If you’re planning a trip to China and want to go somewhere new and different, why not pay a visit to the charming (and Muslim-friendly!) capital city of Kunming in Yunnan province? Full of centuries of history and heritage and housing a notable Hui Muslim population, this region will astound you with its gorgeous scenery, laidback outlook towards life, and cultural diversity.
To get you started on your Kunming adventure, we’ve compiled 8 useful tips to help you navigate around the city and its surroundings. If you feel like taking the leap, you’ll be glad to know that AirAsia having a special promotional period for their direct flights to Kunming from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu! 🤩 Choose AirAsia for your Yunnan experience and you can enjoy exclusive fares flying from Kuala Lumpur for just RM178, and from Kota Kinabalu for just RM199 (both one-way including taxes) for travels from now till 31 August 2019. Hurry and book soon, the promo will end on 10 March 2019!
1. Don’t Get Intimidated By The Language Barrier
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Encountering a language barrier is an intimidating prospect for any traveller, but it’s also an opportunity to learn how to bridge the gaps between different cultures 😊 Even if you don’t understand each other, it’s one way to immerse yourself in local customs and habits and you can often uncover a common humanity and hospitality through your efforts!
Since you probably won’t have time to cram a lifetime’s worth of Mandarin Chinese into your head before your trip however, here are some easy tips to make your journey to Kunming a little easier 😉
- Make sure to plan ahead: Write down your accommodation’s name and address down in Mandarin to make it easier to ask for directions. It’s also good to take down the names of key attractions or things you want to try out in Mandarin! P.S. Look out for the Mandarin names of attractions and food you’ll want to try throughout this article!
- Try to memorize some useful phrases: Simple questions such as “How do I get to ___?” or “How much does this cost?” will help you through most of your trip! If you’re not confident in your memorization skills, use the Google Translate app to help you out!
- Download your apps before you get there: Besides an ever-trusty VPN app, make sure to download local apps such as Baidu Maps or Gaode Maps to take the place of Google Maps. (P.S. Since these maps use a Mandarin language interface, save the names all of the places you want to go to or restaurants you’re looking for in both Mandarin and English so that you can just copy and paste them over!)
2. Pack Light For Year-Round Spring-time Weather
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Kunming is known as the “Spring City” because of its year-round good weather – while other parts of China might be frosty and freezing mid-December, Kunming will still be balmy and refreshing! 😮 With temperatures ranging from only 7-18 degrees Celsius throughout all four seasons, you won’t have to waste your baggage allowance lugging around heavy underclothes for sub-zero temperatures.
P.S. It’s said that the best times to visit are between March and November, where you’ll be able to catch the scenery at its very finest! Do make sure to bring along sunblock no matter when, as you’ll be out in the sun for most of the time.
3. Make Sure To Try Yunnan’s Iconic Dishes In Its Capital
As Kunming is the capital city of Yunnan Province, you’re able to get the iconic dishes of Yunnan cuisine here, which combines the cooking styles and histories of the province’s various ethnic groups and often includes mushroom dishes and lots of spice. Whether you’re eating at a sit-down restaurant or snacking on some street food, the variety of options available will surely keep you feeling full and satisfied 😁 Plus Kunming also has a sizeable Muslim population – meaning you won’t have a shortage of options to choose from!
Disclaimer: While many of these eateries have not been certified by a governing body, they have been run and operated by Kunming’s Muslim community for many years. Many halal restaurants in China may also serve alcohol on the menu as it’s part of the local culture, including most of the eateries on this list, so we advise that you dine at your own discretion.
#HHWT Tip: Look out or ask for the phrases 回族餐厅 (Hui Zu Can Ting) which means “Hui Muslim restaurant” and 清真 (Qing Zhen) which means “halal” on signboards and shopfronts.
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One of Yunnan’s most distinctive dishes is a type of rice cake called erkuai (饵块) which literally translates into ‘ear-piece’ due to the ear-shaped appearance of the dish! Erkuai can be cooked in all sorts of ways, but it’s most often stir-fried with vegetables, meat, or spicy sauce, or used in a wrap. It’s the type of dish you can find in both sit-down restaurants and street markets stalls, and you definitely can’t say you’ve visited Kunming until you’ve had it 😋
Try it out at: 春风饵块(南亚店) (Chun Feng Er Kuai – Nan Ya Dian)
Address: 南亚风情园中央商业广场1楼, Nan Ya Feng Qing Yuan Zhong Yang Shang Ye Guang Chang 1 Lou
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Cross Bridge Rice Noodles (过桥米线, Guo Qiao Mi Xian) is one of Yunnan’s most iconic dishes, consisting of a warm bowl of soup served separately from its rice noodles, meats, and vegetable side dishes. Wondering why it’s laid out in such an odd way? There’s actually a touching story behind them! Years ago a scholar secluded himself on an island to study for his exams, leaving his wife to cross a bridge daily to bring him his meals. As the scholar would forget to eat his food until it turned cold, his ingenious wife separated the warm soup from the cold ingredients so that his food would still be hot once he remembered to eat it. Apparently, he did so well in his exams that to thank his wife for her support, this dish was memorialized and passed down ever since! 😍
Try it out at: 清真·云膳鲜过桥米线 (Qing Zhen Yun Shan Xian Guoqiao Mixian)
Address: 东寺街金马坊商业步行街BJ3-6-1, Dong Si Jie Jin Ma Fang Shang Ye Bu Xing Jie BJ3-6-1
P.S. The shop is right opposite the Yong Ning mosque in the Xi Shan district of Kunming, so you can pop over for a bite of these yummy noodles after your prayers! 😋
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Glutinous rice dumplings (or glutinous rice balls) are found all over China, but these Yunnan bean flour dumplings (豆面汤圆, Dou Mian Tang Yuan) are a local variation! The dumplings are covered in soybean powder and brown sugar, making them a sugary sweet treat that will warm you up 😁 Some dumplings even come with fillings such as minced peanuts or sugar, making them doubly delicious. The best part is that these dumplings can often be found in street markets, meaning you can nibble on them while you explore the streets of Kunming itself!
