Yunnan - Kunming, Dali, and Xishuangbanna

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In the farthest southwest of China, bordering with Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet, Yunnan Province of China is the home for a very large and diverse population of Chinese minority peoples. Many of these peoples have their distinct languages, religions, customs, and traditions. Most of their lifestyles are similar to their neighboring Tibetans and Southeast Asians rather than the Han (majority) Chinese.

Yunnan is the home of many of the plants and trees that have been introduced to the West from China. Some examples of them include tea, rhododendrons, and Camellias that all trace their origins to the high plateau in China's southwest, which is Yunnan. The mild and warm climate throughout the year here in Yunnan due to the high altitude of the plateau and the tropical location of the province provides the perfect environment for these plants to grow. The abundance of rainfall (1,000 mm) also contributes to the ease of planting these items. For the same reasons, the Province of Yunnan has been known for a long time as the Land of Eternal Spring. Three famous and beautiful rivers, Salween, Mekong, and Yangzi, run through Yunnan from south to north. The Salween and Mekong rivers continue their flow into Burma and Laos where Yangzi River takes a turn into the Province of Sichuan.

Situated in the center of the eastern Yunnan plateau on the very large plain, is the capital city of the Province of Yunnan-Kunming. This city became the center of the Dian kingdom in the 1st century BC and in 109 BC the Chinese Suzerainty was acknowledged by the rulers of the kingdom. Following the takeover by the Mongols, Kunming became officially the capital city of Yunnan in the year of 1288. Railroads built by the French linking the city with cities in Vietnam and Burma have been well maintained over the years. The airport in the city welcomes thousands of visitors from all other cities of China and foreign tourists on a daily basis. Because of its location and diverse population, Kunming has been one of the popular places of exile in China. For example, during the Anti-Japanese War (1937 to 1945), many famous scholars, businessmen, and activists would hide out in the area from the reach of Japanese invaders. The presence of those individuals brought the city much fresh taste and style that remained with it ever since. American influence over the region also added a different color in the picture when they built the Burma Road from Yunnan across the border during WWII. In the city today, you may find traditional Southeast Asian-style bamboo buildings along with French architecture and modern Chinese structures.

Yunnan City Ratings
** The following ratings are based on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best
History(6) Art(8) Local Culture/UniqueTour(10)
Nature/Scenic(10) Food/Shopping(8) Night Life(6)
Religion(9) Adventure/Sports(8) Reasonable Cost(8)
Recommended Days of Stay: 7 Kunming City Map

Quick Facts

Population - 3.8 million
People - Han,Hui, Dai, Bai, Miao, Dai,Huani

When to go
Tourist Season - February to May and August to November;
Coldest Month - January with temperature as low as -1 C;
Hottest Months - May with temperature as high as 29C;
Annual Precipitation - 1500 millimeters (mainly in May through August)
Getting In and Out
By Air - Kunming has flight links with 52 Chinese cities and most Southeast Asian countries. The airport is 5 km from the city.
By Train - Kunming is 54 hours from Beijing, 24 hours from Chengdu, and 30 hours from Hanoi.


During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), the Nan Chao Kingdom took over the power in the Yunnan region surrounding the Dali area about 200 km west of the city of Kunming. The rulers of the kingdom are said to have originated from Thai but the governing system was very similar to what China had at the time. On several occasions the kingdom defeated the Chinese armies that attempted to take over the area. Yunnan was eventually brought under Chinese control after the Mongols invaded China and took over and established Yuan Dynasty (1279 - 1368). By Ming Dynasty, the Han Chinese began to move to Yunnan in compliance with the government's efforts to further colonize the province and the city of Kunming.

The city continued to prosper during the Qing Dynasty when the Han people were in power. The status of being the capital city of the province remained and the population of both the Han people and minorities grew very rapidly due to the viable economy and stable politics in the most portion of the dynasty. In early 19th century, the French came to the province with their strong colonial interest in the region. They first constructed a railway running between Kunming and Haiphong through Hanoi between 1904 and 1910. The completion of the rail road not only helped the French to more aggressively move in to the area but also stimulated the local economy. The rail is still in use today as one of the major transportation methods between the cities.

