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SEPTEMBER 18, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 11

Seeking Out Kunming's Hidden Charms

Illustration for TIME by Annie Lee.

Pssstt! Wanna know a deep dark secret about Kunming? Despite the local government's best efforts to eradicate all semblance of the city's ancient cultural heritage, a few vestiges still remain. The only problem is finding them.

The folks at the Yunnan Tourism Administration will tell you their city is famous for its temperate climate (it's called the City of Eternal Spring) and flowers (it hosted a huge horticultural exposition last year). Otherwise the recently modernized provincial capital—"modern" in China generally means wide boulevards lined with uninspiring concrete monoliths—is usually promoted as a gateway to other tourist spots in Yunnan. Last year, the province welcomed 36 million domestic visitors and 1 million international ones. This could explain why "tourist attraction" is defined by Chinese, not Western, criteria. Instead of wandering the charming backstreets of Kunming, foreign visitors are encouraged to visit the Stone Forest, an outcropping of natural limestone karsts located 120 km away. This land-based version of Halong Bay attracts many more people than its aqueous Vietnamese counterpart, and you have to venture far from the madding crowd to appreciate the "beauty" promised in the brochures.


Seeking Out Kunming's Hidden Charms
Pssstt! Wanna know a deep dark secret about Kunming?


Why did the chicken cross the road? In the humble village of Jemeluk on Bali's arid northeast coast, the answer might be: "To take a stroll on the beach, of course."

Travel Watch Archive: Browse hundreds of Asian travel tips

If you can't make it to the ethnic minority towns of Lijiang, Dali and Xishuangbanna, the tourist association recommends the Yunnan Nationalities Village at Dianchi Lake on the outskirts of Kunming. The ersatz villages in this kitsch theme park ostensibly showcase Yunnan's 26 ethnic minorities. But beyond realistic architecture and costumes, they evoke no sense of people's lifestyles. Factor in tacky souvenir stores and hordes of gawking visitors and the overall effect is more zoo-like than cultural.

For an authentic zoo experience, try the Kunming Zoo instead. Arrive before 9 a.m. and you can join the locals in energetic calisthenics performed to the boom-boxed strains of By the Rivers of Babylon. Or, for $1.80, rent a costume and have your photo taken as an ethnic-minority warrior. In the quaint playground, a swimming pool filled with multicolored plastic balls boasts a small statue of a plump, naked man-child wearing spectacles who looks suspiciously like a cross between Mannekin Pis and Chairman Mao. Alas, the zoo animals themselves are a mangy lot, uncomfortably housed in small, unkempt cages.

Two blocks down Yuantong Road from the zoo is the under-publicized Yuantong Temple, an oasis of 9th-century serenity amid all the bland new construction. The three temples (one in the middle of a tiny lake), the lush flora, and the Buddha statues are almost as fascinating as the signage: please don't make confused noises when chanting and please take care of environmental sanitation.

Even the tourist association acknowledges the charms of the flower and bird market on Tongdao Street, one of several tree-lined alleys crammed with pet supplies, fishing gear and a bizarre array of antiques and junk. Fortunately, the local government has decided to preserve a few blocks of the neighborhood's two-story wooden houses, some dating back to the 18th century.

The future is less secure for Shuncheng Street, a two-block bastion of authentic Muslim culture where a new department store sits at one end and a massive construction site looms at the other. If you'd like to wander past ancient brick houses festooned with drying hams, eat spicy French fries for about 12, visit a Chinese mosque (or buy a plastic mosque-shaped alarm clock), you'd better hurry up.

Kunming doesn't exactly pulsate with nightlife. Bowling is a favorite local pastime, and the city has some 30 alleys (the Holiday Inn's boasts 16 lanes). Or try an invigorating 30-minute streetside massage for a paltry $1.20. Blind masseurs dressed in white labcoats and caps ply their trade on many downtown street corners.

From taxi drivers and store clerks to customers in back-alley restaurants, the inhabitants of Kunming are surprisingly friendly—on hand with smiles and sign-languaged assistance. Apparently, foreign visitors are still enough of a novelty that some locals practically have to be coerced into accepting tips for good service. Now that's a secret worth betraying!

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