Chinese cities are notorious for their pollution and for continuous construction activity. But many of them astound you with the bounty of nature they still retain.
Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province bordering Myanmar, is no exception. Cranes dominate the city; a new metro is being built. Traffic in rush hour is horrendous. Yet, the dominant image of the city is of the Cuihu lake and park. In the evenings, musicians and dancers from the province’s many ethnic minorities perform in small groups all over the park. As you walk under the willows and admire the lotus ponds, the sound of music follows you. Even late at night, a few groups can be seen playing their instruments and singing under one of the many canopies that dot the park.
As in all Chinese parks, groups of the middle-aged and elderly do tai chi and ball room dancing to recorded music here too. But there’s one feature which is perhaps unique to Kunming’s Cuihu park. As you enter and negotiate your way through the vendors on either side of the tree-lined path, you see printed or hand written white pages stuck to the fence on one side, being read intently by elderly people. It turns out this is a lonely hearts’ club, where people over 45 put up their age, height, marital status, occupation and, of course, phone number. By the end of the evening, most of these ‘ads’ have disappeared. Such is the desire for companionship that even this diarist was approached by a middle-aged woman!
Another oasis in the city open to all is the Yunnan University campus located near the Cuihu lake. Set up in 1923, the 105-acre campus is green and aesthetically laid out. A huge plaque with an Einstein quote adorns one part; not far away is a 10-foot-long notice board announcing the research projects being worked on in the university’s physics and chemistry departments. The home of the university’s former directors has been preserved; a plaque outside tells you that one of them was a renowned maths scholar. The rooms where students of yore sat for the Imperial Exams (which were, before the 1949 revolution, necessary to enter government service) have also been retained as they were. Currently a place for post-graduate study, the campus emanates an aura not just of history but also of scholarship that newer and larger campuses in south China’s showpiece high-GDP Guangdong province do not.
Unlike other provincial capitals, Kunming can’t be called glittering. From its seemingly unending series of flyovers, the city’s many old, grey and bleak neighbourhoods can be seen. But unlike Shanghai, Kunming has preserved its old buildings. Many of these single-storeyed grey brick structures with typical Chinese awnings have been converted into restaurants. Tables and benches are laid out in the courtyard; private parties use the rooms upstairs.
Like other Chinese cities, Kunming has a pedestrian plaza at its centre that throbs with life. Be it Sunday mornings or 10 at night, roadside food stalls, many of them run by Muslims, selling kababs and chikki are crowded. Kunming became the capital of Yunnan under the reign of the legendary Mongol, Kublai Khan, in the 13th century, and three mosques dot the city centre.
The oldest is said to be 400 years old, but was reconstructed recently. Women can pray there in a separate enclosure adjacent to the main prayer hall. Interestingly, the mosques are popular eateries. Anyone can walk in and choose their meal from the counters where food is displayed. For some unfathomable reason, this diarist, recognized as an Indian, was told to cover her head by the head-scarf-wearing woman making parathas, even though other Chinese women sat with heads uncovered.