As the capital of Yunnan province, home to over a third of all China's ethnic minorities, Kunming is a uniquely diverse city, with members from the Yi, Hui, Dai and Miao groups making up a significant proportion of the population. No other city in China boasts such an eclectic cultural mix. Churches and mosques stand side by side just off the central square Jin ma Bi ji Fang, and around Wenlin Jie restaurants range from Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Korean to Indian. It must be said that Kunming has more than its fare share of MacDonald's and KFCs, but don't be disillusioned if you're after the authentic 'China experience'. Western culture is just another addition to the cultural melting pot that is Kunming, and the way in which Chinese society is responding to this is part of modern Chinese identity and will inform your time here. And even so, despite the existence of western chain restaurants and large supermarkets such as Carrefour, compared to other Chinese cities, Kunming is still very 'undiscovered'.
Of course, Kunming has been subject to the economic development that has defined China in the last 20 years. However, in contrast to other cities in China this development has been extremely benign in terms of preserving the traditional culture and character of the city, and Kunming is still an incredibly small city by Chinese standards.
Further, the local government has been extremely sensitive compared to the rest of the country in effecting this development in an environmentally friendly way. All mopeds in the central city limits are required to be electrolyzed and almost without exception every household and office block has a solar panel taking advantage of the average 200 sunny days a year. The Western Mountains (Xi Shan) that overlook Kunming offer an unrivaled, crystal clear panoramic of the city, that you're lucky to get from the Grand Hyatt Tower in Shanghai or The Peak overlooking Hong Kong.
Of course Kunming is no social utopia, but in many ways it seems to represent China in its pure form, the proverbial yin yang - poverty/wealth, political repression/social freedom, and yet always completely fascinating, beautiful and human.
Out and About
- Along Wenlin Jie there are many "western" cafes and restaurants. These include "Salvador's" and "The Box" (which are both on Wenhua Xiang, just off Wenlin Jie), "French Cafe", "Prague Cafe" and many others. This street is commonly known as "western street" and the taxi drivers know it well! As well as baking their own bread, Salvador's has great coffee and ice-cream, French Cafe serves up an excellent cheeseburger, which are always in demand. Prague has great breakfasts. Also, all of them have Wi-Fi access.
- In the Kunming Flower and Bird Market, there is a great pizzeria set in a Qing dynasty courtyard house. The prices are more expensive than eating local dishes, but the atmosphere and quality of the food are outstanding. To find it, head to the flower and bird market and as you walk round, keep your eyes peeled for their sign above the stalls.
- The Vegetarian Restaurant across from the Yuantong Buddhist temple serves somewhat pricey imitation meat dishes from a 1,500 year-old tradition. Dishes range from 3.5 to 98 RMB. The crispy "duck" is especially good.
- Over-the-Bridge Rice Noodles (过桥米线 guoqiao mixian)
- Wild Mushrooms (菌子 junzi)
- Old lady potatoes with peppers and fennel (老奶洋芋 laonai yangyu)
- Fried goat's cheese (乳饼 rubing), sometimes served with sugar or black pepper and salt. On the street, girls dressed in Dali minority costumes offer rubing with Hershey's chocolate, rose flavor, and condensed milk. Occasionally mixed in with green beans.
- Local barbeque – at night , street vendors set up charcoal grills to barbeque potatoes, zucchinis, pork, chicken, beef on skewers – all sprinkled liberally with powdered local chili. The taste is excellent & incredibly spicy – typically pay RMB1-2 per skewer for a great street meal.
- Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐 chòu dòufu) – although not strictly a local specialty, this is a favorite among Chinese everywhere. Although it is certainly an acquired taste, it should not be missed.
- Muslim vendors can be found hawking granola-bar type snacks in the older part of town north of the train station. A tough but tasty treat sold by the kilo, the vendor will chop a piece off a huge nut- and honey-filled cake, and make bars or squares as you like.
- Kundu district, clubbing Chinese style; Chinese dance music at noise levels that make you want to rip your ears off. "BaBi Club," "UpRock" and "Top One" normally pull in the crowds.
- Freedom Bar, club and bar with dance music, a small dance floor and plenty of alcohol. (Renmin Donglu)
- The Box, multi-national clientèle makes for a fantastic atmosphere, cheap drinks and the best music selection in town. (Wenhua Xiang)
- Chapter One, always good for a Beer Lao, and free Wi-Fi access. You can also borrow books and DVDs from their lending library (Wenlin Jie)
- Camel Bar, recently refurbished, still the only 24 hour drinking bar in town (Tuodong Lu).
- Lan Se Di Dai/Blue Zone, currently one of Kunming's very few gay venues. Friday and Saturday cabaret shows.
- Several western-style retro-bars can be found on Tuo Dong Lu east of Bai Long Lu, and catering mostly to a local clientèle afford an opportunity to mingle with locals.