Kunming and the Stone Forest

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

June  16th - 18th, 2017 

Kunming is the capital and largest city of the Yunnan Province, in South-Western China. It is a large city with a population approaching 10 million. Due to its altitude at 1,900 meters it has a fairly temperate climate all year round.

The history of this region stretches back over 2,400 years, starting with the Dian Kingdom which ruled the plateau around the Dian Lake probably from around the 5th century BC. Even though the Dian Kingdom was subjugated by the Han dynasty in 109 AD, the area was not fully integrated into the Chinese empire until the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century. The city of Kunming was founded in 765 AD, when it was part of the Kingdom of Nanzhao (737–902).

The modern development of Kunming started in 1910 when the railway line from Hanoi to Kunming was opened. Kunming was a walled city until 1952, when the city walls where torn down and the bricks from the wall were used to build a new road. The city remains an important transport link between China and South-East Asia due to its proximity to the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Burma. It will also become the hub for the currently in construction Pan-Asia-Highspeed train network, which will eventually link Kunming all the way down to Singapore.

I left Hong Kong on a Friday around noon. The direct flight on Cathay Dragon from Hong Kong to Kunming takes just over two hours. Immigration formalities and finding a taxi at the airport were quick and efficient without lines anywhere. The drive into the city took about thirty minutes and I stayed at the very nice and centrally located Sofitel Kunming Hotel.

Since my flight had been delayed by an hour, I didn't have much time left for sightseeing on Friday, and it also had started to rain So I just went on a short walk to the Jinbi Square, which is a modern and busy square but it has two large traditional gates flanking it on either side. On the way there I passed a pair of beautiful pagodas, the East and West Changle Temple Pagodas. These are 19th century re-constructions of the original 9th century Tang dynasty pagodas.

The main reason I had come to Kunming was to see the famous Shilin Stone Forest. I had found a day trip on, which would take me to the Stone Forest, but also included a visit to the Jiuxiang caves, which I had not heard about before, but which turned out to be equally amazing. My guide, Vivian, picked me up with a driver at 8:00 am from the hotel. The drive to the Jiuxiang caves, which are located to the South East of the city, took about 1.5 hours. The caves are part of the Jiuxiang Scenic Region, which is also famous for its mountains, rivers, deep valleys and indigenous cultures. But the main draw of the area are the huge systems of karst caves which were cut out of the mountains by water over the course of millions of years. We first entered a deep and narrow river gorge by walking down over 300 steps (there is also an elevator). The raging waters of the river in the gorge where so loud that it was difficult to hear each other talk. There is a walkway along the river, which after a few hundred meters leads into a series of huge and incredibly impressive caves. Soon after the entrance into the first cave the river formed two large waterfalls plunging down into the dark. (It was much darker than my pictures suggest.)

There were huge stalactites, stalagmites and these enormous natural cave pools.

Parts of the cave were quite dark, while others were lit in slightly gaudy colorful lights.

Near the end we had to hike up a lot of stairs to get outside again, but if you felt a bit lazy you could also hire two hard-working men to carry you up the narrow stairs in a palanquin. Once outside we got on a cable car, from which we had great views of the surrounding mountains and which got us back to the carpark on top. From here it was another 40 minute drive to the Stone Forest. Along the way we stopped for a very nice lunch at a local Yunnan restaurant. The food is quite spicy here (similar to Sichuan cuisine). We had roast duck, fried pork, cabbage and my favourite, steamed and fried goats cheese.

The Shilin Stone Forest is part of the South China Karst Unesco World Heritage site. This is a very popular tourist destination and it was quite busy with local tourist. After parking the car, you have to get on a little electric bus that takes you a couple of kilometers to the main entrance to the park. After walking another 10 minutes we started to see the first glimpses of this stunningly beautiful and bizarre landscape. The stone pillars are up to 35 meters high.

There are walkways crisscrossing the entire park. Occasionally you have to squeeze and duck through narrow pathways. The many tourists spread our quite quickly, so that even on a busy Saturday afternoon you can sometimes find yourself all alone surrounded by the most bizarre rock formations. The lower parts of the park are covered in water, which creates beautiful reflections.

We spent about 2 hours at the park and then drove back to the city. I was dropped off at my hotel just before 5pm. This was a very well organized trip, and my guide, Vivian was great, very knowledgeable and her English was perfect. Here is the link to the trip on Viator.

Since my return flight to HK wasn’t until later in the afternoon, I had Sunday morning for some sightseeing in the city itself. I started at the Yuantong Temple, which is the largest and most famous Buddhist temple in Kunming. It is an usually scenic temple with a small lake in the main courtyard. The first temple here was built during the Tang dynasty in the 8th and 9th century, but the current buildings were mainly constructed in the 15th and the 17th century.

From the Yuantong temple it was a short walk to Green Park Lake, which is a large lake covered with small islands linked by numerous causeways. This is a very busy place on a Sunday morning. Lots of people are out here doing their exercises or participating in public dancing. Most of water is covered in beautiful water lilies, many of which were in bloom.

My last stop was the flower and animal market. which was fascinating and weird but certainly not an enjoyable place for lovers of animal welfare. All of the animals were squeezed into tiny cages or plastic boxes.

There was an incredible range of weird little animals from fish to rabbits, mice, scorpions, all sorts of lizards, hundreds of little turtles, hedgehogs and frogs. Whatever small critter you could think of, it's probably for sale here.

Kunming also has many large flower markets, as Yunnan's flower industry is the largest flower exporter in Asia. However the flower market I went to was really more of a cactus market. There were thousands of different little cacti for sale, but not a lot of flowers to be found.

While the city of Kunming itself doesn't have that many sights to visit, the caves and the stone forest were both stunning and each worth a trip to Kunming. There is much more to see in the Yunnan province (such as Lijang in the North or the famous rice terraces in the South), that I am already planning my next trip there.

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