Yunnan is home to 25 different ethnic minorities.
Yunnan is home to 25 different ethnic minorities. Graham Reid

Streets paved with curiosities

SOMETIMES, if you don't have a friend in an unfamiliar city to get you off the tourist trail, it helps to have a project which may lead to unexpected places.

So in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwest China, I decided to buy a pipa, a traditional lute-like instrument played by women, the most notable of whom is Kunming's own Liu Fang, who now lives in Canada.

In a city with 6.5 million souls in its greater area, I had my ridiculous but amusing project: to find an instrument I hadn't even touched let alone was able to play. I thought it might look good hanging on the wall in the lounge, but mostly I just wanted an excuse to explore away from the familiar.

An English-speaker, a rarity, wrote an address on a piece of paper and circled a district on my map, so on a warm morning I strode purposefully along West Dongfeng Rd - a main thoroughfare running east-west through the old city centre - in search of my pipa.

Kunming is a crossroads city at the intersection of many cultures (Yunnan has 25 ethnic minorities) and a powerhouse of the province's economy. But it isn't a destination for foreigners. In my three days I saw only one other European on the streets.

By chance my project took me past the old-fashioned Provincial Museum with its worn staircases and displays of archaeological finds from the 50s, when artefacts such as shields and swords from the Dian Kingdom of around 400BC were first unearthed. Peculiar bronze figures had been turning up in the local bird and flower market so researchers descended on nearby Mt Shizhai and started digging, just as the illicit traders had been doing.

But as interesting as the museum is, Kunming's energetic streets are the real attraction. Along Dongfeng, sweet potato sellers set up stalls outside high-end shops, discount stores sell in bulk (barrows of jeans at 88 yuan, about $18) and cellphone stores blast local hip-hop and pop. There are shiny shops with odd names ("The Van of Foot" is Footlocker perhaps?) and a glamorous bridal parlour with huge windows which allow passers-by to make spot judgments on the blushing brides within.

The wide footpath was a surge of humanity: the young on cellphones, middle-aged couples hand in hand, the old shuffling, a mentally handicapped man with limbs crippled beyond belief begging from his wooden trolley, children with lollipops ...

The breeze smelt of dampness, petrol and garlic.

A young woman turns her SUV and, despite a turning space the width of a paddock, manages to drive straight into a wall with a hefty thunk which takes off her front panels. There is a universal "Oohhh" and a cellphone-toting crowd gathers.

I would have happily kept ambling past pop-up fashion shops full of kids with frizzed orange hair or cheap eateries, but the rains came. In sheets.

Dancing for shelter between eaves while checking my map I realised I was lost and, unwittingly, had been for an hour. I hailed a cab, showed my paper and the driver turned back towards where I had been. At white-knuckle speed he wove down warrens of crowded alleys and back streets full of vegetable sellers and electronics shops, beneath dirty underpasses and on to wide boulevards. He cheerfully dropped me outside a store full of expensive pianos, electric guitars and drum kits.

Every music store in the row was conspicuously free of staff ... and local instruments.

No pipa? No matter, the rain had stopped. I walked past a forbidding looking military establishment - the guard stiffening as I crossed towards him - and around the corner were impressive army surplus stores (camouflage net anyone?).

I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I stopped for noodles at a place where I paid at the door, was lead upstairs to a long empty room and outside the window, between the high-rise apartments, was an Olympic-size swimming pool where old men were doing laps. A singer on the stereo sang Tennessee Waltz as a big bowl of steaming noodles was delivered by a nervous young guy reading his cellphone in the other hand. I laughed to myself at the surreal juxtapositions.

I had achieved nothing but had seen things I might otherwise have not. It had been quite a day, it had only cost me about $8 and it was still only noon. I didn't get a pipa, but had something much more valuable.

Tomorrow? Maybe I would try for that ethnic village to the south.

Two days later I saw a banner slung across Dongfeng Rd. Despite the mangled syntax it made perfectly good sense: "Stay another while, friends from afar".

In the landscape of strange singing stones

Lily, our guide from the Yi people - a prominent ethnic group in this area of southwest China - stops as we negotiate the surreal formations of the famous Stone Forest, an hour outside Kunming.

As we stand beneath sky-pointing fingers of blue-grey rock, she starts to sing. Her voice echoes up the weird formations and we stand transfixed.

Sculpted by rain and wind, these rocks are around 250 million years old. People lived here as early as around 7000 years ago and for the Yi this area informs their folklore, dance and poetry. It influences their colourful clothing and style of their traditional homes.

This strange 400sq km reserve, a dense "forest" of bizarre karst formations, has been designated a World Geo-park, a World National Heritage site and, in China, a National Scenic Spot. It could also be a location for a very peculiar sci-fi movie.

Rocks soar like swords and you pass beneath stone bridges, venture into cool caves and see a grassy plain punctuated by stone towers, some with vaguely human or animal shapes. Over there is "the elephant", and here the stones resemble a legendary A-Shi-Ma dressed in traditional Yi costume.

The popular epic of the beautiful A-Shi-Ma, whose name means "more precious than gold", is a tale of fraught love and obsession, her kidnap, eventual drowning and then of her turning into river stones. Many Chinese come here to see the odd formation which bears her name, but the forest is rarely visited by foreigners. The day we were there, a warm autumn weekday morning, it was very quiet. It allowed us to immerse ourselves in the strange landscape.

And to hear Lily sing.

If you go and don't get Lily, the stones themselves will sing their own unusual song. It will echo with you long after you leave.

Things to do in and around Kunming

Shopping: With prices on clothes, shoes and electronic goods so ridiculously cheap, you cannot go wrong. Bargaining will be reduced to hand signals and stabbing at a pocket calculator, however. The area around the major intersection of West Dongfeng and Zhengyi Rds is recommended for just about everything you need.

World Horticultural Expo Garden: In the northeast of the city (a $5 taxi ride from the city centre) are these impressive gardens which opened in 1999 and draw visitors from all over the world. A place of tranquillity, especially at the top of the cable car which affords a view over the city, the gardens here represent every province in China and numerous countries.

Yunnan Ethnic Villages: Just 8km south of the city centre beside Lake Dianchi is this scenic spot where the ethnic minorities of the region have established traditional houses and entertain in their colourful costumes. Much less tacky than that sounds, there is a warmth and spontaneity about the people and their cultural performances. Excellent cheap shopping area, too.

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