Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province in southern China. Located just north of the tropics, but at an altitude of almost 2000 meters, it has a very mild climate that has earned it the nickname “City of Eternal Spring.” It is the jumping off point for the popular backpacker trail heading north into Naxi and Tibetan territories through the cities of Dali, Lijiang, Shangrila and Deqin as well as the jungles of Xishuangbanna in the south and further on to Laos and Vietnam.
Best Time to Go
As the “City of Eternal Spring”, Kunming has a very mild climate; the winters are short, mild and dry, while the summers are long and humid, but nowhere near as hot as most of China. The rainy season runs from May to October.
Getting to Kunming
Kunming Changshui International Airport is located 25km northeast of the city center. Metro line 6 will get you to the City East Bus Station and buses will get you from there to anywhere in the city. If you take a taxi, make sure they use the meter, as you will pay a lot more otherwise.
Kunming Railway Station is located downtown and is connected to everywhere by public bus. The Long Distance Bus Stations, however, have all been moved outside the city, with one in the north, one in the south, one in the east and one in the west. You will arrive at the station that lies in the direction you are coming from.
The cheapest way to get downtown is the public bus system and I’d recommend finding out how to get to your accommodation from the station beforehand. If you haven’t done so, the information desks inside the stations will also be able to help.
The Kunming Metro is currently under construction and parts of it should begin operating any day now. Until the subway system has been completed, the excellent bus system will be your best option for getting around town. You can also rent bikes at some of the hostels for around 20 Yuan per day.
As is the case with most of China’s major cities, the hostels are your best bet if you’re trying to save money. Both times I visited Kunming, all the hostels were full (there aren’t all that many of them here), so I stayed at a hotel near the railway station for a few nights before switching to the Hump Hostel. Once I got a bed there, I really liked it. The food was good, too.
If you end up in the same situation, you’ll find a number of cheap hotels near the station, but you might have a hard time finding one that accepts foreigners. You’ll just have to ask around or spend a little more, which might not be a bad idea anyway, as the cheapest places can be really nasty. I stayed at the Fairyland Hotel, Tuodong branch, which is near the station, but they have several other branches around the city. Single rooms range from $25 to just over $30, depending on the location.
Eating & Drinking
You’ll find a lot of street food vendors in the area around the railway station, as well as countless cheap little restaurants. The food isn’t always all that great though. When I was staying in the area, I frequented the buffet style places. Some of them had some pretty good dishes and they’re all dirt cheap.
The hostels serve pretty good food too, especially when it comes to non-Chinese dishes. You’ll pay a bit more, but the prices are still very reasonable. I ate several meals at my hostel and they were all great.
Kunming is mostly a safe city, but watch out for pickpockets anywhere crowds gather, including buses. The area around the train station can be pretty sketchy after dark, especially the little alleys and backstreets. Don’t get a haircut here, as most of the barber shops are actually thinly disguised brothels and many of the rest have been reported to extort money from customers halfway through the cut (as in, several people come in while your hair is half cut or full of shampoo and demand further payment; if you refuse, you’re harassed for a while then sent out with a head full of shampoo or half a haircut).
Things to Do
- Yuantong Temple: still a real working temple; traveling in Asia for an extended period, it is easy to become “templed-out” and to start skipping temples, but don’t skip this one; located at the foot of Yuantong Hill in the northern part of Kunming; entrance is ¥6
- Stone Forest: UNESO site of incredible Karst geography with jagged rocks jutting up out of the ground like trees; buses from the eastern bus station should cost 29 RMB, but some will charge more and touts will add a commission if you let them help you; you can get a room inside the nature reserve for 150 to 200 RMB; entrance to the park is ¥175 per person per day
- Jiuxiang Scenic Area: known as the museum of caves, this area boasts a hundred or so karst caves that are the most spectacular in China; five main tourist areas: Diehong Bridge (karst caves, twin waterfalls and a huge natural stone dam cluster), Dasha Dam (picturesque karst caves and a thick forest), Sanjiao Cave (karst caves), Alu Long (excavated Yi Nationality cliff paintings from the Qin and Han dynasties) and Mingyue Lake
- The West Hills: good view of the city; take bus #5 west to the end of the route, then bus #6 or a minibus; ¥30 entrance fee to the grottoes
- Fuxian lake: large, clear and beautiful lake said to be one of the cleanest in China; take a bus to Chengjiang for 15 to 20 RMB from the Kunming South Bus Station (buses #156 or #170 will get you from downtown to the station) and take local transport or walk from there (about 3-4 km)
- Earth Forest: erosion has created mounds of earth that look like a forest
- Dianchi (aka Kunming Lake): large lake with beautiful scenery and a great place to escape the city
- Daguan Pavilion: located inside Daguan Park along the shore of Dianchi; offers great views of the lake
- Jindian Park (Golden Temple Park): forest preserve on Mingfeng Mountain with natural scenery, historical sites, man-made gardens and the Golden Temple; take bus #10 or #71 or a taxi for around ¥20; ¥100 for a day ticket
- Western Mountain Forest Reserve: huge forest reserve on the west bank Dianchi Lake
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport or the train station; take public transport instead
- if arriving by long distance bus, find out beforehand where you will arrive and how to get where you want to go by public bus
- eat at small restaurants or street food stalls; if you want to eat western food, try the hostels