English speakers are rare in Kunming, so it’s a good idea to bring a Mandarin phrase book. A guidebook that includes the pinyin renditions of (and Chinese characters for) hotel, restaurant, and place names in and around the city will also prove useful, especially because the Chinese tend to alter proper nouns. (The French Café, for instance, becomes Lan Bai Hong—“blue, white, red,” for the Gallic tricolor.) The Rough Guide to China is my favorite.
Book rooms ahead of time if you’re arriving during the summer. It pays to bargain: Posted rates are often only a starting point. Kunming’s most luxurious hotel is the Green Lake (Cuihu Binguan, 6 Cuihu Nan Lu, www.greenlakehotel.com), whose park-side location adds to its charm. The centrally located Kunming Hotel (Kunming Fandian, 52 Dongfeng Dong Lu, www.kunminghotel.com.cn) offers slightly downscale accommodations for much less. Kunming’s old budget standby is the Camellia Hotel (Chahua Binguan, 96 Dongfeng Dong Lu, www.kmcamelliahotel.com); a travel agency in the lobby can arrange guides and tours.
The temple-style Yunnan Renjia Restaurant (146 Bao Hai Lu) serves all sorts of Yunnanese specialties and has “minority” dance shows. The Yunnan Flavor Restaurant (96 Dongfeng Dong Lu), in the cul-de-sac by the Camellia Hotel, also has minority dance performances, as well as some of the spiciest cabbage-and-mushroom dishes ever to set a palate aflame. Memorable dining experiences can also be had in the area around the Jingxing Bird and Flower Market, near the Yunnan Provincial Museum: For a couple of dollars you can eat your fill, and you’ll probably be the only tourist around.
Still, the city’s progressive spirit seems to reside in the Western-style cafés near the university. Salvador’s Coffee House (76 Wenhua Xiang, Wenlin Jie), with its Californian interior and low-key New Age feel, may become your home away from home. Just around the corner is the French Café (Lan Bai Hong, 70 Wenlin Jie), where you can surf the Net for free as you sip your wine or coffee.
The Yunnan Provincial Museum (Yunnan Sheng Bowuguan, on Dongfeng Xi Lu) has a rich display of bronze artifacts from the Dian era (400–109 B.C.). The exhibits are well presented, and most have English translations. Much less well-kept, and much more confusing, is the Kunming City Museum (Kunming Shi Bowuguan, Tuodong Lu); still, stop by the second-floor souvenir stands, where bargains abound.
The Bamboo Temple (Qiongzhu Si), seven miles west of the city, is easily reached by taxi or bus. Also visit the Yuantong Temple (Yuantong Si), in northern Kunming. Like most Buddhist temples, these are cheerful, relaxing places; you can bring a book and read, if you like. The Jingxing Bird and Flower Market (Jingxing Huaniao Shichang, off Jingxing Jie in the city center) can occupy an afternoon and may yield treasures—according to a placard I saw at the Yunnan Provincial Museum, archaeologists visiting the market in 1955 stumbled upon Dian-era artifacts that led to the discovery of tombs nearby. Some of Kunming’s last old homes stand in the market’s midst.