Basking 2000m above sea level in the fertile heart of the Yunnan plateau,
does its best to live up to its English title as the City of Eternal Spring. However, until recently it was considered a savage frontier settlement, and authorities began to realize the city's promise only when people exiled here during the Cultural Revolution refused offers to return home to eastern China, preferring Kunming's more relaxed life, better climate and friendlier inhabitants. Today, the city's immediate face is an ordinary blend of broad, monochrome main roads and glassy modern office blocks, but beneath this there's an air of satisfied well-being in the crowded restaurants, bustling streets and markets supplying year-round fresh produce. The people, too, are mellow enough to mix typically Chinese garrulousness with introspective pleasures, such as quietly greeting the day with a stiff hit of Yunnanese tobacco from fat, brass-bound bamboo pipes. There are other novelties - clean pavements enforced since 1987 by on-the-spot fines, and a low-profile but sizeable gay community - suggesting that Kunming's two million or so residents enjoy a quality of life above that of most urban Chinese.
Historically the domain of Yunnan's earliest inhabitants and first civilization, Kunming long profited from its position on the caravan roads through to Burma and Europe and was visited in the thirteenth century by Marco Polo, who found the locals of
(Duck Pond Town) using cowries for cash and enjoying their meat raw. Little of the city's wealth survived the 1856 Muslim rebellion, when most Buddhist sites in the capital were razed, or events some forty years later, when an uprising against working conditions on the
Kunming-Haiphong rail line
saw 300,000 labourers executed after France shipped in weapons to suppress the revolt. (The line, designed by the French so that they could tap Yunnan's mineral resources for their colonies in Indo-china, was only completed in 1911.) Twenty-five years later,
war with Japan
brought a flock of wealthy east-coast refugees to the city, whose money helped to establish Kunming as an industrial and manufacturing base for the wartime government in Chongqing. The allies provided essential support for this, importing materials along the Burma Road from British-held Burma, and, when that was lost to the Japanese, through the volunteer US-piloted
, who flew in supplies over the Himalayas from British bases in India. The city consolidated its position as a supply depot during the Vietnam War and subsequent border clashes, though during the
buildings that missed the attentions of nineteenth-century vandals perished at the hands of the Red Guards. Virtually all that remained were cleared when the city centre was rebuilt in its current "modern" style to impress visitors attending the
1999 World Horticultural Expo
. Survivals include a couple of temples, the long-established
set up in the 1950s to promote mutual understanding among Yunnan's multi-faceted population.
Since the mid-1980s, Kunming has also enjoyed snowballing tourism and foreign investment. Neighbouring nations such as Thailand trace their ancestries back to Yunnan and have proved particularly willing to channel funds into the capital. The city has become ever more developed and accessible as a result, an easy place to experience the bustle of a healthy Chinese city, with good food, warm summers and tolerably cool, bright winters. It's also just a short hop to temples and landscapes surrounding the sizeable lake,
, and the celebrated