Not every must-see travel destination is so easy to get to. And that can make the journey even more of an adventure. Dragon Gate in the Western Hills Xishan Park on the outskirts of Kunming, China, is one of those. Right up our alley!
Many locals may discourage you from even going since it’s somehow perceived as “too difficult” to get to. Or they may discourage you from taking local buses to the Western Hills Xishan Park since it’s, yes, “too difficult.” Or you yourself may deem it just too complicated, especially when you try to piece through sometimes conflicting directions. We won’t argue that it’s not the easiest journey to get to the Western Hills, albeit it is a truly adventurous one! Take our advice: If you are in Kunming, you must take a day and get to the park where the more-than-impressive Dragon Gate looms over Dianchi Lake with a sweeping view of the Kunming metropolis.
Western Hills offer green respite
The reasons we can list are many – green hills with forested walking paths, a breather from the sensory chaos of the city, temples and pavilions dating back to the 11th century, views of the region from about 8,200 feet (2,000 feet above the city itself), winding stone staircases, strolling monks, gardens, sculptures and also grottoes and tunnels carved out of the mountains rock face. Convinced yet?
The Western Hills is actually a 2,200-acre forest reserve on the west side of Dianchi Lake. The destination for many visitors is the actual Dragon Gate at (nearly) the top, seemingly teetering on the edge of the cliff. It is a carved stone edifice and grotto with a Buddha figure, burning “joss sticks” incense and a carved stone gate that you of course must touch for good luck. According to a Chinese saying, “Once you ascend (Dragon Gate), you will receive a sudden boost in your prestige.” Not sure that’s happened yet, but we can be hopeful, right?
Once at the park office (see below for directions from town), you’ll buy your choice of tickets, from piecemeal entries for individual temples and gardens, plus shuttle and cable car rides, to all-inclusive packages. Since at least during our visit nobody in the ticket office spoke English (although everybody was extremely helpful as best possible with hand language), just buy the top ticket combo package for 100 Yuan (about USD $15) so you have access to everything.
Ticket in hand, the first thing you do is take a visitor shuttle bus up the winding road to the main entrance. We did see some visitors walking this stretch, but our suggestion is to check out this area on the way back … when its downhill! (Although the last section to the ticket office has no real redeeming value so don’t spend the time there.) The end station is the Taihua Mountain Villa, where you find a cluster of tourist services. Now, you have choices: There are two cableway stations – one gondola heads down across the lake (an option when you leave), another chair lift takes you up much closer to the top (avoiding the hundreds and hundreds of stairs upward), or a small electric tourist train that takes you bit farther along the bottom of the hill where you then start the climb up. What you choose will depend on how much time you have and your fitness level since climbing all those stairs at altitude is just a bit of a workout.
Forest Reserve at Western Hills not just about Dragon Gate
There are loads of things to see throughout the Western Hills Xishan Park, although the Dragon Gate perched high up on the cliff is the star attraction. Along that first bus stretch from where you buy your ticket, there are a number of shuttle stops at a string of temples and gardens, all worth a visit, which we did on the way back.
It’s hard to say which palace, cave, grotto or temples was most fascinating since they all had something to offer. A few include:
Dragon Gate: The ultimate destination, literally on the edge of the cliff. Right below it is the Datian Pavilion one of the many stone grottoes carved into the hillside. These tunnels and caves can be quite cool, so you will understand why this area was a summer palace for royalty. If it’s not too crowded, spend a few minutes watching the joss sticks burning and the tourists reaching up to touch the arch for luck.
Lingxu Pavillion: Once you exit Dragon Gate and head upwards (again), take the stone stairs and path to the Lingxu Pavillon even farther up the mountain. From there, you have the best views – and fewer tourists since it’s a bit of a grunt.
Sanqing Pavilion: Legend says this area with 11 wooden structures was the summer home for Prince Liang during the Yuan Dynasty. There is a now a teahouse here if you need a rest.
Taihua Temple: The first stop when you board the bus heading back down to the ticket office. It is gorgeous but also stunning in its partial disrepair. It has sprawling flat gardens and walkways so it’s a nice respite from stairs.
Huating Temple: Another of the main attractions to see on the bus back down. This temple was first built in 1320 and is still the largest Buddhist temple in Kunming. Don’t be surprised to see a monk or two taking a few laps around the peaceful pond inside.
How to get to Western Hills from Kunming
Aside from locals trying to convince you that you can’t walk anywhere, really you can. Just watch out for swarms of scooters, bikes and cars. We walked to the so-called “bus terminal” on the east side (Liangjiahe area) – less than about 1.25 miles from the Kunming Business Hotel on Dongfeng E Road, or about 1.5 miles from Jinbi Square (where the two big arches are). We discovered the term “bus terminal” was a bit misleading. This is actually a humongous intersection with more lanes, entrances and exits than most freeways, with buses coming and going from all directions from street islands and the sides of the street (It is possible an actual terminal is under construction on the corner, but we can’t be sure when that may be finished.)
You will seek bus number 51, toward “Gao Yao.” The bus will leave from a bus stop on the north-south road (Huancheng S Road) on the west side just south of the intersection. (That is also where it will return.) .
You can also take bus number 5 from across the street from the Kunming Business Hotel to this “terminal,” where the 5 ends so, we were told, you cannot err in connecting. They say. But to us it seemed futile to wait for a bus to go hardly more than a mile. There are other buses from other areas of town. We would suggest you ask at your hotel for your best connection if you are staying in a different area of town. There is a main bus “terminal” right in town too, and the bus number 6 is mentioned often as a connection to Gao Yao. You could also try this bus search tool – if you are motivated and ready for a challenge.
Gao Yao is the end station so again you cannot err. Really. You walk back the way the bus came just a 100 yards or so. On the left side as you walk back, you will see a new-looking building with (likely) buses parked in front of it. That is the ticket office where you buy tickets and began the above journey. Warning! When you get off the bus there, you will be swarmed by van drivers trying to get you to buy their services to take you up the mountain. Shake your head politely and keep walking firmly. This is also where you will catch bus 51 back to town (just on the opposite side of the street and there is a sign).