When there are blue skies, the water and the mountains give Kunming a peaceful even graceful feel. Sit beneath the quiet sun and one can, for a moment, forget the cranes that dominate the route to and from the airport, along which endless blocks of flats are being built, their dark little windows staring blankly out at yet another building site.
From my first trip to Kunming I remember the stone pagoda; from my second, just a few of months ago, shaded alleys and picturesque restaurants. This visit, for a conference at which I was the only Westerner and at which the presentations were perhaps not even meant to be heard by Westerners, was dominated by the modern grandiose. China still builds to impress, not in details or flourishes, but in size. The building was monumental. Such was the size of the pillars, they would not have been out of place in Pharaoh’s palace. The entrance was three four five stories high. Kunming is a city with a message.
But what that message is was softened over dinner by the province’s vice-governor who dwelt in his speech on the flowers and the sun, and one his hopes for our health. It was a message that was also far overtaken by my dining companion’s own story, for he had been a political prisoner in Burma for eleven years. And it was a message that was reduced to irrelevance when, after dinner, a door to another room opened and I was enveloped by the welcome of my Yunnanese friends as they smoked and drank and gossiped.