PERHAPS, if I could read it, the graffiti etched into the rocks of Kunming’s Stone Forest might seem less picturesque. For all I know, the beautiful calligraphy is the equivalent of ‘Kilroy was here’.
However, for me, the Chinese script merely adds to the charm of this 400sq km ‘forest’ – actually an ancient seabed of limestone, weathered into ethereal karst formations. It turns out I am not the only one. My guide explains that some of the carvings are now tourist attractions in their own right because of their age.
They attest to the fact that the forest – Shilin – has been known since the Ming Dynasty (about 3,500 years ago) as the First Wonder Of The World. A local saying goes: ‘If you have visited Kunming without seeing Shilin, you have wasted your time.’ Like the calligraphy, it may lose something in the translation.
The throngs of tourists visiting Shilin make for a hectic experience at various spots where the paths squeeze through narrow gaps in the rocks, or a formation that looks like a dolphin or an elephant causes a photo opportunity back-up.
The odd thing is that all these tourists are Chinese – from all parts of that vast country – and the odd foreigner is the target of interested stares. It’s a reminder that the influx of tourists from China we have seen in the UK recently doesn’t mean the Chinese have just started taking holidays. Instead, like Americans, they have been doing so without having to leave their own shores – which offer everything from arid desert to tropical paradise.
Back in Kunming itself, more tourists throng the massive Expo site, which dates back to the 1999 International Horticultural Exposition. With on-site gardens from every part of China and around the world, you can see a Canadian, German or Japanese garden, and a rather sad British contribution.
One of the best exhibitions, thronged with schoolchildren, lashes out against the evils of pollution and global warming. The electric scooters on the city streets seem to show the message may be hitting home, too.
Kunming’s centre is a bright, modern city, full of towering steel and glass, but its history as a gateway to the legendary Silk Road is not forgotten. Linking China to India, Burma and Tibet, the cultural mix of travellers on that ancient route is still reflected in local faces today. The region is home to some 26 ethnic groups and you’ll see many in traditional dress.
For those whose image of China dates back to faceless hordes in green or grey Chairman Mao suits, the wealth of colours and styles of these indigenous costumes is a shock. It’s no surprise they are being shown off after decades of being frowned on by the authorities.
Adding to the colour are the flowers sold on every corner. With a year-round average temperature of 20°C, Kunming is dubbed the The City Of Eternal Spring and the climate infects people with a mellowness that contrasts with many other Chinese cities.
Five more things to do in Kunming…
Climb: Dragon’s Gate is a dizzying maze of Taoist caves and sculptures carved out of solid rock, amazingly by one monk. They are the centrepiece of the 700m cliffs of The Western Hills (Xi Shan).
Eat: Local cuisine is one of China’s best. Yunnan is famous for rice noodles (Guoqiao mixian) in a boiling chicken stock with thin slices of meat, the flavour and heat sealed in with a film of oil.
Stay up: The balmy climate makes strolling the streets and night markets a good evening choice. Kunming also boasts many good clubs and bars.
Shop: Leaving aside the China usuals of cheap DVDs and CD players, tie-dye and embroidery feature in local costumes, making Kunming is a great place for some bargains. If you are good at haggling, so much the better – but remember you’re taking on a Silk Road merchant…
Visit: To the west of Kunming is Grand View Park, stuffed full of pagoda towers, nurseries and gardens. Popular with locals, its pavilions reflected in the lake water make for classical Chinese imagery.