CHINA'S NEWEST tourist destination, subtropical Yunnan Province, bursts with spectacular views, magnificent temples and memorable people.
Yunnan borders Laos, Burma and Vietnam. Getting to one of its most colorful towns, Kunming, is easy via a CAAC flight from any major city in China. Arriving groups are met by a local guide who remains throughout the trip to explain the best sights.
In Kunming (and all of China) bicycles are commonplace,since most people can't afford anything else. About the only cars around are those driven by businesses or taxicabs.
The Daguan Pavilion is the highlight of Daguan Park, which is centrally located on Lake Dianchi. Many intellectuals have scrawled words of wisdom on the pavilion's walls. A leisurely stroll to admire the pavilion, followed by an afternoon boat ride is the best way to enjoy the park.
In the nearby Western Hills, hidden in a bamboo grove, is the Huatingsi -- the country retreat of Yunnan's 14th century King Nanzhou. The striking Temple of the Flower Pavilion, flanked by two large Celestial Guardians, is next to a serene pool. One hall houses statues of the four Heavenly Kings and a famous Buddha, and in another hall (no photos allowed) stand three large bronze Buddhas and 500 carved arhats (saints).
A short drive away is the Dragon Gate, consisting of caves, a tunnel and a footpath up the side of solid rock hill. The laborious construction by a Taoist monk and stone masons took 63 years (between 1781 and 1843).
At the hill's top (300th step) is the Dragon Gate with a balcony jutting out the side of the cliff, and a beautiful overview of Lake Dianchi below.
However, the highlight of a visit to Yunnan is the incomparable Stone Forest, accessible by a three-hour bus ride along the back roads of China. Along the way, visitors get a chance to see the unique "horse taxis" (a horse and cart arrangement used by the locals for transportation), along with duck restaurants advertising their succulent menu by hanging cooked and uncooked ducks on a rope near the road.
The Stone Forest is an incredible park that covers thousands of acres of awesome limestone rock formations thrusting into the sky. Some 200 million years ago the area was covered with water, and as the sea receded, the rain continued to corrode the stone into the patterns seen today.
Around each corner is another miraculous view. Some stone peaks and rock pillars seem to have sprung perpendicularly from the ground, while others look as if they will crash at any moment. Sword Peak Pond is a good stopping-off point to enjoy these unusual stone peaks that assume a thousand different shapes, as well as the golden fish that swim in the pond's clear water.
Adding to the forest's splendor are the native Sani people. The girls, who wear rainbow colored headgear and bright-colored dresses, are skilled at spinning, weaving and embroidering, and there are plenty of souvenir stands where bargaining for wares is the norm. Sani performances, with boys playing three-stringed plucked instruments and the girls dancing to the beat of the drums, take place nightly.
China's minorities are fascinating. The most interesting of them can be experienced with an excursion to tropical Xishuang (that's "she-swhan") Banna. From Kunming it takes an hour on a 48-seat prop plane to get to the town of Siamo followed by a four-hour bus ride to Xishuang Banna. Be advised -- take plenty of tissue, as Chinese open-air toilets don't come with modern amenities.
The weather is hot (at least 85 degrees) and the roads are lined with tropical greenery and flowers. Elephants can appear at any time, but most likely, they'll be found at their watering hole about half way to Xishuang Banna.
Xishuang Banna is noted for its scenery, but the minority nationalities are the highlight of this journey. Each has its own dress. Best way to see them all is to "bus it" at 6 a.m. Sunday to the market where they congregate.
The Dai minority is recognized by long, flowing outfits and simple headgear. The Bulang women wear the traditional
black turban and black shirt; the Hani women wear fancy head pieces of silver and feathers, and the Akes wear white turbans and white shirts.
The Sunday market is a sight to behold. Products include snake meat, eels, fish of every kind, cow hoofs and heads, dog, and an endless variety of vegetables.
Some minorities have their own specialty. One group we saw was making a pancakelike bread, a fast-selling item, over an open fire.
Another reflection of the minority lifestyle is the Bambooshoot Pagoda, built in A.D. 1207 at the top of the Back Hill. During the two-hour bus ride there, you'll see workers toiling in the rice paddies, water buffalo plowing the fields and women using river water to make rice noodles.
Getting to the picturesque pagoda requires a climb to the top of a 350-meter hill. Along the walk, you'll see young Dai monks, little boys, actually, at work, and they'll be glad to talk about their lifestyle and show off their temple.
Glittering like a diamond in the sun, the Bambooshoot Pagoda is actually a grouping, with the mother pagoda over 20 meters high, each of the eight child pagodas 10 meters high, and the foundation more than 40 meters wide. The image of Buddha reflects a life of quiet and ease, while a phoenix spreads its wings for flight on the top of the shrine.
Not as popular, but still unique, is the Octagonal Pavilion on a nearby mountaintop. The brick and wood pavilion is 21 meters high, has a diameter of 10 meters and is inlaid with colored glass. There are 32 corners outside the pavilion and 24 walls inside and the top is symmetrically divided into eight corners.
Completing the structure are 10 layers of eaves and ridges inlaid with bright pottery flowers and porcelain birds. When the wind blows, copper bells jingle.
Most visitors are quick to agree that Xishuang Banna is a great experience. And to celebrate their enthusiasm, they hold a banquet.
Up to 15 courses, often served one dish at a time by a hostess, include such delicacies as stuffed duck, suckling pig, fried milk balls, quail eggs, and boiled fish balls. A favorite of everyone is the Mongolian Hot Pot, a copper pot in which each diner cooks his meat or fish. They don't usually serve tourists bear's paws -- a Yunnan specialty for the pot.
As for the usual tourist Chinese lunch and dinner, pre-chosen foods are placed on a lazy susan in the center of the table, and guests help themselves (with chopsticks, of course). Meals include assorted vegetables, chicken, fish and sometimes beef. Also served are dumplings, rice, soup and fresh fruit for dessert.
Breakfast is Western style with toast, somewhat greasy eggs, coffee or tea. Since China doesn't have a purified water system, the hotels supply large thermos jugs of hot boiled water for tea (tea bags included) and cooled water for drinking.
Yunnan Province is a land of beauty, fertility and distinctive customs. Undoubtedly it will draw more tourists as time goes by.
For more information on Yunnan, contact the China International Travel Service at 60 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10165.