South of the Clouds

Laid-back and beautiful, Kunming is China’s “City of Eternal Spring.”

We were soon back in the car and on our way to Shilin. Yunnan is dotted with karsts, but Shilin is the most spectacular—a limestone statuary of some 75,000 acres, carved 270 million years ago by a retreating sea. I wrongly expected a contemplative visit. We bought tickets and set off on foot down a paved trail, surrounded by Han sightseers.

As we walked, Ying translated the labels attached to the most prominent boulders. The “hanging rock”—a coffin-sized chunk suspended between two ridges—could, legend has it, fall at any minute, and to prove his love for a girl, a boy should stand beneath it for as long as he dares. A teenager behind us did just that, while his girlfriend giggled. The “Better to Rest Here a While” cove was self-explanatory (benches had been provided); when slapped, the “musical rock” hummed like a zither. At Shilin’s center, we came upon the “heart rock,” a shiny, venous stone shaped like a human heart, which is said to protect those who caress it from cardiac troubles.

Yunnan’s cuisine, I had read, is re‑ nowned for its variety, even in a country of astonishing culinary diversity. I hadn’t realized quite what this meant. Back by the ticket booths, Ying and I sat down at a Sani restaurant—a scattering of plastic tables and chairs beneath a droopy tarp. The proprietress pulled me over to a display case containing delicacies that looked to be straight out of an entomologist’s textbook.

“Bee baby! Eat bee baby!” she urged, shoving a saucer of yellow-brown larvae toward me. “No? Then eat bamboo bug!” She wielded a plate of fleshy white grubs the size of pinkies. I passed and, on Ying’s advice, ordered sliced, toasted goat’s cheese, smoky ham, pork sautéed with mushrooms, and guoqiaomixian, or “crossing-the-bridge noodles”— pencil-thick, foot-long white spaghetti. As it turned out, the mushrooms and cheese still allowed me to boast of having expanded my cultural horizons: Rare elsewhere in China, they are, Ying said, as authentically Yunnanese as the grubs.

Introduced by wandering monks and traders, Buddhism entered China sometime during the first century A.D. It soon gained a following among Chinese drawn to its ideal of enlightenment for all sentient beings. A few miles northwest of Kunming, hunkered on the slope of Yu’an Shan (“Jade Table Mountain”), is Qiongzhu Si, the Bamboo Temple. With its hulking walls, Qiongzhu Si looks more like a barbarian fortress than what it is: a lighthearted, even irreverent, shrine.

I arrived at the temple at noon one day and found the courtyard awash in sunlight. Monks laughed and horsed around. Worshippers lit incense sticks, held them to their foreheads, and bowed energetically in all four directions. Other visitors knelt by the main hall. Lit only by candles, three huge gilt statues of the Buddha glinted in the darkness within.

I stepped up to the rope cordoning off the hall from the courtyard and focused on the walls on either side of the Buddhas. There, surfing sculpted waves, were the surreal characters for which the temple is known: an imperious duke astride a flying rooster, a masked buffoon atop a lion, devils mounted on dragons, and a multitude of other playful statues, all commissioned from the famous 19th-century Sichuanese sculptor Li Guangxiu and modeled after arhats, or monks who’ve attained nirvana. It took Li more than seven years to complete the collection, which comprises 500 figures, each depicting an aspect of human experience.

My guidebook told me the ritual prescribed by legend: You start counting the arhats, and the one whose number corresponds to your age reveals your inner character. No flattering symbolism for me: My arhat was a bare-chested, bug-eyed ruffian.

Li’s creations at Qiongzhu Si offended his contemporaries, effectively ending his career. Yet through the figures, he’d succeeded in expressing a key Buddhist tenet: The world is not to be taken too seriously, and there are always reasons for laughter.

On one of my last evenings in town, Ying and I headed to the café district, near the university. Chinese and Western students thronged one bar after another, many with New Age decor and trendy Western names. We chose a sidewalk table at the French Café. Over a bottle of Yunnan red wine and some roasted cashews, Ying told me about her life—her new apartment, her ailing mother, her unhurried search for a husband.

“What does being a Communist mean to you?” I asked.

“Joining the party was a way to advance my career and be a part of an elite,” she said. “I was once very ambitious. But now I just want to enjoy my life. In Kunming I can do just that.”

The laughter at surrounding tables seemed to suggest that she was right.

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

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