By Raihan Fozian on October 22, 2015
Being the world’s most populated country, China is definitely leading the world in every aspect. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are China’s three famous cities that need no introduction to the world. These cities’ roles in the growth of China’s economy are impressive and undeniable. Progressive development, skyscrapers, shopping paradise, happening nightlife are some of the reasons why these cities never stop receiving tourists.
However, apart from these never-sleep cities, China has a lot more to offer. This includes the more laid-back Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Located at an altitude of 1,900 metres above sea level in the middle of Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, Kunming‘s annual average temperature is 15oC, hence its nickname the ‘City of Eternal Spring’.
Upon arrival, we had a very pleasant introduction of Kunming when we were greeted by the 14oC temperature and the bluest sky we have ever seen! The good weather definitely makes us more excited to explore Kunming. If you intend to visit Kunming during winter as we did, we highly recommend that travellers bring thick clothes, winter jacket, gloves or anything that can warm you up. On some days, temperatures could be as high as 23oC; however, because of the wind chill factor, you definitely want to wrap every inch of your skin.
As we arrived late in the evening, we went straight to check-in at the Kunming Hotel on Dongfeng East Road, Panglong District. Kunming Hotel is a 3.5-star hotel that is strategically located, about 10 minutes of walking to the city centre. Since we were free on the first night, Gaya Travel decided to take a peek at Kunming’s city nightlife.
The roads were packed with cars and motorcycles, people walked from all directions, colourful neon lights illuminate the night, Christmas sales everywhere and buskers performing. International designers’ boutiques can be seen on almost every street. We also stumbled into street sellers selling socks, shawls, street food and more at reasonable prices.
We assure that walking in Kunming, especially at night, is absolutely safe. However, since some motorcyclists tend to use the pedestrian way to avoid heavy traffic on the main road, do be extra careful when walking. Other than that, travellers are sure to enjoy walking through the crowd and be mesmerised with Kunming’s nightlife.
The second day began with a ninety-minute drive from the city centre to the must-visit destination in Kunming, the Stone Forest. Located about 120km from Kunming, the Stone Forest is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites that is indeed a must-visit place.
Stepping into the Stone Forest is like being in one of the sci-fi movie sets, surrounded by huge stones that stand tall like trees, hence the name Stone Forest. The feeling of being able to witness this typical example of karst topography, which has been in existence over 270 million years, is indescribable. The intricate formation of the natural stones is unbelievably gorgeous. Although science can logically explain the occurrence of the stones, we simply praised God for creating such beauty.
We suggest that travellers spend at least two hours exploring the Stone Forest. We spent almost three hours here, which we still felt like it was not enough. Covering an area of 400 square kilometres, make sure you wear comfortable footwear when visiting the Stone Forest since it involves lots of walking and climbing steep and narrow stairs.
After we were done admiring the Stone Forest, we then headed to Jiuxiang Scenic Region to visit the famous karst caves. Located in the Yilliang County, Jiuxiang Scenic Region offers amazing landscape consisting mountains, rivers, valley, caves and more that will leave travellers breathless. To begin our exploration in Jiuxiang Scenic Region, we were brought down to the lower part of the mountain by an elevator and the long walk started from the moment we stepped out of it. The sound of the waterfall seduced us to quickly enter the cave as we were excited to see what holds inside this mountain.
We were fascinated by the limestone formation, rivers flowing in the caves, accentuated by lighting effects that left us in awe. Travellers should take all the time in the world and feast their eyes with beautifully unique caves. Expect lots of walking and climbing stairs; however, travellers can also opt to be manually carried on sedan chairs to traverse the caves.
After walking through the caves, going through bridges and climbing numerous stairs, we finally reached the point where there were gondolas that took us to the exit point, completing the journey. Riding the gondolas was a good end to the long walk through the caves since it offered us the bird’s eye view of Jiuxiang Scenic Region landscape.
Gaya Travel spent almost three hours exploring this magnificent landscape. Although we were exhausted from the long walks at the Stone Forest and the Jiuxiang Scenic Region, we were glad we did it as the experience was priceless. Before we headed back to central Kunming, we stopped by at a halal restaurant that served up vegetables and chicken, including goat cheese, which tasted like fried tofu albeit with a thicker texture. We managed to offset the burned calories by enjoying dinner that was fit for a king.
Since the previous day was tiring, the third day in Kunming was more relaxed. We visited Yongning Mosque, a well-known house of worship in Kunming located at the West Section of Jinbi Road. The mosque is a three-storey building with complete facilities.
The mosque’s humble entrance made us feel like we were walking inside our own house with a huge courtyard, hinting that the venue is not only used for praying but the social centre for Kunming’s Muslim community. Since Muslims are the minority in Kunming, it is important to have a mosque that functions as a house of worship as well as the provider of social support, the place where communal activities take place.
