COLOURFUL CAVES & BRIGHT CITY LIGHTS
Welcome to Kunming blog fans! Capital of Yunnan province, bustling city of 7.2 million souls, and home to 25 of China’s 56 ethnic groups – this is one colourful city and our home base for the next few days. We’ve only been here a few hours and we’re already loving it!
We left the southern Chinese province of Guangxi behind today, bound for Yunnan in the country’s far West. The distances in China are immense*so to save time we’re flying between regions. This meant we had to leave Yangshuo and head back to Guilin Airport. The 80km drive back was nowhere near as scenic as the cruise down the Li River, though we did enjoy seeing more of the Guangxi countryside along the way.
*China is officially the 3rd largest country in the world by land area, after Russia and Canada. Australia’s 5th on the list and it’s huge!
On the way we stopped in to visit the Reed Flute Caves. Named after the reeds that used to grow just outside the entrance (which were once used to make flutes), this natural limestone cave is one of the areas premier tourist attraction and one we just couldn’t miss, according to our guide Peter. We wouldn’t want to miss out on a 5 star tourist attraction*, so off we went to see the caves. It turned out to be one of the most bizarre subterranean experiences we have ever had: the entire cave has been illuminated with multi-coloured lights that change from glowing yellows and oranges, to fluorescent pink and purple, then through to highlighter green and blue. Very, very odd. Why would you take a glorious wonder of nature that’s millions of years old, and turn it into some kind of weird light show?!
*Tourist attractions here seem to have an official government rating – the more stars the better, with 5 stars being the highest rating we’ve seen so far.
Ignoring the disco lighting effects, the stalactites and stalagmites in the 240m long cave were amazing. Some of them were huge – over 70m high and 3m in circumference. It’s just incredible to think that those huge pillars of calcium carbonate formed one drop at a time, over a period of 180 million years.
Inside the cave we saw a number of poems, written in ink on the cave walls; Peter was telling us there are dozens of inscriptions in the cave, some dating as far back as the 8th century.
Due to the stable ambient temperature (the caves are constantly around 19C), Reed Flute Cave was used for centuries by local peoples to store foodstuffs and as shelter. They were once considered a sacred site and their location protected by the locals. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the caves were opened to the public and turned into the gaudy (but interesting) tourist attraction they are today.
Leaving Reed Flute Cave behind we made our way to the airport, checked in, boarded our plane and set off for our next destination on this whirl-wind tour of China: Kunming. Kunming is the capital and largest city in Yunnan province. Though it’s a small city by Chinese standards, we felt the shock of being back in a bustling metropolis after the southern cities of Guilin and Yangshuo. Like many cities in China, Kunming is booming and driving from the airport to our hotel with our new guide Lucy*, we noticed a lot of new high-rises being built. Lucy pointed out to us all the cranes silhouetted against the skyline and made a joke about this being “the national bird of China”.
*Not her real name. She did give us her Chinese name but Lucy is definitely easier to say and we don’t want to offend her by butchering her name every time we say it, so Lucy it is!
Located at an elevation of 1,890m, Kunming has one of the mildest climates in China and is known as “The City of Eternal Spring” due to its constantly pleasant temperatures. One of its other monikers is “The City of 1,000 Ethnic Minorities”. Though 1,000 is a bit of an exaggeration, there are definitely many ethnic minorities* in the city, and in the region of Yunnan. There are 25 different ethnic groups living in this region – a greater variety than anywhere else in China.
*The dominant ethnic group or “tribe” in China re the Han people who originated from far Eastern China. Han Chinese account for 92% of the overall Chinese population, while the other 55 ethnic groups make up the remaining 8%.
We arrived in Kunming quite late and just had time to check in to the hotel and unpack before heading out for dinner and a show, all arranged by Lucy. Dinner was great and featured the usual array of fresh and tasty stir fried vegetables and meats we’ve gotten used to, as well as a local specialty that we loved: a mild goat’s cheese known as rubing, served with xuanwei ham*.
*This very tasty cured meat is made using a centuries-old recipe; we found out preparation involves a complicated process of baking, salting, warming, and cooling/freezing.
After dinner we went for a stroll around the neighbourhood and watched people going about their usual Sunday night – having dinner with their family, groups of old men sitting around low tables playing mahjong, and lots of groups of teenagers just hanging around with friends enjoying the cool night air. In many ways this already seems like a nicer town than either Guilin or Yangshuo, simply because, even though its bigger, its more authentic. The city exists not just for tourists, it exists for its own sake. Everything is just a little less “put on”, which we like. Hopefully we’ll get to explore more of Kunming tomorrow; for now though we’re off to bed, all the colours of the day still fresh in our minds’ eyes. It’s been an awesome day and we can’t wait to see more of Yunnan!