Sightseeing in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China - Top tourist stops

Sat 06 Jul 2024

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There was no doubt about it; a road trip in the back blocks of China in mountainous country evokes mystery and concern. Since the 1900s, Shangri-La has been written up as a mystical destination in the border country of China and Nepal. Now that Shangri-La has been formally named and home to a Buddhist place of peace and tranquility cloaked in gold, one wonders how it's possible to penetrate the Chinese border, the language barrier and find this mountain paradise.

To be honest, this is the writer's fourth trip to China So I am a little bit familiar. What's more I was travelling with my Chinese partner, which dispelled most worries. It didn't start like this however. The visa application process asked for information that makes you wonder why to the point where you're ready to take it or leave it. It's wonderful now that Australians have access to 15 days in China for business and tourism visa free... I just wish that had come a year earlier.

Now the visa question is dispensed with one way or another, you're landing in Shanghai and off to get a temporary China driver's licence. Yes, it is possible but requires a bit of leg work and the correct documentation. I'll save that for another story.

With licence in hand and other acquaintances rekindled the next day is a flight down to Kunming, The capital of the Yunnan province of China. It's an expansive city with a modern airport at the outskirts. You note on the flight in, the reasonably barren country is home to farms, factories and an internet connection of highways clearly visible... with little evidence of traffic... This will prove to be the case later on.

In a true sense of independent travel, my partner and I had not booked a hotel in advance. In other destinations of the world where accommodation is at a premium and scarce you would be worried. But that's not to be in China in any experience I had. There is always a vast oversupply of accommodation. I don't think that's going to change anytime soon.

Aided by the Chinese travel app/platform and my Chinese partner we have soon paired down the selection of hotels to a very affordable price range and two or three in the area we would like to stay. With booking made, we head on in for the first night in Kunming. From the best that can understand, the dual hotel complex is actually a renovated old theatre. Funky reception at the front on a main intersection, corridors to a small elevator and the third floor and a room that could be a bit bigger, but it's otherwise clean and modern. It was priced less than 50 AUD, which is an absolute bargain. Back home in Australia it would be near impossible to get any kind of accommodation for less than 100 AUD ... and that would be with the lowest expectations.

Set aside that pleasure, it's time to go out and sample the local cuisine. A short stroll and a smiling face at the back of small walk-in restaurant drags us in and we are soon sampling some delicious local noodles. It's delicious, a little spicy and easy to eat until full.

Local produce market
After a good night slumber, it's off to the local produce and food market. It's probably 25 minutes in a taxi and surprisingly about 20 AUD to get there. (Taxis and DiDi are ridiculously cheap by the way.)

The market is buzzing with traders, butchers, green grocer, stalls, bakers and all in between districts produce a lot of blueberries and other specialty fruit and vegetables, so these are in abundance at local prices. At the entrance I can't help but stop and get a deep fried bread product from a guy who turns out to be a Muslim Chinese... It's delicious and I buy three more to take away. The shop owner on finding out that I'm Australian revels in the recent news of the Chinese prime minister visiting Australia and that we officially "can be friends". In the best of my basic knowledge of Mandarin, I told him quite frankly that we were friends already. He was pleased.

Deep inside the markets, the shopping wonders continued and we came away with some sliced beef and noodles ready to be made at home... And instant meal packaged and ready to go at your order - no need for shrink wrapping to the supermarket shelf. A half a kilo of blueberries at 1/3 of the price back home, a jar of bacon chips that you can't stop eating, fresh vegetables, coriander and ginger mixed in a sauce and served to you ready to eat, various butchery items that you recognize and some that make you squirm. It's all there and on display - a bit of a confronting cultural experience, but it's what they eat.

Dounan Flower market
The fertile soils around Kunming make it not only the salad bowl for the nation but also the heart of a flower supply. It's another distant but cheap ride in a taxi takes you to the biggest flower wholesale market in Asia, the Kunming Dounan flower market. An enormous markets floor offers flowers at wholesale prices, packaged and ready to ship or grab some to take home for yourself. Visitors, Chinese holiday makers and traders rub shoulders in this space. The holiday makers are making themselves obvious with a flower garland recently purchased now adorning their head, Bunches of flowers in their arms might not make it to their home city. We opted for a uniquely coloured orchid plant in full flower. It went along as our road trip companion but sadly met its demise on a run to the coast.

Nonetheless, the flower market is enormous not only is the ground floor with a massive fresh market space, there are upper floors to explore for more specialist plans, and a level above that more focused on gardening related trinkets and ornaments that leaves you wonder who would ever buy?

Down at the Lake (Dianchi in local language)
Yet another taxi ride takes you down to the Dianchi lakeside. There is a throng of people posing for a photo beside a lake which honestly leaves a little wanting. The walk along the lake edge at this point has been developed as a green space. Over the road there are wetland gardens which we should have spent more time... These clearly have permanent care and walkways meander through the park.

On another occasion and nearby we spent a night at the Kunming Holiday inn, which is not ageing well. We wandered into the heart of the old city center, dodging rain showers and electric scooters to find it a little disappointing. The pedestrian mall section had no energy, few people and some central shop pavilions firmly closed. The adjacent "old streets" pointed to by tourist information did not offer much of interest.


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