The ground floor of the mosque is a quadrangle courtyard with a row of stalls selling a variety of halal food, including a large dining area for people to dine in. These food stalls not only attract Muslims but also non-Muslims to have their meals here.
The spacious prayer hall of Yongning Mosque is located on the first floor of the building. The prayer hall is well maintained and spotless. Many copies of the Quran and other religious books are made available to worshippers. The second and third floors of the building are reserved for religious classes, events and functions such as wedding ceremonies or family gatherings.
Two minutes’ walk in the opposite direction of the Yongning Mosque brought us to the landmark of Kunming, the Jinma Biji Square. The area takes its name from the two gateways, Jinma and Biji, which means golden horse and jade rooster respectively, standing imposingly in the centre of the square. We were lucky to stumble upon a group of oldies singing and dancing in one corner of the square. They were friendly and even invited some of us to join in the dance. Jinma Biji Square is strategically located in the middle of Kunming city and is surrounded by multitudes of shops. If you want to spend your Yuan, this is one of the areas that you would want to visit.
After a short stop at the city, we then headed 250km to the northern part of Kunming, the Dongchuan Red Land. It was a four-hour drive from the city, situated at an altitude between 1,800 and 2,600 metres. Dongchuan Red Land is located in an area where facilities are limited.
Upon arrival at the guesthouse, we were surprised and pleased to find that all rooms are equipped with heaters and the bathroom come with water-heaters. Due to the altitude and winter season, the temperature could get as low as 0oC at night. We were already freezing at 3oC temperature and we can’t imagine what 0oC would be like. Although the guesthouse is located in a rural area, it still offers good Wi-Fi connectivity. We definitely enjoyed the serenity and spent the rest of the night stargazing with cups of hot tea and instant noodles in our hands.
We woke up early to catch the sunrise; however, due to the thick fog, we could not see any sunrise but were still amazed by the dreamy scenery of Dongchuan Red Land. We drove to several popular spots in Dongchuan Red Land to take photographs. Photographers who thirst for ‘postcard-perfect’ shots often visit Dongchuan Red Land to capture its wondrous landscape. The best time to visit Dongchuan Red Land is between May and June, where you can get the best red blood fields’ photo. In September to November, your photos will be more colourful as some fields are converted into new crops and Yunnan white cole flowers bloom. Travellers should remember that when they are busy photographing, it is important to remember not to step into the farms because the farmers would get offended and feel like you are invading their land.
Personally, we think Dongchuan Red Land is nice to be visited all year round. The atmosphere here is indeed laid-back and tranquil. We love how the villagers in the area live with limited facilities yet still manage to make the best of it. Although it was hard to find one that speaks English, their hospitality was warm and priceless.
After a long journey back to the city, we dropped by at the Yongning Mosque again to try out the famous ‘crossing-the-bridge’ noodles for lunch. When you order ‘crossing-the-bridge’ noodles, you will get a bowl of rice noodles, a platter of chicken, vegetables, bean sprouts, pickled vegetables and chicken broth. All ingredients and condiments are served on separate plates and you have to mix them on your own. The idea of mixing the ingredients later comes from the history of the noodles itself.
‘Crossing-the-bridge’ noodles come from the symbol of affection from an old tale where an imperial scholar was studying for his exams on an island in the city of Mengzixian in Yunnan. His wife would bring him food daily but found that by the time she crossed the bridge, the soup would be cold and the noodles are soggy. So she separated the ingredients and mixed them after she crossed the bridge, hence the name ‘crossing-the-bridge’ noodles. The noodles taste a lot like the Malaysian laksa but more flavourful when all of the ingredients are brought together.
Once we filled up our stomachs, we headed to Daguan Park, located at the southwest of Kunming City. Set on the Shore of Dianchi Lake, Daguan Park is an attraction because of the beautiful view it offers. There are many ponds, pavilions, bonsais and old trees shading the park. Wild seagulls fly freely and traveller will get to take photos with them by buying some bread at the stall in the park and feed them. They will surely get close to you – just be sure that your camera is ready to capture the moment.
Daguan Park is well known as the place for locals to socialise. Old men playing traditional Chinese chess, groups of ladies knitting, children running around trying to catch seagulls or young couples sitting down having a romantic conversation under trees are common in the park. This park opens from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., so if you’re in Kunming and want to run away from the crowd, head up to Daguan Park.
