Tuesday 25 July 2017


Way down south at the bottom of China is Kunming, the cool capital of Yunnan province. Kunming's border with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar has helped shape the provincial capital's destiny as a travel and business hub. But with an under-the-radar, laid-back South East Asian vibe to match its cool summer climate, is there more to the Spring City than first meets than eye? Smoke and grit ballooned out of street side eateries, blurring red neon streets signs and permeating the night with a ting of otherworldy eeriness. Salivating smells of grilled meat filled the air. After a long, emotionally tiring journey, and a kind introduction to the city by two students we met on the train, our time in Kunming had begun. Just as we hit the streets on the search for a late night beer, food stalls were emptying and shops had shutters pulled down. It felt like we were too late, like it was the city's closing time.

We pushed further on a quest to quench our thirst. Through the haze that hung over the river blurred shapes of people emerged, girls and guys dressed in effortless eveningwear were moving from days spent hanging out in coffee shops and malls to come together in the city's clubs, to enjoy their lives and the student scene that is soundly submerged in the skin of Kunming. Kunming has gone through a lot for a fairly obscure city: it was used as a Chinese military centre during WWII, an American Air base, and a hugely historically important transport hub for the road to Burma, but it was in 1910 when the railway to Hanoi was built that Kunming's economic fortunes started to change. The city has undergone vast modernisation since the late '90s—now the streets are wide, office buildings are high and business districts have spread. Tourism has also become a huge focus for the area with the Chinese government pushing for a 'green city' status, as well as promoting the whole of Yunnan province as a clean and natural travel destination for native and foreign visitors.

The true strategic importance of the unassuming city is highlighted by the wildly adventurous plans for a 'Pan Asia High Speed Network', a high speed railway that aims to connect China, Cambodia, Loas, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. This is a huge project and will bring a lot of prosperity to the area, but of course comes shrouded in the nagging doubts and proven unsavoury interest that China has in the neighbouring developing countries. Questions of China's ethical practises and of their dubious presence in countries such a Laos where there is undeniable mass logging and damming of the Mekong primarily for Chinese profit. There are also plans to construct a highway linking Kunming with Bangladesh though Myanmar, another example of increased Chinese interest in surrounding developing countries. The borders with South East Asian countries not only affect Kunming's business fortunes, they also have a large impact on its cultural makeup, with a tangibly different feeling to other Chinese cities. There is a fashionably forward fresh feel to the streets. The city exudes a youthful student buzz, two universities and a medical college mean that there are a lot of cool kids hanging out all over town. Universities have long played a key role in shaping the city—the National Southwestern Associated University(ε›½η«‹θ₯Ώε—θ”εˆε€§ε­¦) was founded in Kunming in 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and was a bastion for harbouring modern day Chinese democracy and liberal education.

We were in Kunming during Chinese Valentine's Day, which turned out to be an entertaining time. Cute young couples wandered around malls arm in arm, roses in hand. At dinner, groups of friends chatted and events were held to commemorate the romantic day outside the shiny malls. The students here have a fashionable edge that legitimately cemented our love of Asian fashion, unfussy stonewashed denim teamed with minimalistic '90s sportswear silhouettes, an unknowing Chinese twist on US sports luxe with less of the over-branded Korean ulzzang perfection and more of a kick back 'who cares' against their hardcore focus on education and overbearing government.

The young are knowledgeable and increasingly aware, so is it that through fashion they are able to show how they really feel? In the university-laden streets of Kunming are style and political trends incubated and allowed to flourish? A city to keep a cultural eye on, this could be where, given time, the changing in business fortunes for the growing middle class could rear its revolutionary head. Just give it time. Traditional Chinese aspects are still a mainstay of Kunming's cultural scene. At the Jingxing Birds and Flower Market the weird and wonderful emerge and our Western afflicted minds are put into turmoil as we take the afternoon to experience what we imagined to be an interesting old-time flower market. Strange succulents and ornamental orchids are proudly displayed by ancient sellers, ladies laden with pandan leaves and tobacco touts go about their everyday routines.

