Kunming, in Yunnan Province, China is a city that is often skipped over in favor of visiting the tourist hotspots of Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La. But, that doesn’t mean that you should miss Kunming, ‘the City of Eternal Spring’, as there are several awesome things to see. Immerse yourself in the cultural melting pot of Yunnan Province by getting to know the culture of more than 20 ethnic minorities that live in this province. Many people don’t know that Yunnan is such an ethnically diverse place, but in this province you can learn about Tibetan Buddhism, treat yourself to tasty Dai food, or learn about the different types of green tea grown in southern Yunnan — and you can do all of these things in Kunming. Read on and you’ll immediately want to add Kunming to your China itinerary!
1. Getting to know the ethnic minorities
To familiarize yourself with the different cultures that can be found throughout Yunnan Province, head directly to the Yunnan Nationalities Museum, which holds over 40,000 different artifacts. This museum is incredibly well-done, with many informative displays presented in English, Mandarin, and Japanese, and in general, language typical of government propaganda is avoided. The opening display on lifestyles of the different ethnic minorities as well as the display on minority costumes is particularly informative.
You can also find an excellent bookstore with titles about ethnic minorities (though mostly in Chinese) and a great gift shop selling handicrafts sourced from throughout the province.
The Yunnan Nationalities Museum can be reached via taxi or bus number A1 taken to its last stop. Entrance to the museum is free and the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 am to 4:30 pm. At the time of my visit, the on-campus cafe was closed but food can be found at several stalls across the street.
2. People-watch at Green Lake Park (Cui Hu)
Get a feel for local life in Kunming by walking through Green Lake Park (Cui Hu). Watch retirees practice Tai Chi or fan dancing, eat roasted corn or sweet potatoes, or sit on a bench and people-watch; there is always something to see. Bring along your camera and photograph the lotuses in bloom or use your eagle eye to spot some turtles in the lake.
3. Visit the most popular Buddhist temple in Kunming
To experience a Buddhist temple, head to the Yuantong Temple located in the city center. The temple is more than 1,200 years old. Purchase incense outside of the temple to light at one of the many stands. Here you also may see people releasing pet turtles, in hopes of a long life. In the green pools located in temple, you’ll see numerous turtles of various sizes. In Chinese culture, turtles symbolize longevity.
As this is a working temple (meaning that people worship here), please be respectful of people practicing their religion. Photography is allowed in most parts of the Yuantong Temple complex, but there are occasional no photography signs posted so do be aware.
Entering the Yuantong temple costs 6 CNY (~0.92 USD).
4. Indulge in Yunnan food
Learn about Yunnan culture through the delicious food that you’ll find at various stalls and restaurants throughout the city. Yunnan cuisine is typically spicy and incorporates many wild mushrooms, vegetables, flowers, and more. Some famous dishes to try are small pot rice noodles, spicy hot pot, and crossing-bridge rice noodles (a noodle soup dish where you add the ingredients individually to your taste).
Try Heavenly Manna (74 Wenhua Xiang) to sample Yunnan-style dishes including spicy mashed potatoes, deep fried beans, and other spicy treats. Another specialty that you can find in Yunnan is Dai food. Dai people are an ethnic minority who primarily live in southern Yunnan Province, so expect food with a more tropical flair. At one of the several Dai restaurants in Kunming, try pineapple fried rice and many pork-based dishes. Also look for the sweet bread, coconut, and jelly drink! There are several excellent Dai restaurants around Yunnan University in Kunming.
5. Taste different types of Yunnan-grown tea
After exploring Green Lake Park and getting to know Yunnan’s people through observation, head to one of the surrounding tea shops (mostly located on the south side of the lake) and purchase some green, black, or herbal tea from a tea shop. Shop owners will often offer complimentary tea tasting so that you can choose the types of tea you may want to purchase. Keep in mind that although a tasting is free, you are expected to purchase at least one type of tea. Prices are reasonable though, and the tea quality can’t be beat! I suggest tasting (and purchasing) some Pu’er tea, which is produced from fermented and aged tea leaves.
More to do in Kunming
If you have more time to spend in the City of Eternal Spring, head to Mandarin Books located on Wenhuan Xiang to pick up books about Yunnan in English (located upstairs in the popular store). Or, you could go to one of the plentiful vegetable and fruit markets to purchase fruits such as dragon fruit, Chinese bayberry (yangmei), cherries, or mangosteen. Also check out the Kunming Institute of Botany Botanical Gardens, to see a bright display of Yunnan flora including rhododendron and magnolia. Don’t miss all Kunming has to offer during your trip in Yunnan Province!
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