlife is reasonably trendy, mostly centred around the Kundu Night Market and includes bars, clubs and a few music venues with live bands at weekends. Basement bars often feature pool tables and for those who just want to be entertained, the Dynamic Yunnan theatre show is a compendium of music, dance and special effects with an ethnic flavour. The venues around the university are the most lively, crammed with students till the early hours, and there’s an interesting scene including expat bars and good eateries around the night market.
Lek Boonlert is an editor and content reviewer at DirectRooms and is responsible for all Kunming City Centre Hotels content.