Further into the rebuilt modern-style market, the daily trade of plants is also a cover for the trade of animals. This was a tough one. Children cooed over polystyrene boxes brimming baby chicks, sullen-faced hedgehogs and unknown reptiles lulled sleepily behind unclean bars of brightly coloured cages. A regular sight for the Kunming residents was a stretch of the moral boundaries for us. The crisp and bright morning was blinkered by the sadness of seeing wildlife cooped up in disturbing conditions. The empathy for animals with a price tag continued as we took an afternoon stroll around Cuihu Park (Green Lake Park), a main park in Kunming, centred around a network of interlinked flourishing lily ponds. Shirkers sat in shaded spots under ornate pagodas wiling away afternoons playing chess and gossiping over tea. Parents entertained children with walks over bridges, boat rides and games.

Animals were on sale here too: tiny terrapins put into plastic spheres with no air or space, living baubles, and sold like candy floss to underwhelmed kinders. It seemed like a simple cultural difference between the West and Asia, but the feeling of the inane wasteful unimportance given to the lives of the small creatures took a while to leave our minds. Cultural differences are just par for the course when it comes to visiting foreign places but for small ethnic communities in China cultural differences often lead to a vast and lasting impact on the the fate of their traditions. The Old Quarter is home to the now practically dispersed Muslim Quarter, an area of huge importance to the cities Muslim Hui population. The old town has been recently redeveloped and, while some of the beautiful wooden buildings of yesteryear remain along with the artfully narrow and curved art-deco Sister Buildings (姊妹ζ₯Ό), most have been replaced with a mall and other glimmering visions of globalisation such as Starbucks. The Hui people are the seventh largest minority in Yunnan – the third largest of China's 56 "official" ethnic groups – and have been part of the fabric of the area for well over a thousand years, with a turbulent past reaching as far back as far as Kublai Khan's invading forces in 1253. Muslim warriors who were part of the Mongol forces that conquered China in the thirteenth century, stayed, married local women, adopted Chinese customs but still retained their Muslim religion that eventually formed the Hui identity, bolstered by trade with Muslim nations on the Silk Road.

Islam is such an integral part of the Hui people's makeup that they are the only minority in China to be classified as such due to religion alone, as opposed to language or ethnicity. By modernising a historically and culturally significant area that is such an intrinsic piece of the Kunming history the city appears to be showing that its focus lies with business and tourism rather than supporting its historical ties. Whilst looking for things to do in the city, we discovered that in 2004 a traditionally Hui district, Shuncheng Jie, had been completely demolished. Development comes at a price and it is, once again, minorities that seem to pay. Regardless of the rapid modernisation, Kunming remains a city with a depth of intriguing alleyways. The district around the university is filled with a richness of edgy creativity and culture with kitsch coffee shops and trendy boutiques. The aesthetic is as cool and stripped-back as the fashion. A western immigrant/expat community lives around the area, presumably attracted by teaching jobs at the university, and there are a smattering of hot spots where students and westerners hang out over falafel plates and wine glasses, an atmosphere extremely reminiscent of a corner of Hanoi where students and westerners mix over snacks and beer. An old slowness still seeps silently around the city streets. Children play barefoot and bare-bottomed in the street while their parents look on, chatting to their neighbour or sitting on duty outside shops that have been selling the same stock since the city was only two storeys high. There is a quaintness to local life woven into the city's tapestry that has been stitched over generations, before the tourists, before the students. Parks fill with Kunming's elderly who dance in the freshness of the evening, families enjoying their time together and friends having an evening drink along the river. Kunming is just another Chinese city in the midst of modernisation, but there is a lingering openness and a sense of chaos that isn't wholly Chinese. A Chinese version of South East Asia with all the beauty, ethnic mixtures and historical connections, it seems Kunming is a grey area. Its kinship with South East Asia represents a tangible difference to the rest of China: historically a political incubator and a university town, it may be following in the same path of other Chinese cities with its malls and metro system, but under the surface it is perfectly placed for the birth of modern day Chinese democracy and a new version of the way in which present day China could grow.

Later on in our travels, we drank a couple of beers in Siem Reap with a Thai Chinese guy we'd met earlier that day. We told him we'd been to China. "Where?" he asked. When we said the South, and Yunnan in particular, he smiled and responded, "That's not China—that's the same as here."


  • πŸ”” City Star Ji Feng Branch, double room £16.50 (143CNY)
    This is a new hotel with helpful, friendly staff and clean rooms. The location isn't perfect but it's in easy walking distance of lots of the main places in town including the riverside with all its bars and a short taxi ride away from the train station. We extended our stay here with no problems and had room service every day, as well as a decent breakfast included. Lots of Chinese business people and couples on mini breaks staying here (maybe it was the Valentine's weekend).

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