Jun 27th 2008
KUNMING, the capital of Yunnan province, is an affluent city. Large foreign cars fill the roads; billboards with advertisements for large foreign cars line them. These vehicles, along with the coal-fired power stations and nearby heavy industry, create a thick, hazy pollution soup that sits permanently above the town.
Kunming’s success is built on a manufacturing and industrial base. During the second world war, it was the terminus of the Burma Road. Today you can now fly direct from Kunming to Yangon, Hanoi, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Although many tourists pass through Kunming’s large airport, which filters visitors to destinations around the southwest, few stop here. This is a shame: despite (or perhaps, at least partly, because of) its bad air, it shows what a self-confident, middle class China might look like.
Anyone who does wander into town from the airport should do so carefully. Silent electric scooters have largely replaced bicycles, and they zip along pavements, approaching quickly and without warning from all directions. Locals have developed an extra-sensory perception which I struggle to emulate.
The city centre is a well-ordered place, with streets continually swept by an army of workers in fluorescent orange vests. Many of the stores attest to Kunming’s wealth: Gucci, Givenchy, Ferragamo and other luxury brands line up alongside each other on Qingnian Street.
In the backstreets are hints of what Kunming might once have been and for many still is. Away from the flashy stores are poorly-lit streets where locals eat in plain shopfront restaurants.
A few Buddhist monasteries attest to other cultural influences in Yunnan province, which is home to more ethnic minorities than any other region of the country. There is also a small but prominent Hui Muslim population, though many of their shops, which had been concentrated in a small part of the city centre, have been dispersed in recent years at the behest of the government.
Elsewhere there are signs of the China I expected to see. A tunnel of white-coated masseurs stand behind their chairs along the middle of the pedestrianised Zhengyi Street in the centre of town, working their painful magic on customers or waiting for the next ones. Around the corner, a group of middle-aged women exercise in public by line-dancing.
Five minutes further outside the centre, the road is decked with open-air stalls on either side, selling a huge variety of meats. Locals eat and chat on rickety chairs and tables. Small chickens and ducks are available, heads, feet and all, alongside dog meat butchered into sections of thighs, feet, ribs and head. The stallholders insistently extol the virtues of the latter when they notice me and my friend looking on curiously. We decide to pass.
The more modern face of China reasserts itself a few hours later in the district of Kundu. Like many other towns and cities in the region, Kunming keeps its loudest bars and nightclubs restricted to a tight area of the city centre. The clubs have clearly had time, money and effort spent on them, as have their twenty-something clientele who confidently walk in and out of the clubs well into the early hours, popping outside to make and take calls on their mobile phones.
Unlike its clubs and bars, Kunming’s hotels do not cluster in a small area downtown: there are too many of them. Construction in the centre of town augurs even more vast shopping malls, and a high-tech industrial park is being developed on the edge of town.
Southwest China was once rather a backwater: people who fell afoul of the rulers in the capital were exiled here. Today, though, Kunming doesn’t feel all that far at all from Shanghai or Beijing.