In the late 19th century, more and more domestic and international visitors began to discover the beauty of the city and the region around it. They were primarily drawn to the area by the incredible variety of plant life. Researchers say that up to 80 percent of the all flowers that have been adopted by the West from China came from this land. The city now also enjoys the boom of tourism, which is making greater and greater contribution to the local economy.

Sanqing Tower * * *
Two km south of Kunming, Sanqing Tower was the summer resort of Emperor Liang of the Yuan. It has nine tiers each about 30 meters above the other. The Dragon Gate on top of the tower provides a great view of the lake. The intricate carvings on the Dragon Gate were made in the 1600s.

Daguan Lou Pavilion in the Daguan (Grand View) Park * * *
Daguan Gongyuan (Grand View Park) is said to be the most breath-taking and luxuriant flower garden in the city. Located just 2 miles southwest of the city, Grand View Park is a 150-acre botanical paradise on the shores of Lake Dian (Dianchi) that has welcomed thousands of astonished visitors. Kunming is known as both the "City of Eternal Spring" and "City of Flowers". For the latter title, you will know where it comes from while visiting the park and being amazed by its horticultural and herbal riches. Besides the plantation in the park, there are also very interesting structures of arched bridges, courtyards, ponds and walkways to impress any visitor. The Queen of England planted bushes of rose in this park on her visit in October of 1986.

Inside the park, Daguan Pavilion is one of the most popular sites. Built in 1690 and rebuilt in 1869 after a fire, the name means Tower of the Magnificent View and it does allow you to have the most complete and amazing view of the whole park. It also contains poems in fine calligraphy praising the beauty of the park. This tower used to be the Qing Emperor Kangxi's favorite hangout place. The West Hills can be seen here on the tower across the Lake Dian and the hills outline the figure of a woman reclining with her long hair rippling into the lake. Thus the West Hills also have the name "Sleeping Beauty Hills".

Local Culture/Unique Tour
Dali * * * * *
West of Kunming, approximately 400 km (250 miles) along the fascinating old Burma Road, stand the Cang Shan (Azure Mountains). This is where Dali begins. It is a small town in an exquisite setting, squeezed in between a long lake and a high mountain range. Lake Erhai is west of Dali, stretching 25 miles northward but only 3 miles wide. Cangshan Mountains are on the east side of the town with the highest peak of 13,500 feet.

Dali used to be the capital of an indigenous minority kingdom Nanzhao for centuries before the Chinese came and took over. Today the Bai minority still lives here and not too much has changed except the boomed tourism, they are not surprised to see the Han and foreigners here any more. The women of Bai usually adorn themselves in bright red tunics, multi-colored aprons and intricate hats with many exaggerated tassels, braided ribbons and woven fabric.

The shores of Erhai Lake in Dali regularly attract most of the tourists as their first stop following cleaning-up in the hotel after the long trip. The lake itself is beautiful and plantation around the lake is typical of what you see in Yunnan-exotic and booming. A walk by the lakefront could be the highlight of the day especially when it's shiny and bright out-it usually is at any given time of the year. You would see horse carriages carrying people passing you by and some of them would stop and ask if you would like a ride, very nice and worm-hearted people. Many tiny villages are on the lakeshores with fishnets being dried in their front yards and kids running around screaming. If you have wondered very far on the lakefront, stop by a little family restaurant on the road to enjoy a meal of Bai style.

Another perfect way to fully enjoy the beauty of the lake is by boat. Boats are offered for hire for a reasonable fee at the waterfront along the shores. With boats you are also able to visit the islands in the center of the lake. There are a Buddhist temple and a pavilion on the Golden Shuttle Island and a temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy on the Island of Xiaoputuo.

