A romantic getaway can be a tad expensive especially when it comes to grand gestures. Famous destinations often flocked by lovebirds are all the way in Europe. And with these popular spots, come a massive budget enough to buy three kapcai (underbone motorcycle term in Malay) or a down payment for a family SUV.
Grand gestures aside, people say thought always counts. If you’re able to burn enough cash for a Eurotrip without selling a kidney, yeay. But, for the rest of the working-class heroes dreaming of a getaway for two, there’s an alternative … in China.
With a history spanning over 2,400 years, Kunming was the gateway to the Silk Road that boosted trade with Tibet, Sichuan, Myanmar, India and beyond. The promise of a beautiful snow-capped mountain was more than enough to get me excited.
After a four-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Win Win and I arrived in Kunming – the capital and largest city of Yunnan province in southwest China.
Dubbed the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, the air was as fresh as the flowers and the city, clean as a whistle.
Ancient Architecture and Story of Cheng Ho at Old Street
This is for that old Rome architecture feel.
While most buildings at the Old Street have succumbed to modernisation, the Jingxing Bird and Flower Market that were built during the Song Dynasty 900 years ago still maintain their old-world charm.
A few houses in the area, dating back 100 years, were made with mud-bricks or stone and they are still well-preserved today.
For animal lovers, however, this place may be too much to handle, but it’s a culture they’re accustomed to. Along the way the roadsides were filled with cats, dogs and even snakes in tiny cages being sold as pets.
The market is open from 9am till 5pm. Since we only arrived at closing time, perhaps skipping the market was for the best.
While walking towards the Jinma Biji Archways, named after two nearby mountains, we came across a plaque that caught our attention.
Our tour guide, Seven, said: “The great Chinese explorer Zheng He was born in Kunming.”
“His story was told in our school textbook,” I exclaimed as I didn’t recall reading the birthplace of the Chinese-Muslim eunuch whom Malaysians knew as Admiral Cheng Ho.
He commanded seven voyages across the Western Ocean from 1405 to 1433 – about 100 years earlier than European pioneer sailors.
Cheng Ho visited Malacca at least five times during his voyages to Southeast Asia, Middle East and Africa.
Blessings for Newlyweds
Built in 1457 during the Yuan dynasty, the Vajra Pagoda in Guandu Ancient Town is the place where newlyweds walk through as a prayer for happiness and prosperity. Over the years, the monument sunk because of soft ground but in 2001, it was raised 2.6 metres to be where it is today.
Literally like entering ancient China, the town comprised six monasteries, seven pavilions and eight temples built in the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The area was buzzing with tourists and locals visiting temples, shopping for souvenirs, singing, and playing cards and mahjong.
Something for the Family
China is known for its mega projects from multilevel highways to mega cities. A little drive outside the city, we were taken to Ancient Dian Kingdom Culture Tourism Town, a CNY100 billion (RM61 billion) project still being developed. For perspective, the scale model of the entire city fills up almost half the developer’s showroom!
The story behind the development came about in 1964 when archeologists discovered remnants of the Dian Kingdom – an ancient group of indigenous non-Chinese metalworking tribes that inhabited the Dian Lake plateau over 2,900 years ago.
The developers shared that once completed, the project will feature 81 attractions including a theme park the size of Shanghai Disneyland, an opera house, Dian Kingdom museum, and a wetland park complete with boat rides on the massive Dianchi Lake.
While few parts of the city are under development, the Colourful Yunnan Happy World theme park has been open since last year. Other than several ultra-large rides like a 105-metre-tall Ferris wheel; two one-kilometre-long roller coasters designed by well-known roller coaster manufacturers Mack (Germany), B&M (Switzerland) and S&S (USA), the park also has over 30 family-friendly attractions like the Ancient Dian stunt theatre, a nationality theatre, carousel, children’s playhouse, tea cup ride and frog jump, as well as a 5,000-square-metre family entertainment centre. Nearby the park are 72 small hot spring pools, open 24 hours a day. Perched on top of a hill, it’s the perfect place to catch the sunrise and sunset.
