All visitors to Yunnan find themselves at some point in KUNMING (昆明, kūnmíng), the province’s comfortable capital and transport hub. The population of students and young foreign expats testifies to Kunming being perhaps China’s most laidback large city and, while there’s not really much to see here, an abundance of food and nightlife makes it a pleasant place to take stock for a couple of days.
Basking 2000m above sea level in the fertile heart of the Yunnan plateau, Kunming does its best to live up to its traditional nickname, the City of Eternal Spring. However, until recently it was considered a savage frontier settlement; the authorities only began to realize the city’s promise when people exiled here during the Cultural Revolution refused offers to return home to eastern China, preferring Kunming’s climate and more relaxed life. Today, its citizens remain mellow enough to mix typically Chinese garrulousness with introspective pleasures, such as quietly greeting the day with a stiff hit of Yunnanese tobacco from fat, brass-bound bamboo pipes. Other novelties – clean pavements enforced by on-the-spot fines, and an orderly traffic system – suggest that Kunming’s four million or so residents enjoy a quality of life above that of most urban Chinese.
Once you’ve found your bearings in this largely modern city, the pick of the sights are extraordinary sculptures at westerly Qiongzhu Si, and the scenery along the nearby heights of Xi Shan, the Western Hills. Further afield, Shilin, the spectacular Stone Forest, is an enjoyable day-trip if you can accept the fairground atmosphere and the crowds dutifully tagging behind their cosmetically perfect tour guides.
Historically the domain of Yunnan’s earliest inhabitants and first civilization, Kunming long profited from its position on the caravan roads through to Burma and Europe. It was visited in the thirteenth century by Marco Polo, who found the locals of Yachi Fu (Duck Pond Town) using cowries for cash and enjoying their meat raw. Little of the city survived the 1856 Muslim rebellion and events of forty years later, when an uprising against working conditions on the Kunming–Haiphong rail line saw 300,000 labourers executed after France shipped in weapons to suppress the revolt.
In the 1930s, war with Japan brought a flock of wealthy east coast refugees to the city, whose money helped establish Kunming as an industrial and manufacturing base for the wartime government in Chongqing. The allies provided essential support for this, importing materials along the Burma Road from British-held Burma and, when that was lost to the Japanese, with the help of the US-piloted Flying Tigers, who escorted supply planes over the Himalayas from British bases in India. The city consolidated its position as a supply depot during the Vietnam War and subsequent border clashes and today is profiting from snowballing tourism and foreign investment. Neighbouring nations such as Thailand trace their ancestries back to Yunnan and have proved particularly willing to channel funds into the city, which has become ever more accessible as a result.