Birth is a lottery. We don't get to choose where we might grow up, but what we can decide is where to travel and who, what or where we fall in love with. For photographer extraordinaire Fabio Nodari, Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, China, is the Italian national's chosen home.
As someone whose profession involves inspiring awe, the city serves as the perfect jumping-off point for his photography expeditions in China's most ethnically-diverse province: "That's why I like Kunming—because it's in the middle of Yunnan and you can get everywhere," says the creative, who makes the best of his coordinates to visit nearby cities like Dali and Pu'er, as well as neighbouring countries like Laos and Vietnam.
That being said, the cost-effective city is tons of fun in itself. Here's an example of what a weekend might look like for Nodari: piloting one's drone over natural wonders, tasting ethnic minority dishes, and rubbing shoulders with locals in new nightlife hotspots.
Regardless of whether you're traveling with your beau, friends, family or solo, choosing one or more activities or sites from each of the subsequent categories will make for a well-rounded holiday in the ‘City of Eternal Spring.'
FOR THE Explorer
With an even climate year-round and nature literally at one's doorstep, Kunming begs to be explored any time of the year. "I'm spoiled for the weather here," admits Nodari, who explains that the city rarely gets colder 3°C in the winter, while summer temperatures hover at a comfortable 20°C. Plus, pollution is practically non-existent in this part of China.
The following attractions, which have been vouched for, have been listed in the order of least to most physically challenging.
Dou'nan Flower Market (斗南花卉市场)
Few of us ever consider the life cycle of store-bought flowers, let alone the many hands that enable the industry to flourish, but touring China's largest flower market provides a new perspective on Yunnan's fresh-cut flower industry, which produces approximately 16.7 billion stems per annum.
Straddling the fence between nature and commerce, the famous Dou'nan Flower Market is a cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds that can only be experienced to be understood. From lilies bigger than your face to roses smaller than your thumbnail, countless varieties of flowers in every imaginable color and at any stage of bloom can be found at this indoor warehouse.
Insider tip: Since fresh flowers don't make for practical souvenirs, ride the escalator to the second floor of the market to shop for flower-scented soap and candles or coffee, another major export of Yunnan.
FOR THE Nature Lover
Green Lake Park aka Cuihu Park (翠湖公园)
Urban parks, a sine qua non in any liveable city, are utterly essential to both mental and physical health, making this public park a highly loved feature of Kunming city.
Contrary to the austere minimalism of Japanese gardens, Chinese gardens are comparatively colorful and ornamental, and nowhere is this more evident than at Green Lake Park, which is outfitted with pavilions, bridges, teahouses, and modern conveniences like children's playgrounds, and trendy coffeehouses.
The park is also known for its perennial plants and flowers, so there's always beauty to behold, but according to a tip-off from Nodari, a particularly unusual spectacle unfolds every winter: black-headed gulls swoop in from Siberia by the thousands, alighting on the lake's azure waters and the park's man-made features, clamoring for attention and edible hand-outs from park-goers.
Insider tip: Stop by Yunn Coffee Roasters near the park's south gate and snag a seat on the porch overlooking the lake covered with water lilies; it's a great spot to sip on an osmanthus-infused iced coffee while contemplating life's peculiarities.
Western Hills Forest Park aka Xishan (西山)
If you're a sucker for scenery, prioritise visiting the Western Hills Forest Park. Suspended above the north-western shore of Dianchi Lake, the sixth largest lake in the country, this perfectly serene park is arguably one of Kunming's most aesthetic attractions.
Not a cliffhanger in the sense of an Alfred Hitchcock film, but an attraction that's literally carved into the face of a cliff, the park's main highlight dubbed Dragon Gate is accessible via an easy chairlift ride. Hike the staggered pathway punctuated by mysterious grottos, Taoist temples, and stone sculptures with poetic-sounding names, such as Phoenix Rock and Filial Cattle Spring, all while drinking in astounding views of Dianchi Lake's azure waters.
Fun fact: According to ancient myth, ambitious carp that succeed in jumping past the Dragon Gate's dam will transform into dragons. Chinese students who covet government positions look to this tale of perseverance for inspiration.
Shilin Stone Forest (石林)
Fans of the fantasy film The Lord of the Rings should easily be able to picture the smouldering eye of Sauron hovering above the slightly ominous karst formations here. Instead of the dark and desolate surroundings of Mordor, however, perfectly laid stone pathways and serene greenery stretch as far as the eye can see.
A site of historical and geologic significance, this UNESCO Global Geopark (since 2007) also sustains local communities, specifically, the indigenous Sani people of Yi, who have called the area home for 2,000 years. Today, members of the ethnic minority group are entrusted with overseeing the park's wellbeing, and with guiding tourists through its unique topography.
Insider tip: Most tourists flock to the Greater & Lesser Stone Forests (大小石林), which is admittedly bigger and sees more spiky ‘stalagmites,' but must contend with pressing crowds. Instead, make your way to the smaller Naigu Stone Forest (乃古石林) to enjoy the feeling of having the whole site to yourself.
