Kunming is a vibrant, colourful city full of adventure and wonder still waiting to be discovered. But the real gems of Yunnan lie in the outdoors, in the even wilder and pristine mountains, lakes and valleys of the Himalayan foothills. Be it backpacking, camping, fishing or just a leisurely day hike, read on and you’ll find the right outdoor activity for you.
There are literally hundreds of places to explore in the mountains that ring the city. Some, however, are more difficult to get to than others. Many are attracted by the allure of the isolated, traditional villages that see few foreign tourists but are unable to navigate the winding roads and convoluted transportation systems of rural Yunnan. The city fast becomes country, and it’s easy to get lost. It’s not recommended to go too far off the beaten path if your time in Kunming is limited.
Still, there is a remarkable amount of sites both historical and natural just an hour or two away from the city. Some might require a bus transfer or two, but all are worth the trip to see a truly ancient way of life. These trips range from a short and easy hike around the West Hills to an overnight adventure to an ancient salt mining village rarely visited by outside tourists.
1) The West Hills 西山
Overlooking the city, the West Hills of Kunming have long commanded the attention of the locals.
Besides the spectacular vistas of Kunming and Dian Lake, there are a lot of interesting temples, pagodas and historical sites built on the mountain. The Dragon Gate (龙门) is worth the 40 RMB entrance fee, which includes the temple, built in the Qing Dynasty, and the grottoes nearby. This is a place well-suited to those who prefer to go off the beaten path as well.
After riding the No.5 bus to the terminus, transfer to the No. 6 which goes right to the entrance. There, you can rent a minibus for 30 RMB or take the three hour hike to the top. Some enjoy the hike up, but since the West Hills are especially suited for a day trip, you might want to be aware of time.
There is also a cable car that runs from the Yunnan Minorities Village to the top of the mountain. This is only really worth it if you plan on going to the village first.
2) Stone Forest 石林
Probably the most famous sight in Kunming for Chinese tourists, the Stone Forest is a fascinating maze of geological formations that are unique to the region. Although there is a path that leads through the park, it’s best to explore on your own since the most popular areas are swarming with tourists. It’s a good 350 square kilometers, so rest assured there’s plenty of isolated areas where you can really take in the scenery.
The 200 RMB entrance fee is astoundingly high, but it gives you access to the whole park, including the waterfalls and caves. It is possible to go to the area and see some formations outside the park for free, but the most exotic formations are, of course, inside the park.
To get there, take bus No. 60 or a taxi to the East Bus Station (东部客运站). Buses leave often in the morning and are about 25 RMB. Buses to the Stone Forest take about two hours and tickets are always available, but keep in mind that the last bus back to Kunming leaves at 18:40. There are hotels near the Stone Forest but you don’t want to stay there as there are no activities at night.
3) Heijing 黑井
One of the most well-preserved accessible villages in Yunnan, Heijing is a convenient two hours from Kunming and offers a truly unique view of the traditional Chinese way of life, as well as some spectacular hikes and views. The hike to the small Buddhist temple on the eastern side of the mountain is a bit strenuous, but visitors are rewarded with a small village temple still in operation and devoid of tourists.
Heijing was once a prosperous salt mining town but now survives on agriculture and limited tourism. There is an old salt mine but it’s pretty run down and not nearly as exciting as the mountains. One benefit of the old mines is that the villas of the owners have been converted into guesthouses that are quite comfortable. They are rarely full, so just go to the east side of town and pick one you like.
There are two ways to get to Heijing. One is the bus that leaves from the west bus station (西部客运站). This is the bus that goes to Chuxiong（楚雄）but the driver will let you off at Heijing. There should be a few of these buses each morning. If you are not interested in taking a bus you can also take the train to Panzhihua and（攀枝花）get off at Heijing. This is a little faster but there is only one train at 07:00. Either way, you’ll need to get a horse cart from the station into town, which happens to be a great introduction to the village.
No matter which location you choose, visiting one of the above places is well worth the trip, especially if you want to see the pristine beauty that surrounds Kunming.
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Keywords: Outdoor activities Kunming off the beaten path Kunming hiking near Kunming great day trips Kunming
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