At night, we went to Dongfeng Road to watch the famous Chinese theatre, Dynamic Yunnan. China’s outstanding dancer and choreographer, Yang Liping, created Dynamic Yunnan with her heart. Yang Liping devoted her life to dancing and her passion for dancing and her roots were well interpreted through Dynamic Yunnan. Dynamic Yunnan introduced Yunnan’s culture to the audience through six separate performances: Prologue – The Dawn of Life; Act One – The Sun; Act Two – The Earth; Act Three – Homeland; Act Four – Pilgrimage; and Epilogue – Spirit of the Peacock. We loved all of the performances and were blown away by the choreography and the dancers’ amazing prowess. We were told that this theatre had been performed almost 4,000 times in over 42 cities around the globe!
During our fifth day in Kunming, we travelled about 15 kilometres to the western suburb of the city to a place called Xishan Scenic Spot, situated at an altitude between 1,900 and 2,350 metres above sea level, hence the perfect place to enjoy the view of Kunming. To get to the entrance, you can opt to walk or take a ride on the shuttle buses provided. From the entrance, you can either choose to walk by yourself to the top or take a gondola to the top and walk down. We highly recommend taking the shuttle bus to the entrance and riding the gondola to the top of the hill and walk down. It is less tiring and saves more time unless you do not mind climbing up to the top.
As you reach the top, you get to feast your eyes with an amazing view of the entire Kunming city. Walking down might be dangerous as some stairs are steep and narrow; however, worry not because we can assure that you will be amazed by the view. Wearing proper shoes definitely eases your journey downhill. It is advisable for you to bring your own snacks and drinks to boost your energy on the way down.
After enjoying Kunming‘s view from Xishan Scenic Spot, we then headed to Haigeng Park. If you’re a big fan of the seagulls, this is the place to go. The number of wild seagulls at Haigeng Park surprised us. We did not expect to see a huge number of wild seagulls in an open space. Similar to Daguan Park, there were also stalls selling bread, providing opportunities for visitors to get close with the seagulls. Be careful since travellers are known to be hit by seagull droppings! Besides the huge number of wild seagulls converging in Haigeng Park, the place is also popular for locals to come and relax with their friends and families.
Later, we went back to the city and headed to Yunnan Nationalities Village. Yunnan is known for having 26 minorities that make this region special. At the Yunnan Nationalities Village, replicas of houses were built and the cultures of these ethnic groups are reenacted in real life. Traditional buildings and costumes of the various ethnic groups are the main attraction of the Yunnan Nationalities Village. The lifestyle and culture of an ethnic group are portrayed directly through the ‘villager’s’ living in the village. The ‘villagers’ are local people who are hired to act like the original ethnic group, making the visit all the more worth it as it helps travellers to learn about the culture of Yunnan’s ethnic groups clearly through fun and interactive ways.
Yunnan Nationalities Village offers the Dai elephant foot drums dance and the water splashing festival, the Bai three-course tea and March market, Jingpo people’s Munao songs and dances, besides others. The place is full of colourful flowers, beautiful lakes, huge trees shading the villages, complemented by natural landscapes. This village is a huge place, thus one full day is required to cover all villages.
Since it was our last night in Kunming, we had a nice dinner with representatives from Kunming Municipal Tourism Bureau at one of the halal restaurants in Kunming city. Our favourite pick from the dinner would be the deep-fried pumpkin with mayonnaise, which tasted like fish, soft and melted in our mouths. It is not difficult for Muslim travellers to find halal food in Kunming city since there are various halal places. But it is undeniable that it is quite challenging to find one outside the city. As an alternative, there are also many vegetarian restaurants available in Kunming. To be safe, just remember to bring along your own snacks that satisfy your palate when visiting Kunming, especially when going to the countryside.
Before we headed to the airport to catch our flight back to Kuala Lumpur, Gaya Travel managed to have indulged in a quick shopping binge at the shopping area near our hotel. Since the Kunming Hotel is located only 10 minutes’ walk from the city centre, we decided to run to the place for souvenirs before flying back. There were so many shops having Christmas sales that we were confused about where to go at first. Then we saw an old market somewhere in between the streets and managed to get a few souvenirs for our loved ones. The best part of shopping in the old market is that you get to bargain, especially when you buy a lot.
Good things always come to an end, so was our trip to Kunming. We are very thankful to AirAsia and Kunming Municipal Tourism Bureau for inviting Gaya Travel to be part of this amazing journey. We will surely miss the moments we struggled to understand Mandarin when talking to the locals, the free flow of hot Chinese tea, the cool weather, the priceless views, majestic landscapes and everything in between. Since Air Asia flies to Kunming daily, we can imagine ourselves returning to Kunming anytime. See you again soon Kunming!
This article is included in Gaya Travel Magazine Issue 10.1 and 10.2. Read the magazine HERE.