The thousands of American soldiers who stopped in Kunming during World War II may have overlooked the city's subtle pleasures on their way to its famous redlight district, but the bar girls are gone now and weary travelers find more lasting delights. A summer tourist fleeing dusty Peking or sweltering Canton finds this cool plateau town less besieged by foreigners and more open and friendly because of it.
Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, has shops and parks and trees and wide streets, and an intellectual tradition dating back before the communists took over in 1949. The universities then were protected by local warlords who, like some liberal Chinese professors, had their differences with Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek. The spot where Chiang agents allegedly murdered two Kunming scholars is marked here.
The most powerful of those enlightened Kunming leaders was the warlord of Yunnan Province, Lung Yun, the father of one of Washington's most personable and talented restaurateurs, Van S. Lung of the Yenching Palace. The old man made his peace with the communists and died with honors in Peking in the early 1960s, but people in Kunming still like to talk about him. His son says some of the stories are not true.
Van Lung particularly objected to a story about his father profiting from confiscated U.S. rubber goods by ordering tires put on all carts and taxing the tires. These were "common rumors spread by allies of Chiang Kai-shek," the younger Lung told me. He also denies what China Travel Service guides are saying -- that his father once owned the mansion and spacious grounds called "Western Garden" beside huge, rippling Tian Lake.
A few adventurous American visitors have stayed there when the somewhat seedy but comfortable Kunming Hotel was overloaded. The boat for a delightful day trip on the lakes loads alongside the spit of land that holds the mansion.
The Chinese tourist brochures, once Peking starts mass producing them, will undoubtedly herald Kunming as the "city of eternal spring," the old slogan extolling its cool climate, ranging from a high of 61 in winter to 77 in summer. Seasonal lows dip far below this sometimes, leading seasoned China traveler Ruth Weiss to revise the slogan to "eternal early spring."
My wife finds my preference for Kunming odd, given that the city lacks great scenic wonders or historical weight, and there are more picturesque places -- the sugar candy mountains of Guilin, the majestic gorges of the Yangtze River boat ride to Wuhanjn, the soft sand beaches of Beidaihe. Perhaps I may be a sucker for a town with a cool breeze after spending the last three summers in muggy Hong Kong and Peking's baking oven. But Kunming does not pretend to have great treasures, only a nice zoo, some interesting local theater and a good museum or two.
But what saves Kunming are its modesty and distance from power, its old confidence in intellectual powers and delights fortified by cook air and low humidity, which my high school geography teacher said always stimulates creative thought. Young people stopped us on the street engaging in conversation and inviting to take us to the local barber shop or the zoo. The two main universities boast three of the brightest and most inventive of the American teachers now in several Chinese cities. Students jam their courses and besiege visitors.
And if one must have relics, the Kunming guides pant with eagerness to pile their charges into a minibus for the long ride to -- and overnight stay at -- the famous "stone forest," a huge maze of karst formations said to rival Guilin's twisted mountains. Everyone else in my group went out there, and liked it, but I hung around town to sniff the spring flowers.