I made an early start for Xishan, the Western Hills, to make a weekend day of it. The forest preserve on the outskirts of Kunming is the city’s preeminent landmark and favorite destination, with wooded paths, pavilions, the famous Dragon Gate and panoramic views over Dian Lake to the city.
Pavilions dot the wooded preserve. There are five mountains, the tallest about 2000-feet above the lake.
Despite my best efforts to communicate correctly in Mandarin the taxi driver took me to the cable car station instead of the main entrance: I had wanted to walk up the mountain, a pilgrimage. But I went with the flow and took the cable car, 70 RMB roundtrip, about $12.
View from cable car
The cable car crossed Dian Lake, picturesque with water flowers and channels, then ascended directly up the mountain. A fast way to gain elevation. The cable car was the most reliable-looking thing I’ve seen in all of Kunming, where infrastructure generally seems a little shoddy and rundown, albeit functional. Fully automated, gleamingly clean, made in Switzerland, the mechanism chugged with reassuring smoothness and the gondola was as red and shiny as a ladybug.
Exiting from the cable car halfway up the mountain I found a visitor center with shops, hotels, street food and restaurants. There was a building housing another chairlift to go further up the mountain. I kept telling the young man at the info booth I wanted to hike up the mountain, not take the chair lift. He kept directing me inside the building. No, I said in my best enunciated Mandarin, I want to hike. He directed me by words and gestures to the chair lift. This was repeated several times over the course of fifteen minutes. Finally I realized he was telling me that to go to upper half of the mountain you had to pay an entrance fee, and by the chairlift was where you buy that ticket. I am indeed an exasperating foreigner, but fortunately the Chinese are very friendly and forgiving.
I paid my 40 RMB entrance fee, declined the chair lift, and ascended on stone stairs. I arrived at the chair lift terminus after 25-minutes of pleasant walking through the woods.
Many of the Xishan’s paths are well-crafted stone steps
From here I had the choice of going to the Dragon Gate, the summit, or into the Xishan woods where ghosts may linger. I decided to go first to the Dragon Gate and to my surprise the way now steeply descended. Despite having read several guidebooks this point of orientation had escaped me.
The steps, wormed into the cliff face, were worn smooth and slippery by countless feet. At one point the path went through a perilous tunnel that seemed more like a toboggan chute. Taoist monks created the path and honored their beliefs with grottoes along the way filled with bright gold and blue religious statuary.
Taking pictures by one of the grottoes cut into the cliff face
The Dragon Gate itself is a small painted doorway, and a well-used photo opportunity with expansive views out toward Kunming and the lake 2,000-feet directly below. However the narrow path easily becomes crowded, and incense and cigarette smoke hung outside the grottoes.
The Dragon Gate, center
So, back up the twisting stairway to the Dragon Gate entrance, then to the mountain summit. Since I’ve been eating so many noodles and dumplings the sweaty exercise was welcome. At the top was Lingxu pavilion and panoramic views.
Pavilion at highest summit. It was a little cloudy, so moody views
I took some pictures and then explored. So nice to hear birds and see almost nobody. There were occasional signs in the woods in red letters, some directional, others I suspect saying, do not enter, but I couldn’t read them. That was unnerving in a fun sort of way.
On the way down I bought a peach from an ethnic minority woman and her son sitting quietly in the shade. The white flesh was memorably sweet. I wondered if she had grown them. I also worried I had overpaid. You don’t want to feel taken advantage of, and there’s plenty of stories of prices doubling because you are a waiguoren, a foreigner. But later I found out the price was more than fair, and felt bad for being suspicious.
A distant pagoda in the Western Hills
It was mid afternoon when I exited the upper pay area of the mountain, and discovered many people young and old at the visitor center and nearby greenery, playing cards, eating and enjoying a relaxing day out of the city.
There is a road to this point, closed except to buses and minivans, but you can also walk from the main entrance through the woods via the Taihua Ancient Passage. This was the route I had originally planned. I walked down the road to find the Ancient Passage terminus. I was a bit confused, so everything was a discovery and seemed a little dodgy. That’s pretty much the constant state of affairs for me here in the Middle Kingdom. I’m never quite sure if I’m being understood, if I truly understand, and where exactly I’m going. A cloud of mystery hovers over every activity. It’s like a permanent state of quantum physics uncertainty.
It was now 3:30 PM and the ticket woman had been at pains to write on my ticket the cable car stopped at 5:30. That at least was quite clear. So I only had time to visit the first temple along the ancient passage. Rundown in places, the Taihua temple main building was spotless and two workers were touching up freshly-painted statues.
The temple had extensive well-tended gardens with old camellia and magnolia trees, and stone chairs and tables. There was a pond, and amaryllis in bloom. So serene and peaceful.
Pond at Taihua temple
I lingered as long as I dared and then returned to the cable car, riding down with a older man and his grown daughter. He was diminutive, worn and dark, a laborer, with a big smile and yellow teeth. She was tall and smartly dressed, and visiting from somewhere distant. Their affection was plain. They sat across from me in the gondola, our knees almost touching, and symbolized for me the great changes in China in just one generation. As we dropped down the cliff and then across Dian lake we spoke in Mandarin, following the standard script, how long in China and where was I from, but the dad also wanted to know much my language school cost, and did I have any American money I could show him.
Amaryllis at Taihu temple