Kunming – a quick and convenient stopover on our way to Dali, or so we thought. Turns out Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, is a destination in itself. Known as the “city of eternal spring”, exiles from the Cultural Revolution apparently did not want to return to eastern China due to Kunming’s mild climate and laid back lifestyle.
Wandering around Green Lake you see groups of people practicing tai chi, jogging and painting calligraphy with large brushes and watery ink on the tiled sidewalk. The area around Green Lake is a great place to base yourself to be walking distance to vegetarian, Western and Chinese food, cafes and temples. We stayed in Lost Garden Guesthouse, a lovely place to base yourself a few minutes walk from Green Lake. Wandering around the area, you see many tea houses and and shops selling traditional music instruments made from gourds.
Yuantong Temple is a Buddhist temple with more than 1,200 years of history. It is comprised of several colourful building set around a lake. When we visited, we were fortunate to see a monthly celebration. Five or six elaborately dressed monks with brightly coloured patterned robes with billowing sleeves danced in a circle to the beat of drums and cymbals. Male monks in golden robes and female monks in light grey robes strolled around the temple, and free tea was distributed. The temple was bustling with people there to pray, and smoke from incense filled the air.
We had read that there is a Tibetan temple right nearby, however from the street this was nowhere to be seen. From a second look, we saw some colourful Tibetan prayer flags down an alleyway to the left of the temple (if you are facing the temple). In contrast to the Yuantong Temple, the Tibetan temple had no other visitors, and was quiet. Colourful art adorned the walls, including detailed tiles. Statues of various Gods were enclosed by glass at the back of the ground floor. The temple caretaker appeared, smiling, and gestured for us to go upstairs. The temple continued on the rooftop, where there were more statues and art. One man was praying devotedly, circumnavigating a stupa several times and spinning all the silver prayer wheels.
Sujixiang vegetarian buffet
After visiting the temples, you can go to an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet (Chinese food) for just 20 yuan per person ($4 AU) at a restaurant called Sujixiang. This was one of our favourite meals in China so far, and is an absolute must visit. You can choose from an array of dishes including bok choy, steamed pumpkin, braised eggplant, flat noodles with chilli, various tofu dishes, fruit, fresh watermelon juice and deep friend bread. Our pick was the purple glutinous rice with pineapple (another time we had it with watermelon), a dish from the Dai ethnic minority. Every day it is packed to the rafters with people. It was nice to see so many people in China eating meat-free, as we have struggled so far to find much vegetarian food.
The restaurant is surprisingly difficult to find. You need to turn down an alleyway off the main street, and go to the second floor of a random building. Sujixiang is open from 11.30-13.30 for lunch and then 17.30-20.00 for dinner.
A student city
Kunming is a student city, bringing with it plenty of cheap eats and bars. The bustling area around Yunnan University and Wenlin Jie is worth visiting in the evenings. Feeling like some Western comforts? Head to Salvador’s for some Mexican-inspired food, salads, pizzas and smoothies. We had the breakfast burrito – egg, black beans, tomatoes, olives, melted cheese and sour cream, which was extremely satisfying. It seemed like every other Western tourist was also here to soak up the bread, cheese and caffeine. Walk a bit further along the street for restaurants serving Korean bibbimbap, ramen, vegan sushi (at Sushi Kitchen) and burritos, bookshops and small bars. Nearby there are fresh food markets and plenty of little shops selling stylish (but expensive) clothing.
On our way out, we cut through a narrow alleyway, and stumbled across a cute little restaurant in a house called ‘As You Like It’ serving pizzas. It reminded me of a small pub in the U.K. When we saw ‘French Cafe’ on the map, we assumed this would be another bakery selling essentially Wonder White and sweets. What we found was freshly baked rye bread (which we haven’t set eyes on since we left Australia two and a half months ago), coffee, and a happy hour with cheap Lao beer.
On our mission to find ground coffee for our morning Aeropress routine, we stumbled across ‘Old Streets Bird and Flower Market’. Although we did not see any birds or flowers for sale, we found charming old streets of mostly renovated ancient Chinese buildings. There seemed to be many sign-making shops, but also restaurants and cafes. Laofangzi is apparently a nice Yunnanese restaurant in an old courtyard in these markets, but we did not get to try it. Nearby here is a Carrefour supermarket in a mall nearby if you’re craving some staples that are surprisingly hard to come by in China such as ground coffee, corn chips, muesli bars, pasta and beans. We also saw plenty of tasty street food and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Across the road from the Old Streets, we stumbled across a public park brimming with hundreds of elderly people clustered together playing majong or cards. They didn’t seem to mind us hovering over them and watching their games. From what we’ve seen so far, elderly people in China have strong social bonds, and they are often out walking and doing activities together such as majong under a bridge, calligraphy on the street, cycling or simply sitting around drinking tea and smoking. This seems much less common in Australia, and I wonder if such activities would help reduce loneliness among the elderly population.
All of this is within a 15-20 minute walk from Green Lake. We recommend stopping for a few days in Kunming to recuperate and explore. In addition, Kunming is great for vegetarians (relative to the other parts of China).