Dian Chi (Lake Dian;)

China's sixth-largest freshwater lake, located southwest of Kunming, is 40km (25 miles) from north to south and covers an area of 300 sq. km (186 sq. miles).

The so-called Dianchi Landscape Path, ultimately a total of 76km (47 miles) long, offers views of the heavily polluted, occasionally miasmatic, but generally scenic Lake Dian. The path will also be accompanied by a landscaped green belt. Unfortunately, the lake itself is covered with a slimy layer of green algae and a heavy smell, as most of the city's domestic sewage is pumped directly into the lake.

Shi Lin (Stone Forest;)

Located 90km (55 miles) southeast of Kunming in the Lunan Yi Autonomous County, Shi Lin is Kunming's most famous attraction -- a giant forest of limestone rocks formed 270 million years ago when the ocean receded from this area. Millions of years of tectonic shifts and erosion from wind and rain have resulted in today's maze of sharp-edged fissures and sky-piercing pinnacles, which are punctuated by walkways, ponds, and pavilion lookouts. Fed by subterranean rivers, Jianfeng Chi is the only natural body of water in the forest. The reflection of the blue sky, white clouds, and swordlike stone peaks in the pond makes this one of the most photographed locales in the forest. Shizi Ting (Lion Pavilion), the highest point in the Stone Forest, and Wangfeng Ting (Peak Viewing Pavilion) offer the best panoramas.

This geological wonder is quite a sight if you've never before seen a petrified forest, but some visitors are more amazed at the immense parking lots and long lines at the ticket offices. It could be the hordes of tourists that tramp through here during the day, for the forest takes on a much more ethereal and mysterious quality only in the evening after the tour groups have left. The Stone Forest can be comfortably navigated in a 2 1/2- to 3-hour loop with plenty of opportunities to get off the trodden path. An English-speaking tour guide can be hired for ¥100 but is not really necessary.

This area is also home to the Sani branch of the Yi minority group. Young Sani men and women (allegedly) in colorful costumes greet all arriving visitors and act as tour guides through the forest, while Sani vendors sell a variety of handicrafts and some very nice batiks. There are also Sani song and dance performances during the day and on most nights at the Minor Stone Forest (Xiao Shi Lin) right next to the Stone Forest. For early risers, the route down through the Sani village bypasses the ticket gates and means free entrance if you arrive before 8am.

Another side trip worth considering is the 96m-high (315-ft.), 54m-wide (177-ft.) Dadieshui Feilong Pu (¥40), Yunnan's largest waterfall. Hiring a taxi for ¥100 directly from the Stone Forest is the most convenient way to get here.

Getting There -- The best way to reach the Stone Forest is via the direct K440 train (90 min.; ¥20 one-way, ¥30 round-trip), which departs Kunming at 8:28am (arriving at 9:55am) and departs from the Stone Forest at 3:20pm (arriving in Kunming at 4:47pm). Ticket price is now ¥55. Avoid anyone who tries to sell you bus rides for ¥30 round-trip, unless you want to spend all your time shopping along the way and only reach the forest in the afternoon. Trips from the Camellia are especially overrated; your ¥90 includes nothing but a ride in a cramped microbus with a surly driver, who pretends to speak no English. Rather than drive through ghastly industrial towns like "Developing Yiliang," the train is a much more scenic option.

Where to Stay & Dine -- The sprawling three-star Stone Forest Xingya Fengqing Garden (tel. 0871/771-0599; fax 0871/771-1599) offers guest rooms that are spacious and comfortable, if a little worn. Rates can easily be discounted to ¥250; no credit cards accepted.

Another, Quieter Stone Forest

About 8km (5 miles) northeast of the Stone Forest is the 300-hectare (741-acre) Naigu Shilin Black Pine Stone Forest (¥25), which predates the Stone Forest by about 2 million years. The park is a much quieter option; in fact, I only saw two other Western tourists the entire day that I was there. There are some interesting geological signs in English and the terrain varies from underground karst caves to magnificent black volcanic lookout points. On your own, catch a horse and cart for ¥25 from the main road outside the Stone Forest.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.