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.

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.