In the north of the town of Dali stand the Three Pagodas (San Ta) that very much symbolize the town as well as the area. All three of the pagodas are of very simple yet wonderful form and are among the finest pagodas in entire China. Right next to the pagodas is the Marble Factory where marble is cut and polished to reveal natural patterns resembling clouds and mountains. Supplies for this factory come from the near-by Azure Mountains and the supply source has been steady for over 1,200 years. This factory has been the backbone of the economy of Dali for many years.

Xishuangbana * * * * *
Situated in the very southern part of Yunnan Province, it's 692km from Kunming and has 13 nationalities including Dai, Hani, Jinuo, Lahu, Yao, etc. "Xishuangbana" has come from the language of Dai: in Dai, "Xishuang" means twelve and "Bana" means "one thousand pieces of land". So "Xishuangbana" represents "Twelve one thousand pieces of land". Also keep in mind when you are in Xishuangbana is that the calendar of Dai began in the year of 638 AD, that means the year of 2000 is actually year 1360 in a Dai calendar.

Over the very recent years, Xishuangbana has become one of the key scenic resorts of the county from coast to coast with its virgin tropical rain forests, precious ornamental plants and wild animals combined with the multifarious peculiar national customs and traditions of southern China.

Xishuangbana is called the natural "Kingdom of Plants" and "Kingdom of Animals". It occupies the only tropical primitive forest in China. Here you'll come across many scenic spots with ethnic traditions such as Mengluan Tropical Plant Garden, Manfeilong White Dagoba, Sanchahe Primitive Forest Park, Banna Ethnic Custom Park, Mandou Dai People Folklore Village, Daluo Forest of One Tree, Ganlanba Dai Villages, Jinuo Mountain Village, Local Flavor Foods Street at Manjinlan, etc. You'll also get beautiful and unforgettable memories with Water-Splashing Festival (it's the annual new year of Dai people, from April 13 to 15 by the Dai calendar), Jinuo people's heroics, Hani people's exquisite embroideries, Bulang people's hospitality, and so on.

One of the most popular attractions in Xishuangbanna would be the White Pagodas of Manfeliong located approximately 67 km (90 miles) south of Jinghong. The entire structure is composed of pagodas of various sizes that are all shaped as calabash. All built on an octagonal foundation, the tallest among them measures 16.29m in height and the shortest only 7 m. There are carvings of Buddhist deities, small animals and flowers around the structures that add to the magnificent and grand look. This structure is a very typical representation of the Dai architectural style and their religious customs.

Not very far, about 3 km or 5.4 miles from the nine pagodas, are the White and Black Pagodas built around 1200's. Both shaped as bamboo shoot, they are approximately 18 meters tall and possess the most typical Dai architectural characteristics. The White Pagoda is worshipped at home and is known as the Buddhist Holy Deed around the Southeast Asian communities. The Black Pagoda was originally painted black upon completion of the building but now is of silver white appearance following several additional paintings throughout the years.

Right next to the county of Jinghong is the Dai Village at Manfinglan. Many people come here for the beautiful and unique architecture of Dai. The material used mainly for the houses here is bamboo with leaves covering the ceilings and walls. One of the most interesting characteristics of these houses is that they are all lifted above the ground: there is a distance of at least 1.5 m (6 feet) between the ground and the floor where people live. The floors are supported upward by strong bamboo lumbers primarily to avoid running water during the rain season and small animals and insects crawling on the ground. The small village is also famous for its warmhearted hospitality and good food. The most popular dishes here in the delightful home-style restaurants include Sweet and Hot Fried Buffalo Skin, Bamboo Stick Rice and Traditional Dai BBQ Birds. The Dai people here also offer the most authentic performance of folk dances and musical that all visitors are welcome to enjoy as well as participate.

Yunnan Ethnic Group Village * * * * *
There is a outstanding selection of embroidery (especially shoulder bags and cloths), minority handcrafts, unique feather products, batik, tin and copperware. The minority handcrafts here are said to be the most authentic and they are all very reasonably priced. Hand-made minority clothing also makes the best souvenir items that you can get in Kunming.