Largest Flower Market in Asia
Why settle for a tiny bouquet of roses when you can take home a cartful of flowers at a much lower price?
Taking the space of what looked like two football fields, the market was a hive of activity that we found ourselves constantly avoiding moving carts and suppliers with a dozen flower bouquets on their shoulders.
Here’s the kicker, a rose only costs a measly CNY0.30 (RM0.20)!
The market’s chief executive officer Maohai Peng told us that 20 million flowers from 1,600 species are sold and shipped to over 50 countries every night.
“Six-and-a-half-billion blooms were sold in 2017 alone,” he said.
The market only opens from 8.30pm till 2am so the flowers – grown all over Kunming – can stay fresh under cool weather.
A trip outside the city to catch the natural wonders of Yunnan – the Stone Forest, Snow Mountain and Dongchuan Red Land – is a must.
First stop is the Stone Forest, a spectacular set of limestone groups formed over 270 million years ago. The locals say “if you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time” – more than enough to prove this is a must-visit.
An hour into walking through the park and climbing some steep stairs with the help of forest guide Yanggui Hua of the Sani tribe (a branch of the Yi people in China), we got the whole viewing deck to ourselves.
The awe-inspiring sight that took me back to when I was just a kid watching classic kung fu films on television as bulky as a safe box.
I never thought I would be able to experience such a dramatic background myself, yet here I was. The gentle breeze, ancient rock formation as far as the eye can see, serene lakes – childhood relived.
For a dash of adventure, try scaling Jiaozi Snow Mountain. With the base nestled at 2,151 metres above sea level, hiking up the mountain was a breeze with the help of cable cars and other great trail facilities like boardwalks and stairs.
Hiking up to the high altitude can leave your breathless so be sure to take one step at a time and just in case, equip yourself with altitude sickness medication or a small oxygen tank.
A journey to the summit – a whopping 4,330 metres in elevation – requires another five hours’ worth of hiking.
If you ever said you’d scale mountains in the name of love, this is where you turn those words into action. Hah!
The fields in Dongchuan Red Land look almost as same as the rice terraces in Bali. So, rest assured, the views are just as magnificent, if not more. Various crops are planted including potato, corn and flowers. The breeze was as cool as the Snow Mountain’s average temperature at 15°C – a great respite from the Malaysian heat.
Catch an Impressive Theatre Performance
It was so good, it was the highlight of the trip for me.
The Dynamic Yunnan musical at the Kunming Conference Hall back in the city told the story of minority cultures in China. The show came with subtitles at each side of the stage for the benefit of those of us who did not speak the local dialect.
I had only watched a handful of live musical performances but this show almost reduced me to tears. I was swept away by waves of energetic movements from the massive cast.
Directed and choreographed by Yang Liping, who also took lead role in the show, Dynamic Yunnan comprised five chapters that ran for an hour and a half. The show was so captivating that the beginning of every chapter was followed by mumbles of amazement from the audience.
Most of China’s indigenous tribes played the drums, danced and sang to communicate with their gods. In one of the scenes where the cast was praying for rain, strong beats of the authentic tribal drums played by at least 40 men, women and children shook the theatre. I could feel their sadness, but their unwavering faith got them through such a turbulent time.
In another scene, strength, grace, faith and bravery were moulded into one during a tribe’s pilgrimage to the snowy mountains of Tibet in search of the Golden Peacock. This chapter struck a chord with another one of my trip members as he was still fresh from an Everest Base Camp trip. From the stone shrine to the prayer flags, I could feel his brewing excitement. “The mountain is calling again,” I teased.
He responded with the widest smile during the whole trip.
In Love with Kunming
Prior to the trip, my perspective of China was as same as those who had never been to the republic – deafening conversations, hazy skies, toilet issues and counterfeit goods from coffee shops to cars. But as we bid goodbye to Seven, the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ hit me hard.
Amid rapid development like a mega city project, a massive metro system and elevated highways, the city has not lost its roots, the locals remain warm as the summer, and the flowers never fail to bloom. The City of Eternal Spring lived up to its name and certainly captured my heart.
GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies to Kunming. Book your tickets now at airasia.com.