Despite lacking the beautiful scenery and ethnic diversity found in and around the old towns of Dali, Lijiang, Shaxi, Shangri-La and Heshun, Guandu Old Town (官渡古镇) is a pleasant place to spend a lazy afternoon, day or even weekend, without the hassle of leaving the city. Located about eight kilometers south of downtown Kunming, it is only a short drive or bike ride away.
Guandu Old Town is an old town in the Yunnan sense of the word. That is, it does have some old architecture, but the encroachment of real estate developers and their beloved "new old" architectural style is impossible to escape. Guandu's appeal is not its oldness, but how different it is from the rest of Kunming, as well as Yunnan's other tourist towns.
There is little doubt that the Guandu district government is hoping its old town will be able to raise its tourist revenue over the coming years. In April 2011, Guandu Old Town was named a Class AAAA Tourism Scenic Area (AAAA级旅游景区), a move that has already led to increased tourist visits and will likely translate to its inclusion in package tours in the very near future.
Unlike other old towns around Yunnan, mass tourism has yet to arrive in Guandu. There are few bullhorns and baseball caps and none of the pushiness that often comes with a developed tourist economy.
Much money has been spent on sprucing up the old town, much of which has been converted into park space and pedestrian streets. One of the nicer things about this recent facelift is that it has created numerous areas for local residents to hang out and chat, play majiang, sing and dance or simply peoplewatch. It appears that they're observing the camera-toting visitors just as much as they themselves are being observed.
The center of Guandu Old Town is the Vajra Pagoda (金刚塔), which is reputed to have been built more than five centuries ago in 1457. Over the years, the pagoda sank into the soft ground, until it was raised 2.6 meters in 2001. Today the perpendicular tunnels within the pagoda are popular places to escape the midday sun.
On the west side of the plaza that surrounds the Vajra Pagoda are two Bai-style pagodas. Just beyond these pagodas is Miaozhan Temple (妙湛寺), a pleasant Buddhist compound that, like the handful of other temples in Guandu, is open to the public.
This temple management takeover attracted its share of criticism for commercializing Buddhism, but on a recent visit we found that Guandu Shaolin Temple felt more cared-for than when it was Miaozhan Temple.
Next door to Guandu Shaolin Temple is another old temple, Fading Temple (法定寺), which is a bit smaller but has fewer visitors, making it quite peaceful. Strolling from tiny courtyard to tiny courtyard, we could only hear the sound of birds, chatting and an old man strumming a four-stringed sixian nearby. The city was slowly retreating from our consciousness.
The majority of interesting things to do and see in Guandu Old Town is located south of Vajra Pagoda. A designated food street on the old town's east side offers a wide selection of local eats including mixian (米线), ersi (饵丝), shao erkuai (烧饵块), yellow pot chicken, stinky tofu and barbecued chicken feet, as well as food from further afield such as western Yunnan and Burmese food at Ah Bo's Burmese Cuisine or Kaili-style sour soup chicken (suantang ji, 酸汤鸡).
There are also several small stalls with blenders ready to make fresh fruit shakes for five yuan (they generally add syrup unless asked not to).
Guandu does not have a shortage of shopping choices, from touristy yak skulls and jade to impractically heavy stone basins and stools. There are also a few smaller, less-maintained temples and several small, winding alleys worthy of exploration.
Guandu Old Town currently has two hotels, Tangyun Hotel and Friends House Hotel, both of which are new and offer standard rooms between 400 and 500 yuan. Off-season discounts of up to 50 percent off are currently available.
If you are thinking about staying the night in Guandu Old Town and want a slightly different Kunming hotel experience, Friends House's tatami suites might be worth a look.
Guandu Old town can be reached by bus, it is served by the 31, 165, 185, 186, 210, 908 and C85 routes. A taxi to or from the city center will run around 40 yuan and is not advised during rush hour.
Cycling to Guandu Old Town is easy: simply get on Qingnian Lu, ride south until Guangfu Lu and head east until reaching the intersection with 043 County Road/Baoguan Lu, following the brown bilingual signs.