Try it out at: 回珍清真食堂, Hui Zhen Qing Zhen Shi Tang
Address: 北京路广场金色年华商场一层D6区, Beijing Lu Guang Chang Jin Se Nian Hua Shang Chang Yi Ceng D6 Qu
#HHWT Tip: Make sure to try the Steam-Pot Chicken (汽锅鸡, Qi Guo Ji) there too, which is another Yunnan specialty consisting of chicken and herbs steamed in an earthenware pot!
You can also find more halal eateries on Dianping which lists all of the eateries within the city! Do note that Dianping’s interface is in Mandarin.
4. Experience Local Life In Kunming’s Street Markets
You can’t pay a visit to Kunming without stopping by its street markets. Each market is typically dedicated to one or two types of speciality goods and can span several streets – meaning if you’re searching for the perfect souvenir you can definitely find it here! 😄
Kunming Old Street Jewellery, Flower, and Bird Market
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Also known as the Jingxing Flower and Bird Market, this is one of the biggest of its kind in Kunming with hundreds of shops selling everything from flowers and birds (of course) to jewellery, jade, porcelain, pottery, and so much more! Located right in Kunming’s Old Street area, taking a walk through here will feel like you’ve been transported back in time with the old-school vibes all around you. Even if you’re not looking to buy anything just yet, it’s well worth it to spend a few hours soaking in the bustling atmosphere of the area 😊 Make sure to stop midway for a refreshing lemon-lime drink that can be commonly found in street markets to refresh your energy levels!
Kunming Wholesale Tea Market
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Can you believe that all of these gorgeous colours come from types of tea? If you’re a tea enthusiast, you have to make sure this place is on your list! Kunming is known for its Pu’er tea in particular, and there are dozens of stalls here just dedicated to bringing you the most aromatic and delicious leaves possible. There are other popular varieties available here, with everything from Tie Guan Yin to Oolong on offer; you can even buy special tea pots just for making traditional Chinese tea. Now that’s a souvenir that’s both meaningful and practical! 😉
5. Take A Chance To Do Your Prayers Somewhere New
Thanks to Kunming’s sizeable Muslim population, you can rest assured that there is no shortage of mosques and prayer spaces available here 😊 Best of all, many of these mosques have a rich and intriguing history behind them! Doing your prayers here and hearing the sermons in a mix of Arabic and Mandarin Chinese will definitely be a heartwarming reminder of the diversity of Islam.
#HHWT Tip: You’ll often find small shops or eateries owned and operated by local Muslims around these mosques, so make sure to wander around once your prayers are done to see if you can discover something new!
Shuncheng Street Mosque
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First built in 1425 and rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty (17th-20th centuries) the Shuncheng Street mosque is one of the most famous mosques not just in Yunnan, but in China itself! The mosque houses the regional headquarters of the Islamic Association in Yunnan Province, and its unique façade displays the strong Chinese influences left upon it. At first glance, you might not even realize that its bright red pillars and intricate tiled roof design belong to a mosque!
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Nancheng is the biggest mosque in Kunming, covering a total of 2,557 square meters! First constructed in the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th centuries) it was rebuilt multiple times throughout the Qing Dynasty as well. The mosque has a large collection of Islamic texts and classics and has become a centre of activity for Yunnan’s greater Muslim community in the past few decades.
6. Immerse Yourself in Kunming’s Scenery and Ethnic Heritage
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Kunming’s West Hill (also known as the Xishan Forest Park) has some of the lushest and most beautiful greenery in the area. Entrance to the park costs just RMB 30, which is more than worth it for the breathtaking views you’ll see in return 😍 The park includes a 5-peak mountain range that spans over 40 kilometres and is a beautiful place to spend a day enjoying the scenery and being close to nature. You can also visit Huating temple along the way, which is one of the oldest temples in Kunming at over 900 years old! The temple houses hundreds of statues including three golden Buddhas, and lots of clay figurines of Chinese mythical animals.
