South of the Clouds

Laid-back and beautiful, Kunming is China’s “City of Eternal Spring.”
From The Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "Temples and Songbirds"

Jeffrey Taylor narrates photos from his visit to Kunming.

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The Travel Advisory
Where to stay, where to eat, and what to do in Kunming.

In 1274, Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and the founder of China’s Mongol Yuan Dynasty, chose Kunming (known then as Yachi) as the capital of a newly annexed territory deep in the mountains at his empire’s southernmost edge. Marco Polo, his eulogizer, visited the town soon after, piquantly noting that its population of

native idolaters, Nestorian Christians, and Saracens or Mahometans … do not consider it an injury done to them when others have connexion with their wives, provided the act be voluntary on the woman’s part.

Then as now, Kunming was a potpourri of ethnic and cultural flavors unfamiliar to Western and Han Chinese palates alike. Its climate compares so favorably to the rest of the country’s that the rulers in Beijing, 1,300 miles to the northeast, named the province Yunnan—“South of the Clouds.” Because of the city’s remoteness, they exiled political enemies there, a practice that persisted well into the 20th century.

During a recent visit to Kunming, I found little that recalled this tragic past. A sun-blessed city 6,200 feet above sea level, situated among lakes and terraced tea and tobacco fields, it struck me, a longtime aficionado of the country’s north, as being just what the rest of China seems to lack: a clean, totally relaxed, and entirely agreeable metropolis where one can kick back and enjoy life. Kunming’s altitude and latitude ensure moderate temperatures year-round; it has none of the killer heat and humidity of, say, Hong Kong, or the sandstorms and icy winds of Beijing. In the city center, pastel-hued skyscrapers reach into an often-cloudless sky; traffic moves at a humane pace along an orderly grid of six-lane thoroughfares, complete with bike lanes and pedestrian overpasses; magnolias and firs shade parks and side streets. The sidewalks are kept litter-free by on-the-spot fines, and I saw fewer panhandlers than in downtown Washington, D.C. The soft light and fresh breezes had me frequently closing my eyes and thinking of the Mediterranean.

Many of the Chinese banished to Kunming during the Cultural Revolution became enamored of the area, and after their “rehabilitation” they refused to return home. They’d concluded that Kunming, popularly known as the “City of Eternal Spring,” was different from the rest of the country, in both a soothing and a soul-stirring way.

The difference stems partly from Yunnan’s relatively late incorporation into China. In ancient times, rugged trade routes crisscrossed the province—which borders Burma, Laos, and Vietnam—linking it more closely to the Tibetan plateau and Southeast Asia than to Beijing. Although emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) settled the region with furloughed Han soldiers, indigenous peoples still account for a quarter of the population.

Not that I would have guessed this from looking about in Kunming, where minorities make up about 6 percent of the population: It’s rare to spot anyone in what English-speaking Chinese call “minority costume”—colorful headdresses, beaded and embroidered blouses, baggy pants, and brocaded sashes. The condescension implied in the term is real: Many of China’s ethnic minorities complain of discrimination, and in the cities, Western and Chinese dress and culture are viewed as marks of progress; minority costumes, and customs, are found only in isolated communities.

I arranged to visit one such community, and at the same time to take in Yunnan’s main geological attraction: Shilin, or the “Stone Forest,” a massive karst 55 miles southeast of Kunming. My guide was Liu Ying, a stylishly dressed 25-year-old. Ying told me that she was not Han but Yi—the largest of the 26 minority groups in the province. She went on to say that she was a Communist and added, without irony, that one of her passions was shopping in Hong Kong.

A 90-minute drive through the mountains brought us to Qi Xing Cun, a village of tobacco farmers belonging predominantly to the Sani, a subgroup of the Yi. We set out on foot and soon found ourselves climbing up and down stone walkways lined with clay houses, the doors of which sported posters of glowering medieval Han warriors—men shen, or “gate-guarding deities,” who are supposed to frighten evil spirits away.

Sani women in traditional dress went about their chores, lugging pails of water or bundles of firewood; the few men around wore threadbare jackets and trousers and squatted in small groups, chatting and smoking cigarettes through Yunnanese water pipes, bulky affairs of bamboo or tin that resemble castaway bits of primitive plumbing. “You find almost only women in our villages,” Ying told me. “Most young men leave to work in the cities.” They dress in Western clothing, she said, in order to blend in.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent. His most recent book is River of No Reprieve (2006).

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