Yunnan Provincial Museum * * * * *
Located just on the northeast edge of the city of Kunming, Yunnan Provincial Museum is another must-visit place in the area. The fantastic exhibits here include the excavated findings of the Dian Kingdom and the ancestors of other minorities in the region. The exhibits of clothing items, tools, transportation methods, and evidence of pre-modern agriculture give a vivid display of what life was like in Yunnan thousands of years ago.

The Institute of Nationalities * * * * *
The Institute of Nationalities is very good place to visit if you would like to get a grip on what exactly are the differences between these minority groups in Yunnan. Most Han Chinese people are not familiar with the cultural and social differences between these peoples. The displays here will illustrate how exactly the customs differ among the groups and what languages they speak. You will find out what minorities are matriarchal and which ones are not; what holidays are celebrated by whom and why; what groups marry each other traditionally and which ones hate each other.

Xishan * * * * *
Located approximately 15 km southwest of the city of Kunming, Xishan, or the Western Hills has the best view of a huge lake from the Dragon Gate near the top of the hill. The lake itself occupies an area of 300 square km and is said to be the sixth largest lake in the country. It's also surprisingly clean and clear in comparison with some other lakes in China. The Dragon Gate is on the top of the Pavilion of Three Purities through a set of stone steps. The structure itself has been standing there since the Dynasty of Yuan through Ming and Qing. A series of paths, stairways, and tunnels link a succession of stone temples. Some of the stairways are carved into the face of the cliff, which could make the journey very exciting. It can take up to 5 hours for a fit hiker to climb up from the bottom to the Gate. Tourists may also hire taxis at the bottom of the hill and take a different route to the Pavilion of Three Purities to save some energy to fully enjoy the view from the top. There are grottoes less than a mile from the Pavilion on the cliff that were cut out by a group of monks working for over 54 years. The caves and niches along the way have a large number of statues trimmed from rocks that serve as shrines to the Goddess of Mercy, the famous Guanyin of Taoism.

Xishan is known as one of the most beautiful sites in the area surrounding the city of Kunming and is definitely the number one recommended location for getting the best out of your trip to Yunnan.

Black Dragon Pool and the Kunming Botanical Garden * * * *
Approximately 17 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of the city is the colorful temple known as the Black Dragon Pool. The story behind the building of the temple has that traditionally many dragons in history were destructive and vicious and could be mastered only by intelligent and brave individuals. The city was once in chaos when ten dragons visited and put the city in ruin. One Taoist scholar was able to banish nine of them and the last one was tamed. The lucky one is said to live in the pool even today although no one has seen him. The temple was built in typical Ming style and is covered by yellow and blue tiles that still shine even after hundreds of years of rain and sun.

Very close to the temple of Black Dragon Pool lies the Botanical Garden. Many typical Yunnan plants and trees are nurtured here to present to the visitors what the province has to offer in its wilderness. The garden also houses almost half of China's indigenous trees and flowers which makes it very much worth visiting for those who are interesting in Chinese gardening and vegetation. You may find the most beautiful flowering shrubs such as camellia and rhododendron that were first collected here by the Westerners in Yunnan.

Stone Forest and the Sword Peak Pond * * * * *
Gradually formed over the years, the Stone Forest is basically limestone pinnacles and rocks standing beautifully like petrified trees in fantastic shapes. The outcrops are the result of water erosion- much like the mountains of Guilin, except on a smaller scale. The journey to the Stone Forest can be much fun itself. Along the road to the location, there are a number of restaurants and shops for visitors to stop by and enjoy some authentic local food and purchase some souvenir items. You may also be able to get a very good view of the unique local houses on the sides of the road. They are mostly constructed with timber frames with a narrow, open upper story for storing hay.

Upon approaching the Stone Forest, you will see the gate to the site: a stone screen with the name of the site carved on it. Immediately south of the forest is the Sword Peak Pond where the rocks are close and begin to tower over the visitors. There are vendors for trinkets and fast food along the sides of the roads. You will also come across locals dressed up in their traditional customs for hire to take pictures with visitors for a small fee.

