Kunming Travel Guide

Written by Sally Guo Updated Oct. 13, 2021

Kunming, a bustling prefecture-level city in the heart of Yunnan Province, is the province's capital. Kunming, whose name derives from the sound byte associated with the name of an ethnic group that lived in the area in ancient times, is nicknamed the "City of Eternal Spring" due to its mild, stable, year-round weather conditions. Kunming's previous name was simply Yunnanfu, or "Capital of Yunnan".

As the capital city, Kunming is the political, cultural, and economic hub of the province, as well as the province's "communications" hub (i.e., "communication" defined in the broadest sense, to also include transportation). Not surprisingly, Kunming is the seat of many large corporations that operate in the region, and is as well, the seat of the provincial government. As the cultural hub of Yunnan Province, Kunming is also home to a number of universities, museums, and art galleries.

A Brief Historical Background

Archeological excavations in the Lake Dian area - Kunming being situated on the edge of Lake Dian - indicate the presence of hunter-gatherer groups belonging to the Neolithic period. However, the first recorded civilization in the area dates back to the 3rd century BCE, when General Zhuang Qiao of the Chu Kingdom arrived on the shores of the lake that would come to be known as Lake Dian with his army and established the Dian Kingdom. The encampment corresponds to present-day Kunming.

Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty rulers, desirous of gaining control over the Southern Silk Road trade, moved into the region with their armies, established garrisons, and took control of the areas key to this lucrative trade. It was a difficult area to maintain control over, however, since the outlying areas in those times were as dominated by banditry as were the seas by piracy, so without a larger presence in the area, there was little that even an otherwise powerful Chinese emperor could do. The bandits and the "toll fees" that they exacted on Silk Road caravans were what eventually made a "Silk Road" by sea economically feasible.

As the area became more and more populated with migrants from China proper, Chinese influence gained a more solid foothold. For example, the area around present-day Kunming became part of the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty under Emperor Wu Di, and was designated as Yizhou Prefecture. Thus Yizhou Prefecture served as a bridge between the most southerly established area of China, Sichuan Province, and present-day Vietnam, which was - and still is - inhabited by members of some of the same ethnic minorities (eg., the Dai folk) as inhabit China. Centuries later, during the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty, Yizhou Prefecture would become Kunzhou Prefecture.

The area's relative openness proved to be an advantage to both Chinese and Allied forces during WWII as they coordinated their military efforts against the Japanese aggressors. Being located on the high, Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, Kunming served as a Chinese military center and as an American airbase, and as such became an important transport hub in the Chinese and Allied military effort. It was intended to be a key transport terminus for the military materiel that was being transported into China along the Burma Road, an overland supply route that was built in haste (since Japanese forces controlled much of China's coast) - it was dug over mountains almost entirely by hand - by 200,000 Chinese laborers between 1937-38. Burma Road was then readied for vehicle use, i.e., graded and graveled, in 1942, but the Burma stretch was closed soon thereafter due to Japanese pressure on the British, while the rest of the road was regularly attacked by Japanese warplanes.

The limited military value of the Burma Road, which was built 'at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil', to borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, can be seen in the fact that its creation only triggered Japan's capture of Burma, which was a British colony at the time, and which became the venue for some of the worst horrors of WWII's Pacific theater, though the forced construction of the "Death Railway" - as the Thailand-Burma railway was known - that cost the lives of 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs, and which was immortalized in the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, cannot be compared, in terms of sheer bestiality (viz. beheadings, disembowlings, etc.), to the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, where almost a third of the 75,000 American and Filipino POWS did not make it to their destination, and where significant numbers of those who did make it later died as a result either of the forced march or the subsequent treatment in the Japanese POW camps at the hands of their captors.

With Rangoon in Japanese hands and the Burma Road interdicted, the Americans and the Chinese countered by building a new overland route, the Ledo Road, but it was first finished in January of 1944, near the close of the war, so the new supply route never played much of a strategic role in the conduct of the war. Ledo Road's greatest military value lay perhaps in the fact that its very construction required that Allied forces, under the command of General Joseph Stilwell, clear a large swath of northern Burma of Japanese forces in order to construct the road, then keep it free of Japanese sabotage.

Present-Day Kunming

Kunming has become an important tourist venue, thanks in large part to its Stone Forest, a "forest" of limestone rocks that have been eroded over time (this uplifting piece of the earth's crust was once a part of the ocean floor!) by the actions first of the seawater in which it was originally situated, then of the erosion caused by wind and rain "on land". But Kunming has much more to offer the tourist than just fantastic geological formations, it has 26 ethnic minorities, with all the cultural diversity that this implies.

A special Yunnan Ethnic Minority Village has been set up in Kunming as a sort of museum to showcase the area's ethnic diversity. Kunming also has numerous Buddhist temples. And yes, the city and its environs boast other fantastic geological formations than the Stone Forest; being a karst landscape (the bedrock of which is of carbonate origin, either limestone or dolomite, that erodes unpredictably, leaving pitted stones, some above ground and others in the form of sinkholes, and some of which "pitting" results in caves of varying sizes), Kunming and its environs, of course, has fascinating caves and grottoes.

At the foot of nearby West Hill lies Dianchi Lake, China's largest alpine lake. If you can overlook the water pollution, you will see a very expansive and quite lively body of water. Of less mixed pleasure is the 1999 Garden of World Horticulture Exposition, which offers an uncompromisingly fresh escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Since Kunming enjoys a milder climate than most Chinese cities, it can be visited at any time of the year, irrespective of the usual climatic vagaries of the seasons.

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