A Gateway to China’s Yunnan Province

7 Jan

Connected by a short two-hour direct flight from Kolkata, Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan province, is the nearest gateway to China—to begin a journey into this vast and fast-changing country. Yunnan (meaning south of the clouds), located in the extreme southwest of the country, is characterised by a diversity of cultures due to the presence of ethnic minorites. A bare 6% of China’s population is made up of ethnic minorities and 25 out of the 55 ethnic groups live in Yunnan. These include the Bai people around Dali, Naxi people in Lijiang, and Tibetans in Zhongdian (now renamed as Shangri-La). These diverse ethnic groups have unique costumes and head dresses.

Tibet lies on the province’s northwest border and its unique culture influences Yunnan. Geographically and ethnically part of south-east Asia, but politically a part of China, southern Yunnan is influenced by its proximity to Laos, Vietnam and Burma; it shares a border with these three countries. Southern and south-eastern Yunnan is tropical and, in the course of a day’s driving, you drive through dense jungle, pine-covered mountain slopes and desert-like arid landscape.

You arrive early morning into Kunming’s shiny new international airport located some distance from the city. As you drive in, you are immediately struck by the modern highways and city infrastructure that China has put in place in a short span of two decades. The city is now designated a special tourism centre and, as such, has a large number of middle level and luxury hotels.

Kunming city comprises parts of an ancient walled city and a fast-growing modern business district that includes several universities and vast housing estates. The city also has an astronomical observatory and a famous bronze temple, dating back to the Ming Dynasty. Kunming’s connection to India goes back to the Second World War when the city was targeted by the Imperial Japanese Air Force with bombing campaigns. The famous ‘Burma Road’ from Kunming to Burma was built by 160,000 Chinese workers during this period with almost no equipment; they carved the road out of the rocky terrain to bring critical war supplies to China to help in the war effort against the Japanese.

When the Burma Road was lost to the Japanese Army, an American volunteer group, known as the ‘Flying Tigers’, started to ‘fly the hump’, as an alternative to the land route. This involved risky flights by American pilots with much-needed supplies from Kolkata to Kunming over the Himalayas. American pilots also used Kunming airport to knock out bases used by Japanese fighter planes harassing the hump-flyers. Today, ‘The Hump’ is a popular tourist bar in Kunming.

With its perpetual spring-like weather, ideal for flora and vegetation, Kunming is known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ and is lush green and covered with blossoms year round. The weather never gets very hot in summer; the temperature has exceeded 30°C only on a handful of occasions. The 1,200-year-old Yuantong Temple is Kunming’s oldest—certainly its grandest Buddhist temple—one that serves as a centre of Buddhism in Yunnan. Yuantong is an active temple with monks in residence and an important pilgrimage place for thousands of Buddhists from many different countries who come here to pray. Unlike most Buddhist temples where you go upwards from the entrance gateway, Yuantong is built in a natural depression so you actually descend to the main temple complex upon entering. A large pond surrounds the main temple. An octagonal pavilion at the centre is connected by stone bridges, with delicate carved railings, to the rest of the complex.


Tall statues of Sakyamuni, Amitava and the Medicine Buddha (the Buddha of Healing), all built during the 13th and 14th century Yuan Dynasty, are found in the main prayer hall. The temple hall also has two impressive 30-feet high pillars, each in the shape of a flying dragon with extended claws built during the 15th-16th century Ming Dynasty period. In 1982, Thai Buddhists sent a 12-feet copper statue of Sakyamuni Buddha combining Chinese and Thai styles which is now placed in the Copper Buddha Hall. Surrounding the temple pond is a row of halls where you will find people praying and chatting and taking lessons in Buddhist scriptures. There is a magnificent calligraphy studio, an exhibit of temple photographs, a temple shop and a restaurant.

In the heart of Kunming is the Yunnan Provincial Museum containing artefacts of various cultures of the area over the past 2,500 years. The items are well displayed, are well-lit and have descriptions in Chinese and English. Occasionally, the Museum hosts other exhibitions on the ground floor. Also near the city centre is Green Lake Park, a pleasant expanse of park and lake with goldfish and lotus plants that serves as the city’s meeting point. In the mornings, the Park is a popular place for people to perform their morning Tai Chi exercises. During December and January hundreds of migrating seagulls flock to the Park; people feed the birds and photograph them as they swoop past. The paths bordering the lake provide a venue for music practice to budding artistes and are lined with several restaurants and tea shops. On Wenlin Street, at the northern edge of the Park, there are many restaurants and well-stocked teashops from where you can buy Yunnan’s famous ‘pu’er’ large-leaf tea. The busy Flowers and Bird Market in Jingxing Street is Kunming’s attractive marketplace and has shops and stalls of all sorts, especially those selling flowers, birds and fish. Hundreds of flowers, including orchids, camellias, lilies, roses and tulips bloom in profusion; you can buy bunches of flowers, made-up bouquets, bonsais or potted plants as well as various styles of vases. There is continuous background of birdsongs—of parrots, mynahs, thrushes and cuckoos, some of which are for sale; some people buy them only to release the birds from captivity as an act of charity.

The Yunnan Nationalities Village on Dianchi Road, located 8km south of Kunming city centre, covers a huge area—of about 133 hectares—and has displays of the architecture and ways of life of Yunnan’s many minorities. In the village compound, about 20 ethnic villages have been constructed and they have frequent performances of folk dances and music. The Stone Forest or Shilin National Park, 120km from Kunming, is one of the most important attractions of Yunnan and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to an old local saying, if you have visited Kunming and not seen the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time. Tall rocks seem to emanate from the ground like stalagmites; many of these look like petrified trees creating the illusion of a forest made of stone.

The Stone Forest National Scenic Area covers an area of 350sq km and is divided into several scenic areas including the Major Stone Forest, the Minor Stone Forest and the Naigu Stone Forest, all of which feature rocks of various formations. Walking through the Stone Forest, you marvel at the natural stone formations and the clever manner in which visitor walkways have been built to allow you to experience the best parts. Legend has it that the Forest was the birthplace of Ashima, a beautiful girl of the Yi ethnic minority. When she was forbidden to marry her lover, she turned into a stone in the forest that still bears her name.

In a later article, we will continue our travels to some of Yunnan’s other popular destinations.

Why Go There: Most visitors to China head for Beijing and Shanghai to join the crowds. Yunnan provides a convenient alternative to the discerning traveller wanting to experience a unique part of China and its many ethnic minority groups. In addition, the landscape is magnificent, the climate temperate throughout the year and there are World Heritage Sites to experience.

Getting There: The easiest way is to take China Eastern Airlines’ daily direct flight from Kolkata to Kunming. There are connections to Kolkata by air/rail from all major cities in India.

Where To Stay: Hotels and transportation are best booked through a reliable Chinese tour operator with experience in making arrangements within Yunnan and elsewhere. My arrangements were made by the fluent English-speaking staff at DH Travel, China, which has won several awards for excellence. Contact them at dhtravel@china.com or dhtravel@public.bta.net.cn




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