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Kunming, Yunnan – China’s most exciting art city

The remote Yunnan Province borders Tibet, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar in China’s southwest. It is without a doubt the most diverse province in China with 55 ethnic minorities, each with their own customs, costumes, and language. Home to World Heritage Sites, tea tree forests and a wealth of Buddhist history alongside snow-capped mountains, lush jungle and picturesque lakes, it has – as the cliché goes – something for everyone.

Kunming Green Lake Park

The problem most visitors face when travelling to Yunnan is what to see and when – there is so much. Getting to Yunnan is simpler than it might seem for such a remote province – you can fly there from London with a stop-over in Shanghai, or direct from Bangkok if you’d like to combine a few experiences in one vacation. Once you’re arrived, it is worth dedicating at least 2 weeks and better 3 to really explore the area. I like to visit in the Autumn when the temperatures are milder but not yet cold in the mountains of Shangri-la, and the weather is dry and pleasant.

I recommend starting in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital which is situated at the edge of the stunning Dian Lake and is overlooked by the Western Mountains. Kunming – meaning “Eternal Spring” owing to its temperate semi-tropical microclimate – is hidden away amongst the spectacular cliffs are ancient Buddhist and Taoist temples, many are high above sea level and date back to the mid-Qing Dynasty (1781-1853). My favourite is The Dragon Gate Taoist grottoes which are considered spectacular examples of Chinese Buddhist art and architecture. Today, Kunming is a buzzing city and a local holiday and art destination with lots of cafes, restaurants, museums and my personal reason for visiting, the Yunnan-artist hubs.

However, until quite recently this was not the case. There is some dispute about the etymology of Yunnan (云南) but the locals would tell you that it means South of the Cloud Kingdom. Until relatively recently, within the span of an average life-time – this mountainous region was so isolated that even the Chinese visiting from other regions experienced culture shock. Several factors contributed to Kunming’s transformation. During the Sino-Japanese War (1937) the Chinese government moved all of its best universities to the safety and remoteness of Kunming and the areas around it and during the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong (1966-76) a great many intellectuals were exiled to Yunnan. This influx of intellectuals created a vibrant intellectual and artistic scene. Kunming’s remoteness from the centres of power and politics in Beijing and Shanghai, combined with its rich Buddhist heritage, also account for the uniquely introspective and lyrical style of many of its artists.

At the centre of Kunming’s contemporary art scene, The Loft or “Chuangku” (创库), is one of the earliest art communities in China. Located in a huge former industrial complex it houses artist studios, galleries, bars, and cafés. One of The Loft’s biggest spaces and the city’s most vibrant venues is TCG Nordica, a gallery and centre for music and art which was originally started as a platform for cultural exchange between Scandinavia and China. The Loft serves as an excellent introduction to Kunming’s art scene.

Providing a great overview of the city’s broad range of art are many museums with revolving exhibitions of experimental, traditional, and ethnic artworks. One of my favourites, a little off the beaten track, is the Yuan Xiaocen Art Museum, named for the famous sculptor whose powerful works are displayed along peaceful trails in landscaped Chinese gardens, contrasting with the building’s impressive contemporary architecture.

On the west side of Green Lake Park is the Yunnan Military Academy Museum ( which was once a Qing Dynasty Military Academy. Between 1909 and its closure in 1935 due to WWII the Academy produced many famous military leaders who went on to change the course of history. The museum is a treasure trove of fascinating historical information, with English translations.

Artistic expression is everywhere in Kunming, where past and present co-exist. The East Pagoda, one of the city’s oldest and once tallest structures that was built in the 9th century and rebuilt in the 19th, stands amidst downtown high-rises. Luxury steel-and-glass shopping centres give way to Guandu, or Old Town Kunming, with traditional wooden houses, the ancient complex of “six temples, seven pavilions and eight shrines” the oldest of which dates back to 1290, and colourful street markets.

The city’s many restaurants offer another form of expression for which Yunnan is famous – delicious, spicy cuisine. Try the pungent tofu, “over-the-bridge” noodles, or erkuai – soft roasted rice pancakes eaten with a sweet or spicy sauce and grated potatoes. Yunnan also has a large variety of wild mushrooms – a real treat during the mushroom season.

Widening your path a little, I’d recommend a stroll through the beautiful Green Lake Park where you can spot locals learning tai chi or minorities in colourful costumes practicing traditional dancing (as part of local life and not as a tourist attraction). During the winter months, thousands of seagulls from Siberia migrate to Green Lake to everyone’s delight. Across from the park is the Grand Park Kunming, offering five star accommodation and expansive views. If you’re looking for a budget stay, then I’d look at JI Hotel (as it is close to the bullet train station.

An hour drive from Kunming, in the autonomous province of the Yi People, is the Stone Forest or Shilin, a UNESCO World Heritage site where over 270 million years a limestone seabed has risen to form fascinating stone “trees”. Traditional Yi dances and handicrafts are part of the joy of exploring this natural wonder.

From Kunming, is easy to catch one of the many inexpensive local airlines (for example, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines) to the further reaches of Yunnan, such as the unforgettable Old Towns of Lijiang and Dali; the magical Shangri-la with its Tibetan stupas and Songzanlin monastery (bearing a striking resemblance to the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace); the legendary Lugu Lake, home to the Mosuo people aka the Kingdom of Women, one of the last matriarchal and matrilineal societies; and the many rivers, gorges, and places of stunning natural scenery in between.

Should you choose to continue from Kunming to Vietnam, you can take the rail-link built in the late 1800s by the French as a means of shipping of weapons and provision of supplies to and from French Indochina. A feat of engineering with a bridge spanning a gorge, the rail-link to Vietnam (Hanoi) was completed by around 1911 and is still operational today.

Katrine Levin curates art from places less explored. She regularly exhibits new work online and also in London and New York. Her next exhibition, featuring the work of Levan Lagidze, will be in the Autumn in London.

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