Slideshow: "Temples and Songbirds"
Jeffrey Taylor narrates photos from his visit to Kunming.
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.