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72 Hours in Kunming

China has been rolling out a new 72-hour transit visa exemption policy in major cities throughout the country, making visiting China even easier. Now travelers from the U.S., Canada, and 49 other countries can include China as an additional destination on an existing trip without needing to get a visa. Under the policy, visitors are able to enter select Chinese cities for up to 72 hours without a visa, as long as they have a booked plane ticket to a third country or region within the 72-hour time period. This applies to the cities of Beijing, ShanghaiGuangzhou, Chengdu, ChongqingShenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, GuilinKunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Tianjin. China continues to expand this policy to additional locations throughout the destination. In the meantime, these cities are the ideal stopovers or add-on destinations for travelers already in Asia.

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan Province. Its consistent temperate weather earned it the moniker “the City of Eternal Spring” and it is an excellent environment not only for flowers to bloom all year long, but also for tourism year-round. Kunming has a history of more than 2,400 years; in that time the city has developed from a gateway on the famous Silk Road to a political, economic, communications and cultural center today. Despite the development of this lovely city, Kunming remains a generally laid-back destination – perhaps it’s the consistently good weather, great views, and pleasant people that keep the vibe relaxed. The natural beauty, history and culture of Kunming also make it a popular leisure destination for tourists, and the city boasts many great options for visitors, including convenient transportation options, idyllic scenic areas, a varied and exotic minority culture, and excellent local cuisine. Now that you can visit Kunming for up to 72 hours without getting a visa, the only question is what you want to see and do while there. Here are some of the top sites and activities in Kunming to make the most of your 72-hour trip:

Stone Forest

No trip to Kunming is complete without a visit to Shilin Geopark (“shilin” literally translates to “stone forest”). Sitting less 60 miles outside the city, the Stone Forest is a result of millions of years of limestone erosion, creating natural karst stone formations, some rugged, some smooth, all incredible to behold. The many tall rocks resemble giant petrified trees, giving the illusion of a forest of stone. These other-worldly stone formations appear to change color depending on the weather, and visitors can explore various natural occurrences through the 240-square-mile area and its seven main “divisions,” including caves, lakes and waterfalls. Beyond the stunning natural beauty, visitors to the Stone Forest can also experience local folk customs. The Sani people (which are a part of the Yi ethnic group) celebrate with a Torch Festival each year around the 24th and 25th days of the sixth lunar month (usually late July and early August), which features traditional folk dancing, music, wrestling competitions and more celebrations.

Jiuxiang Karst Cave Scenic Area

Located near the Stone Forest, the Jiuxiang Scenic Area covers more than 75 square miles, including the magnificent underground caves, which are sometimes referred to as the Underground Stone Forest. The 100+ caves are more than 500 million years old and comprise the largest cave cluster in China. The area has several clusters of caves, from the Triangular Caves, to the Overlapping Rainbow Bridge, the Upper Big Cave, the Long Sandy Bank and the Bright Moon Lake, each with its own distinct features. This “Karst Cave Museum” offers hours of exploration through beautifully lit caves, gorgeous caverns and a cable car ride at the end back to the main entrance. Above ground, the Jiuxiang area is also home to lush forests and local Yi and Hui people.

Dianchi Lake

Located in the southwestern area of Kunming city, Dianchi Lake and the Dianchi Lake Scenic Area provide visitors with an opportunity to relax in nature, as well as to experience the local ethnic groups and their customs. The lake itself is the largest freshwater lake in Yunnan Province, measuring approximately more than 74,000 acres, and the sixth largest in China. The banks of the lake are formed by mountains on all sides; it sits at the foot of the Western Hills and Yungui Plateau and is known as “a pearl on the plateau.” There are many attractions along the lake, from Grand View Park, with its rock gardens, pavilions and bridges, to White Fish Park, with lovely gardens and views of sailboats, birds, cherry blossom trees and the serene lake. The Yunnan Ethnic Villages are also located around the Dianchi Lake Scenic Area.

Yunnan Ethnic Villages

Located on the northern shore of the lake, 25 ethnic groups have villages here, including the Yi, Dai, Bai, Naxi and Zhuang people. In the ethnic villages, visitors can learn more about the various cultures and watch folk performances with colorful attire, sample authentic local cuisine, buy handcrafts, and even see an elephant performance. The singing, dancing and folk performances are held from 9:00am to 5:00pm, with most taking place in Tuanjie Square or in the Dancing Hall.

Xishan Forest Park

Just outside Kunming city is the Xishan Forest Park along Dianchi Lake. Xishan is considered one of the major scenic mountains in the Yunnan province, and has many green forests, flowing streams, rolling hills and generally beautiful scenery. The park stretches out over almost 25 miles and climbs in altitude, providing ample opportunities for hiking and copious scenic views. The famous Ming Dynasty poet Yang Shen pronounced the park as the best landscape in all of Yunnan.

Green Lake Park

Dating back to the 17th Century, Cuihu Park (which literally translates to Green Lake Park) has provided a beautiful natural oasis amidst the city hustle and bustle. Located in Kunming city proper, the park is conveniently located right downtown and faces the main gate of Yunnan University. The park is one of the most beautiful in the city: It sits at the foot of Luofeng Mountain and on the west side of Wuhua Hill. Its 52 acres are divided into five sections, with several waterways linked by traditional bridges. Islands, pavilions, ponds, playgrounds, statues, beautiful trees (including ancient weeping willow trees along the banks of the water) and flower gardens are scattered throughout. Some of the pavilions and towers within the park date back to the Ming Dynasty; their classic architecture, carved and painted beams and rafters, glazed tiles, and graceful lines are fascinating to explore as you stroll through the park. Winter in Green Lake Park is especially appealing, as the red-beak seagulls migrate from Siberia to Kunming for the season, providing striking displays on the water. Year-round, Green Lake Park is an excellent place for a stroll, boating, or picnicking.

Yuantong Mountain and Yuantong Temple

The 64-acre Yuantong Mountain sits in the northeast corner of Kunming city, yet another lovely park within the city’s urban setting. The grounds surrounding Yuantong Mountain are abloom in early spring with cherry trees, which bloom earlier in Kunming than other places due to the warm weather and ideal climate. Walking through Yuantong’s “sea of flowers” is an enjoyable experience for visitors to the area. Just at the foot of the mountain is Yuantong Temple, a well-known Buddhist temple – the largest and one of the oldest in Kunming. It was built in the late 8th Century and has been restored many times since then. It is known for its magnificent architecture, including a large front archway, from which visitors can view the gardens and large pools beyond; this style is unlike most Buddhist temples, which ascend as they go, while Yuantong starts above the grounds and descends along a gently sloping garden path. Several statues from the Yuan Dynasty are housed inside, plus 500 Buddhist Arhats carved into the walls.  Delicious vegetarian dishes are also offered in the temple’s restaurant.

Dongchuan Red Land

Finally, for a truly picture-perfect moment, visitors to Kunming will want to check out the Dongchuan Red Land, which is just over two hours outside of Kunming city (but still within the area for travel with the 72-hour visa exemption). From September to December each year, the fields and crops create a tableau of colors, with varying shades of the red earth, green crops, white flowers, and blue sky meshing to paint a breath-taking picture. The colorful land extends for nearly 30 miles, a distinctive and striking image. Visitors can reach Dongchuan by bus from Kunming, though the trip by bus takes several hours. Private cars can also be chartered or rented to get you there must faster, and daily coaches run as well. The Red Land Tourist Reception Center provides free tickets.

Kunming - Stone Forest (1)

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