By Zhou Mengya in Travel

There's an old local saying in Kunming that goes something along the lines of: "if you want to see a thousand-year-old town, then get yourself to Guandu."

This famous historical settlement is one of the birthplaces of dian (an abbreviation for Yunnan) culture, and is just eight kilometers away from the city center, close to both the newly built Yunnan Provincial Museum and Yunnan Grand Theater. Over a thousand years ago, during what was known as the Nanzhao-Dali era, this was already a major market town and transportation hub on the northeast banks of Dianchi Lake.

Entrance of Guandu Ancient Town

Back in the Song Dynasty a busy ferry port was built here, and fishing boats and other ships would dock nearby from which visiting officials could then board sedan chairs or ride on horseback onwards towards Kunming. The town was thus named Guandu (官渡), meaning 'officials pass through' in Chinese.

Back in the day this was a tranquil fishing village that was well-known for its distinctive spiral shells that came from the lake. In fact, the shells were so abundant that they were piled in small hills around the town, giving it the nickname wodong (窝洞), or 'caves and nests'. Rather than simply discarding the shells, villagers often used them as a building material, and today you can still see walls and yards that have been constructed with them.

East Temple and West Temple of Miaozhan Temple

Within the boundaries of the ancient town lie no fewer than five mountains: Luofeng Mountain, Yuntai Mountain, Guanyin Mountain, Xuju Mountain and Zhuangju Mountain. One single square kilometer of Guandu is home to an impressive fourteen temples, as well and seven pavilions that trace their origins to the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.

In fact, Guandu is an especially significant place in terms of Buddhism. The earliest temples built here are the Tang-era Tuzhu Temple, dedicated to Mahagara (the great black god), and Fading Temple, constructed in the Song Dynasty. The town also marks point at which Tibetan Buddhism entered Kunming: the Jingang Pagoda in the Miaozhan Temple is perhaps the most famous religious building inside the town. Amongst more than ten existing Jingang Pagodas found throughout China, this one is the oldest and arguably most impressive.

The Jingang Pagoda in the Miaozhan Temple

This Jingang Pagoda was given the name of Vajra Pagoda, completed in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), also known as Stone Pagoda of Miaozhan Temple since it was built completely of stones.There are five Lama Style pagodas on the pedestal and the main pagoda, it is one of the varied types of Mandalas of Vajradhatu and currently the best-preserved and the oldest Vajra Pagoda within China. Its mode of single building and style of symbolism is to embody the tenet of Vajradhatu. It was listed by the state council as one of the fourth batch of state-level key cultural relic protection units in 1996.

In addition to such significant historical and religious legacies, Guandu is also noted as the home of an intricate craft known in Chinese as wutongzouyin, a delicate process that sees black copper inlaid with pure silver to incredibly elegant effect. Artworks made using this technique are hugely prestigious, and indeed the Yunnan Hall in Beijing's Great Hall of the People is decorated with such a piece.

Abandoned stage of Dian Opera

Finally delicious and authentic local snacks are always a good reason for going anywhere – Guandu being no exception to this rule. In fact, foodies will surely find this as good a reason as the ample cultural and historical delights that await them in this ancient town on the banks of Dianchi Lake.