Most of the hotels offer excellent local food for visitors and live performances of Sani (local minority) dances that are very worth seeing. The Stone Forest Hotel has villas and a casino for late evening entertainment. The Stone Forest Lake offers one of the best locations to enjoy an incredible sunset scenery. There is also a gulf course near the lake.

Green Lake * * *
Surrounded by two-story wooden-shuttered houses that are representive of the city life in Kunming a century ago, the Green Lake inside the city lies. Some of the most interesting vendors may be seen at the entrances of the Green Lake Park. You can win some cheap ceramic figurines by tossing ring on the right beer bottles. Or enjoy some barbecued meat or pineapple on stick. There are also small but friendly gift shops and newspaper and magazine vendors on the walkway.

The lake itself is absolutely gorgeous. With willow trees lined on the shores and small arched bridges across some sections, the lake can be mistaken with the most famous West Lake of Hangzhou. Countless black-headed gulls are fed in the lake with bread that can be purchased in plastic bags by vendors. There are also some very beautiful and exotic flowers and trees along the bank of the lake. Some international restaurants and cafes can also be found inside the park. Sandwiches and drinks can be purchased in The French Parasol Restaurant and the Caf De Jack. Parisian serves Western-style fast food such as sandwiches and fries with coke and alcoholic beverages.

Food/ Shopping
Jixing Yunnan Flavor Food City * * *

Yunnan Antique Store * * * * *

Located on the corner of Qingnian and Dongfeng Road, the Yunnan Antique Store is another place that is worth visiting. There are some of the finest pieces of mini-sculpture and mini-landscape in Ming and Qing style here in the store that make the perfect gifts for you to bring back home. Some the real antique items tend to be a little over-priced but are very much worth looking at even if you don't buy. If you do make a purchase of anything that's older than 50 years, however, make sure you get official red seals on the package and the item itself to prove to the border custom officers that they have been legitimately purchased as opposed to smuggling.

There are also many shops and stores of varies sizes along the streets of downtown Kunming selling different antique and souvenir items. Be aware of the possibility of being cheated by the salespeople if you do visit these places, however. It is a very good idea to go with a local guide.

The Birds and Flower Market * * * * *
The Birds and Flower Market is only several blocks from the Green Lake Hotel and many visitors make a stop-by here especially if they stay in downtown area. The stores also carry antique jewelry and porcelain items, real and fake.

Night Life
Most of the hotels in the city of Kunming offer much to do at night just like hotels in most other major cities in China. The dining rooms of these places usually open till one or two in the morning or even 24 hours a day every day. Bars, Kareoke lounges and dance halls of the hotels often open all night as well. Some resorts of the city offer minority traditional dances and shows on a regular basis. The information on these performances may be obtained through your hotel front desk.

If you feel like dancing with some old fashion disco music of the 80's, definitely check out the Best Disco near Holiday Inn of Kunming. The DJs here are wonderful and experienced; the atmosphere is pleasant and much different from the dance halls of the West.

Movie and theater information is available on local newspapers and your hotel front desk. Some of foreign films are played in their original languages and be sure to check on that before you go.

Some of the very famous temples of the nation are in Kunming. These temples are unique and interesting because they are not as typically Han (Chinese majority race). They tend to have been influenced or dominated by the minority cultures.

The Bamboo Temple, for example, has the characteristics of both Chinese Buddhism and Mongolian Buddhism due to the fact that both branches of the religion have been major influences in the region over the course of history. Most scholars believe that it was built in the very early 1300's. The temple was believed to be the very first place where Zen Buddhism was introduced to Yunnan from central China.

Several other temples of popularity include the Taihua Temple, the largest temple in the city, the Golden Temple, 11 km northeast of the city, and the Yuan Tong Temple, the most colorful of all. Each and every one of these temples has its own style and flavor and gives the visitor a different feel of serenity.



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