Getting There: Treacherous Train Travels
After a 3-day game of will we or won’t we over taking the 18.5 hour overnight “hard sleeper” class train from Chengdu to Kunming, we decided we wouldn’t. Mostly freaked out by the term hard sleeper, and the highly irrational visions of sketchy strangers climbing into our berths and rifling through our bags in the night that filled our heads. As such we turned down the opportunity to ride on a 3-tiered bumpy train bed. We regretted it – both for our budget implications and for missing the experience as in reality, it is no worse and probably better than some of our transit experiences. Instead we took the high-speed train slated to be a 6-hour ride down south.
After eating a massive hotpot (never a good idea pre-transit), I was suddenly hot and felt unwell with a sharp headache, shedding my sweatshirt rapidly. Onboard things were fine until the train, that generally goes 272km/h or more began going about 40 km/h or less. Flash forward to 12:30 am. Our train scheduled to arrive before 11 was not at the station. We were not pleased as we planned to catch the subway and don’t prefer to arrive at sketchy transit stations in the middle of the night. Exiting we saw an official taxi sign and felt a bit better; it would be safe! However, no taxis came. A random man yelled “meter” and started ushering us towards an unmarked car, then dispersed when police came. We didn’t go with him. Nearly 2am and still no taxis, we started accepting the fact we’d sleep in the station. Finally my sister saw one, ran across the road and grabbed it. We were joined by a random woman and her child on the nearly 1-hour drive into the city.
Things to Do in Kunming
Kunming is not somewhere we planned to visit; we simply needed to go south to cross overland to Laos and it was the place to get the bus. Upon arrival, though, we found it an unexpected gem – one of my favorite places in China in fact! From the amazing street food to the beautiful culture-filled lake, Kunming’s laid back pace and delicious snacks were all quite appealing.
We explored on foot a lot, and after a morning in the hostel cafe drinking free coffee swiped from another hostel and listening to an Enya CD on repeat, we set out on a self-guided walking tour through the streets…
We stopped at Xiba Road, home to TCG Nordica and Art Galleries/Cafes which looked cool but was totally closed when we arrived. Then we happened upon the Zhuanxin Wet Market unexpectedly! I love markets, and never tire of them although maybe I should, as I sometimes get food poisoning. This one had the usuals tailored for the area: massive yellow jack fruit, veggies, meat with tails hanging proudly from the table showing the cow of origin, and doughy snacks on silver steamers stacked high. We even glimpsed fresh noodles hanging from the ceiling of a small stall, blowing dry in a fan! We spent ages wandering, aka debating what to buy with the small amount of money we had left.
We visited the Turtle Shell Underpass which our hostel suggested, I don’t know why. It’s just an underpass…I’d give it a pass. There are food samples nearby, where I mistakenly threw my used pick into the clean pick basket to the lady’s horror. Also the Yunnan Library which is massive and pretty inside, plus there is free water. The Yuan Tong Temple looked lame so we didn’t pay to go in and the Kunming Zoo looked sad and sketchy, and also got a pass.
A highlight is Green Lake, not only beautiful but FILLED with people dancing to a dozen different beats, some in traditional costume. Men smoking. People laughing. And no vendors selling, as it’s prohibited as a very well translated sign shows. We also spent time at Walmart. No, you’re not illiterate. Walmart. Only because we needed cheap groceries and got lots of free samples. Plus, it was next to the Impromptu Moonpie Market. Huge tents with thousands of moon pies in cardboard boxes for sale. Seemingly seasonal for the September holiday. We bought a lot. For 1yuan each, these dense cakes served as budget-friendly sustenance.
We attempted to go to the Night Market, advertised online and on maps, but found it shuttered. Online research revealed it was mysteriously closed down in late 2017!
Outside the City
We took the metro to Western Hills to see Dragon’s Gate, an old gate and passageway carved into the sheer side of a mountain. The price was almost as steep as the mountain, and required a bus-to-cable car-to-cart transit. None of which are actually necessary – you can walk. Deranged from our train we did not walk. Obviously, we regretted it.
The ride up is more of a ski lift than a cable car, and we slowly ascended the mountain as a man actively worked atop the lift grinding something – safety first! To the left, a beautiful view of the city’s massive aqua-blue lake. Once atop, we started down some winding paths past pavilions/temples and eventually made our way to the gate, which was a bit lackluster. Not worth the price. While inside, people photographed us left right and center. We were too lazy to walk the visitors center, and instead hit the street behind the park for some snacks – a jelloid drink with seeds and corn muffins. We also spent a day at the Stone Forest: Chillin in Shilin, China’s Stone Forest.
💲Budget Tip | Skip the cable car and passenger car – you can walk. Save 25yuan.
Snacks and Refreshments and More Snacks
Yuan Xi Lu Refreshments Street | I was at first disappointed in thinking “refreshment” was a mistranslation of “snack” but actually it was not ! We got amazing coconut and haw refreshers in the cups with the vacuum sealed top for only 4yuan.
Da Guan Refreshments Street | Across from our hostel was a snack street, with fare from noodles to full meals and everything in between. We ate here a few times, picking up various snacks including Dumplings, mildly spicy Chongqing Hot Noodles, the dry ice frozen ice cream, oily small fried potatoes, and the infamous smelly tofu.
We also dined at Red Bean where we tried the local Yunnan Goat Cheese and then washed it down with drinks at Jihou bar, a very atmospheric and smokey place with the locals ordering their beer in groupings of six. My last day, I ate some amazing Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles nearby the Walmart.
💲Budget Tip | Eat in the street. Street food is about 1/4 price of a sit-down meal and extremely delicious and cleanly (no need to worry about feeling sick like in some other places).