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The Dragon’s Gate (Longmen) located at the top of Xishan Forest Park is definitely the must-see attraction in Kunming. Carved out of the cliffs over 200 years ago, it is said that passing through the gate will grant someone prosperity and good fortune. Getting to and from the grottoes will cost you about RMB 90 (covering a return bus ride, chairlift, and any entrance fees), and you’ll get one of the best views of Kunming once you’ve reached the peak.
#HWWT Tip: The steps up to Longmen are steep and narrow, so do remember to wear a pair of comfortable shoes for the trek up – and watch your step! If you’re not a fan of hiking uphill, you can also opt for a 20-30 minute chairlift costing RMB 25 (one-way) up to the peak of the mountain instead!
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Located just across the Xiaoqing River from the Xishan Forest Park, the Yunnan Nationalities Village showcases the culture of the 26 ethnic groups that reside in the province. For an entrance fee of just RMB 90, a visit to the Village allows you a brief but meaningful peek into the different ethnic groups’ heritage, as you’re able to see their traditional houses, experience ethnic customs, and witness cultural performances too. Make sure to look out for the Sun and Moon Square which depicts the Hani people’s origin myths and stories, as well as the totem poles in the Solar Calendar Square which reflect the Yi people’s tiger and eagle worship.
P.S. While each ethnic village can be traversed easily by foot, the entire park itself is huge. Thankfully once you enter the park you’ll have a choice of several motorized transport options available for rent on an hourly basis.
7. Take A Detour To Lijiang
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Kunming may be the capital of Yunnan province, but it certainly isn’t the only city worth visiting while you’re there. The nearby city of Lijiang is just a short trip away (check out tip number 8 below to find out how to get there 😁) and is full of gorgeous sights to see too!
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Dayan, also known as the Old Town Of Lijiang (丽江古城, Lijiang Gucheng), was actually listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997! Originally built by the Naxi ethnic group, it’s regarded as one of the best-preserved cities in the entire country. You can truly experience a step back into the past here by walking down cobblestone streets to visit family-run establishments that have been around for decades. If there’s one thing you can’t miss here, it’s Mu’s Residence (木府, Mu Fu) which is a grand palace-like structure originally built by the former ruler Mu Tusi. From a distance, the Residence resembles a miniature imperial palace, and holds centuries of history within its ornate walls.
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Just a short walk away from Dayan is the Black Dragon Pool Park where you can visit the Black Dragon Pool (黑龙潭, Hei Long Tan) and catch some of the most awe-inspiring views of your entire trip. Originally built in 1737, this gorgeous park at the foot of Elephant Hill is home to not only a tranquil pool that will captivate you for hours on end, but also a variety of gardens and orchards that are perfect for a leisurely stroll. The park contains several other temples and pagodas that you can visit, which add to the serene atmosphere.
#HHWT Tip: If you’re already visiting Dayan Old Town, you can use your Old Town Maintenance Fee ticket to enter into the Black Dragon Pool Park too! Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to visit both attractions to make full use of your ticket 😁
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If you’re a history buff and you really want to squeeze one more historic sight into your Lijiang visit, then you’ve got to visit Shuhe Ancient Town (束河古镇, Shuhe Guzhen). Another town built by the Naxi people, Shuhe has in fact been listed as an important part of Lijiang Ancient Town. While Shuhe is no longer the thriving market town it used to be, you can visit what used to be one of the busiest markets in the region at Sifang Street. During the day you can catch ethnic dance performances by the Naxi people in the square, and there are dozens of shops lining the streets selling all sorts of local handicrafts, street snacks, and even sweet-smelling teas that will rejuvenate you. 😊
8. Get Around Like A Local
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Within Kunming itself, there are over 100 public bus lines available – meaning you’ll definitely be able to get to almost anywhere you want to go! Each trip costs RMB 1 within urban areas and between RMB 6-12 in suburban areas, and most lines commence around 6am – perfect to get you to the market for an early breakfast 😉 Just remember to plan to end your day before 10-10.30pm as that’s when most bus lines end! If you find yourself stranded without a bus at the end of the day, however, just hail a cab with fees starting from RMB 10!
#HHWT Tip: As the buses may not have buttons or other ways to signal that you want to disembark at the next stop, make sure to hover near the door when you want to get off so that the driver will be able to take the hint.
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If you’re heading to a nearby city of Dali or Lijiang from Kunming, the fastest way to get there would definitely be a domestic flight that’ll take just over an hour. The other much slower but more immersive option would be to take a sleeper train overnight! While there are day trains as well, sleeper trains might be more worth it in this situation as you can rest up after your flight. Sleeper tickets start at RMB 141.5 and go up to RMB 669 for a VIP compartment that fits 3 passengers.
#HHWT Tip: If you’re taking the train from Lijiang to Kunming at the end of your trip, opt for a day train instead to enjoy the beautiful countryside scenery! It’ll keep you refreshed before you board your flight back home.
Kunming is one of the cities in China that’s just waiting to be explored 🤩 With AirAsia’s direct flight options, it’s become one step easier to discover the centuries of heritage, diversity, and culture just a few hours away!
This article was brought to you by AirAsia.