FOR THE INTREPID EATER
A living archive of native cuisines, Yunnan is home to 26 out of the country's 56 official ethnic minority groups. And, as happens with most big cities, Kunming attracts cooks from all over the country looking for better opportunities. As such, it really is the best place to taste a variety of new dishes while also falling back on familiar fare. Nodari confirms that of course you can get pizza and pasta in town, but why not widen your palate by experimenting with one of the following?
Master Zhao's Pure Hand-Rolled Noodles (赵老倌纯手工卷粉)
Rice noodles are as relevant to South China as pasta is to Italy. Spun from crushed rice flour and water, mixian (米线) is multifarious and ubiquitous in Yunnan, where it is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of the most-eaten kinds of mixian is ‘Small Pot Rice Noodles' (xiaoguo mixian, 小锅米线), and a good rendition can be had at Master Zhao, a modest yet marvellous chain restaurant with three outlets in Kunming.
Other standout noodle dishes here include the house signature ‘jelly roll noodles,' fat, squishy things with a sensational mouthfeel, the wheat noodles with a more ‘al dente' texture, and the oblong-shaped split pea jelly noodles redolent of polenta cakes.
Mr Zhao is also known for its xiaochi (小吃) or, quite literally, ‘small bites.' There is little distinction between savory and sweet meals in China, so don't be surprised when everything is served all at once, rather than desserts last. Some suggested xiaochi from Mr Zhao: the fried mushrooms dusted with chili powder, criss-cross potatoes tossed in chili oil, the shaved ice dessert crowned with lotus root starch and peanuts, and the lightly sweet ‘rice pudding' that confusingly resembles a mound of mashed potatoes.
Mana Restaurant (吗哪)
At the risk of stating the obvious, Yunnan or Dian cuisine is literally everywhere in Kunming, but travellers who don't speak Mandarin, let alone the Kunming dialect, may find eating at the local spots quite daunting. Cue Mana Restaurant, a homey eatery that's especially welcoming to expats and tourists.
Parked on lively Wenhua Street in the trendy Wuhua District, Mana caters to a Western clientele with English menus and a friendly wait staff, but this hasn't watered down the restaurant's offerings by one bit. Mana puts Yunnan's wealth of fresh produce on a pedestal, so it isn't surprising that the vegetable dishes here shine the brightest. Some must-orders on their MSG-free menu include the Yunnan specialty known as Grandma's Mashed Potatoes (老奶洋芋), the farmer's cheese or rubing stir-fried with broccoli, the julienned lotus root perfumed with lemon, and at least one dish of wood-ear mushrooms.
Explainer: If you were to picture a Venn diagram, Dian cuisine would represent the overlap between Southeast Asian food (especially in its heavy use of herbs) and Sichuanese fare (expect a healthy amount of spice, though not to the same numbing degree as in Yunnan's neighboring province).
Dai Family Courtyard (傣家小院)
In the kitchen out back, a handful of women pluck herbs silently, meditatively. And in one of the front dining rooms, drunken revelers well-watered with baiju tuck into a platter adorned with the (fake) head of a peacock. These separate scenes unfold under one roof at Dai Family Courtyard, another chain restaurant that has expanded because it is awesome.
Championing the culinary traditions of the Dai people, the eatery is renowned for its sharing platters, which are available in five sizes: for 2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-10, or 10-12 diners. Naturally, the bigger your party, the more dishes you'll be able to sample, so the more the merrier!
Each platter comes with a well-rounded selection of dishes, which may include assorted nuts, salads, prawn crackers, glutinous rice, roast chicken, minced beef, pork rinds, fried silkworms, and/or fresh fruit. You may also order à la carte if specific things catch your eye. The Black ‘Ghost Chicken,' a piquant, cold chicken dish, and the ‘Steamed Pot Chicken,' a cleansing chicken soup cooked in a claypot, are two Yunnan specialties you might like to try.
FOR THE SOCIAL BUTTERFLY
Chaba Brewing Co.
Christened after the word for ‘interrupter' in the Kunming dialect, Chaba positions itself as a disruptor in the craft beer industry, and rightly so—we challenge you to name another brewery that incorporates Yunnan blueberries and mushrooms in its recipes.
Kevin and Teddy, two Americans who, by now, have lived the better part of their lives in China, run the show at Chaba, which boasts a spacious pub on Huguo Street. Sleek fermentation tanks peek out from behind the bar, where there are no less than 15 beers on tap at any one time, and the sprawling space outfitted with long tables and cosy nooks and crannies is suitable for any kind of social occasion.
It's easy to while a whole night away here: grab dinner from Chaba's sizeable menu (eats range from good ol' burgers to localised beer bites, such as beef kidney with cumin, Sichuan-style pigs ears and Wenzhou duck tongue), shoot a few rounds of pool, and make a few new pals.
Representing a middle finger salute to the mainstream, indie music venue Dada has sister locations in Shanghai and Beijing, and was designed for dancing the night away.
Its eclectic choice of music ranges from reggae one night to Brit pop another, but Wednesday nights are always reserved for open mic DJ sets. What this last point entails: aspiring DJs can test out their tunes on a live audience and take advantage of Dada's setup (two turntables, two CDJs, a VJ projector, and a microphone, to be specific) for free—simply sign up beforehand and rock up with your own flash drive and equipment.
Another constant at Dada is its ludicrous happy hour deal: buy one free one cocktails every night before 11pm!