The Columnist

The Kunming Syndrome

Miles Kington steams around Yunnan on a bicycle


For most people who go to China, Kunming, the main city in the province of Yunnan, is the furthest-flung city they visit. Certainly when the Queen went there in 1986 it was portrayed as the end of the line. It's 2,000 miles south-west of Beijing, and is the only place in China I have ever been to. I entered China via a route which even now is almost unused: the plane which goes two or three times a month from Rangoon to Kunming, taking a few Burmese officials in and bringing a few Chinese officials back. It's like entering England via the Scillies and going no further than Penzance before turning back. I was there for the BBC, making a film about the Burma Road, so I had no choice about the method of entry, but, given my time again, that's the one I'd choose.

Kunming has great sections of the old town still standing. Street after street of two-storeyed, green-painted, tile-hung houses, streaming and steaming with life – literally steaming. Because many of the houses have small chimneys sticking out the front wall direct from the kitchen. There are markets everywhere, noodle shops everywhere, wayside salesman everywhere – one man I watched for hours was simply skinning eels, another man at the edge of the pet market was selling parrots, one of which fell off its perch and dangled upside down by its leg. After two minutes it hauled itself back up and looked round for applause.

But take away the old town (which modern-minded Chinese, 10 times as destructive as a British town council, would probably like to do) and you'd still have a fine city. Bang opposite the Green Lake Hotel is the Green Lake, which is as new but pleasant park as I've been in, linking lots of little islands with willow-pattern walkways and bridgeways. I have one image in my mind, better than a photograph, of two girls silhouetted on a bridge against the dark sky, solemnly trying a new jive step together. Back, side, twiddle, swing. Back, side, twiddle swing. Even better, from the 13th floor of the People's Palace of Culture I looked down and saw a courtyard full of people making a strange ballet-like tableau – half were engaged in t'ai chi, the other half were ballroom dancing, and this was 8.30am.

Hire a bicycle and you get an even better view of the city, sweeping with the crowds as if you were perpetually caught halfway along the Tour de France. There are lots of trees, lots of fine boulevards and lots of markets, but above all lots of bikes, all going roughly the same speed because none of them has gears. They don't have great brakes either. I had a lot of trouble when a woman stepped out in front of me and screeched at me to stop. She did some more screeching, pointed at a sign and left me, but the sign was graphic enough: Get Off Your Bike While Going Downhill Because Chinese Brakes Can't Take It.


Like all Chinese cities, Kunming is crowded. The countryside, on the other hand, is just as crowded. The road goes west from Kunming, for about 200 miles across hills (wooded or hung with terraced valleys) or plains (full of fields, dykes, streams, half-built mud houses), until it comes to Tali, the last permitted town for foreigners, and the landscape is full of people. I sat down at one roadside halt and deliberately counted the number of people within hailing distance. It came to 18: one chasing a buffalo, two harvesting a green crop, four leading mules, one mending a tractor, another bringing someone lunch… In England you would be lucky to see one person in a field.

Miles  with a truck Most of the vehicles on the road are lorries. Well, there aren't any private cars in China to speak of, so anyone who can drive must be doing it for a living. In the minibus we had hired from the Chinese for the filming there were five Chinese most of the time, but if the driver had dropped dead, not one of them could have taken over. It was a road for lorries, as it had been 50 years ago when it was built to take supplies from Burma to Kunming, to fuel the Chinese resistance to the Japanese. These days, the Chinese line the road with trees about five feet away, painted white up to head-height so that the drivers can see them at night. Saves cat's eyes. It also means that any lorry which goes off the road ends halfway up a tree, and we saw quite a few.

Tali, when you get there, is a town which was once said to be a foursquare walled town with grand city gates, a tiny kind of York. The extraordinary thing is that it is still like that. The local people all speak of the time, perhaps 200 years ago, when Tali was still the head of a region not yet conquered by China. They speak of it with pride, not regret, but the fact that they speak of it at all is significant. They have colourful minority tribes round there, they have a grey-streaked marble which they turn into everything from wine-glasses to houses, they even have one or two still operative Bhuddist monasteries with monks every bit as authentic as in Burma. It's China with a difference.

Beyond Tali we cannot go. Well, two years ago we couldn't even get this far. As yet we didn't see many gawky Europeans round the place (funny how you start seeing yourself through Chinese eyes after a while). We push on down Yunnan. It's the region of China that Beijing hasn't bothered to make too uniform, the place where they are proud of their flowers (I never mentioned the azalea park in Kunming, 10p a throw). Kunming is the place which the Chinese could, if they wanted to, call the Penzance of China.

At least, I suppose so. I haven't managed to get to Penzance yet.

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  3 Miles High-Part 2
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The Kunming syndrome