Yunnan Part I – Kunming

So 8 weeks in to our new life in China, we decided to take a week’s break from work and explore a bit farther afield. Unquestionably one of the main advantages of living here is that we have lots of places on our doorstep that would typically be ‘once in a lifetime’ trips from the UK. For this first trip though, rather than head off to Australia, Cambodia or Japan, we thought that it would be great to see some more of China. After a 3.5 hour flight we arrived in  Kunming, the first of four cities we would visit within Yunnan province.

Yunnan is the most southwest province of China, boarded externally by Vietnam, Laos and Burma. The region is almost totally mountainous, save for 18 relatively flat fault basins upon upon which Yunnan’s towns and cities have grown. Of China’s 55 ethnic minorities Yunnan province is home to 51 of them, each with their own distinctive clothing, dialect, and architecture. During the week, we were privileged enough to meet and learn about the Yi, Bai, Naxi and Tibetan people.

Western Hills Forest Park & Dragon Gate Grottoes

Straight from the plane we drove to the banks of Lake Dian, then hopped onto a cable car which climbed around 2400m to the Western Hills. I love how all noise drops away when you are riding a cable-car; especially after traipsing through chaotic airports.

On the ride up, the panoramic, birds-eye views of the freshwater lake – the eighth largest in China – were stunning. Although you wouldn’t want to swim in there… for the decades prior to 1990,  untreated waste water was dumped into the lake leaving it horribly degraded – in spite of the billions of dollars that have been ploughed, in vain, into the clean-up effort.


Apparently there is a saying – “If you do not visit Western Hills, you haven’t visited Kunming; if you do not visit Dragon Gate, you haven’t been to Western Hills”. Evidently our Royal Family subscribe to this philosophy…

Checking out a funny little photo gallery en-route to the Dragon Gate, we discovered that in 1986 (while I was busy making my entrance into the world) Queen Elizabeth embarked on a six day visit to China; the first British sovereign to set foot in the Kingdom. Below is a photo of Matt standing next to a photo of Her Majesty; both wearing a remarkably similar shade of teal!

The Dragon Gate Grottoes were hand-carved into the steep mountainside by Taoist monks during the Qing Dynasty, over 200 years ago. We hiked up and down stone steps, through stone tunnels, and past beautiful carved and brightly painted stone pavilions. How the monks managed to create something so complex and beautiful in such an inhospitable and precipitous environment is beyond me!

Buddhism and Taoism co-exist peacefully in the Western Hills, and the temples are still used for worship today by students and their parents who pray for good grades at school. The kneeling girl – pictured below – after her prayer lit an incense stick as an offering.

The vivid spiritual figures, including the ornate background from which they emerge, are exquisitely carved from a single piece of rock; my photos seriously don’t do it justice.

We were told a story about one of the men who was responsible for carving the grotto that housed the golden figure above. Apparently after many years of painstaking carving and chiseling, the grotto was all but finished. His last task was to complete the writing brush that the golden figure holds in his right hand. For some reason (perhaps excited that he was about to complete his life’s work) he suffered a momentary lack of competence and broke the tip of the brush. This being the days before Pritt-stick, the rock carving was irreparable. Beset by shame, frustration and anger, the man apparently put down his chisel, turn around and jumped off the rock face to his death. And I thought I was a perfectionist…

The statue of the tortoise and snake below is admittedly less aesthetically impressive, but the story behind it is brilliant. Kunming sits at the base of a long mountain range believed to resemble a snake, with the mouth of the snake opening towards the city – very bad luck, as everyone knows. To regain balance and harmony, the recommendation was to build the city in the shape of a tortoise – known for it’s longevity. The city has since expanded and the tortoise shape is no longer clear, but I love that this actually happened!


Yunnan Stone Forest

You don’t get far without hearing another old saying. The next one we heard was: “If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time.”. Not being in the business of wasting time, on our second day in Kunming, we headed over.

The Stone Forest – classified as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 2007 – is a spectacular labyrinth of imposing carbonate rock pillars (known as ‘Karst’ formations) which resemble petrified trees. 270 million years ago this area was covered by a shallow sea; as the carbonate rock was compressed over time, horizontal cracks formed, which were then eroded by running water and wind. As the land uplifted and the joints became deeper and wider, the stone pillars were formed*.

*Disclaimer – I haven’t studied geography since the age of 14. Please assume that this version of events is simplified to a considerable degree (dad, that goes for you!).


The photo above was taken on the main viewing pavilion. Save for this, we largely kept off-the-beaten-track, thanks to our tour guide, Vivian, who ensured we could escape the crowds without getting lost! If you do visit Kunming then I would recommend hiring a local guide to show you round; we got a lot from the experience.

The stone ‘trees’ were interspersed with real ones, a beautiful juxtaposition.

Out of the many ‘lookie-likey’ stones, these two were my favourites; the elephant and “two birds feeding each other”.

I mentioned earlier that we were lucky enough to get to know some local ethnic minorities; the three elegant ladies below are members of the Yi minority in their traditional dress. They were taking a break after practicing their dancing for an upcoming cultural festival and were kind enough to let me snap a photo.



Kunming Flower & Bird Market

Next stop was at the flower & bird market; which does what it says on the tin. Opportunity for some pretentious artistic photos…


Pu’er Tea Ceremony

Another old saying in Kunming – “If you haven’t experienced a tea ceremony when visiting Kunming, you might feel a mild form of regret”. Not really, but I wonder if it might catch on…

On a serious note, this tea ceremony was one of the real highlights of the trip for me. Back in Warwick we had a whole kitchen cupboard dedicated to about 30 different types of tea, but I had never tried pu’er.

There is a special method of preparing the tea which involves, rinsing the clay teapot, cups and tea leaves with boiling mineral water, before brewing the tea for either 30 or 60 seconds. Unlike tea-bag tea that we’re used to at home, you can re-brew good quality pu’er around ten times. The lovely lady who instructed us kept telling me that pu’er has been proven to help with weight loss, although I’m not going to take that personally!

Se said it would be an acquired taste, but I liked it straight away. Needless to say, we shipped a considerable amount back to Shanghai!


That evening, we packed up our things and headed to the train station to catch a sleeper train to our next destination: Dali. It was late at night, but the area around the station was buzzing with activity, with people selling and buying stuff and revving motorbikes and beeping horns and milling on the kerb.


Next stop – Dali (to be continued!)

4 thoughts on “Yunnan Part I – Kunming”

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