Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province in southern China. Situated on the northern shore of Lake Dian, it has long been a commercial centre at the junction of major trade routes. Originally known as Tuodong in the 8th – 9th centuries AD and a part of the independent state of Nanzhao, it came under Chinese control with the Mongol invasion of 1253. The city became the provincial capital of Yunnan in 1276 and was visited by Marco Polo. It became a municipality in 1928 and was transformed into a modern city in 1937 during the Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 45), when Chinese evacuees from the north brought industrial plants and universities to Kunming.
Kunming is the capital of southwest China's Yunnan province, a primarily agricultural province of 45 million. Kunming has a population of five million and is located in one of the world's most geographically, ethnically, biologically and linguistically diverse regions. Situated at 1,900 meters (6,233ft) above sea level and 25° north of the Equator it has a rather unique and pleasant climate for a Chinese city.
As the provincial capital, Kunming's variety of people, languages, customs and food is a reflection of the variety found in Yunnan province itself. Roughly same the size of California, Yunnan borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (Burma), Guangxi and Tibet autonomous regions and Guizhou and Sichuan provinces. Yunnan is also less than 150 km from northeast India and northern Thailand.
Kunming sits upon the Yunnan Plateau, which rises toward the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau heading northwest and yields to lower altitude tropical jungle heading southward toward Southeast Asia. The city is surrounded by mountains and is just northeast of Dianchi Lake, the largest lake in the province and the sixth-largest freshwater lake in China.
Kunming is rapidly becoming one of China's more internationalized cities. It has sister city relationships with Denver, Colorado in the United States and Wagga Wagga, New South Wales in Australia. Within five years it will have road and rail connections to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in addition to rail links to Hanoi, Vientiane, Phnom Penh. After the Stilwell Road is renovated, Kunming will be the only Chinese city connected to India by road. It will also be the main Chinese city of the China-ASEAN Asia Free Trade Area which will be launched in 2010 and will be the world's largest FTA with over 1.8 billion people.
Kunming's Chinese history exceeds two millennia. In 279 BC general Zhuang Qiao of the Chu kingdom set up camp near Dianchi Lake. During the Han Dynasty a city named Kunzhou was established to the southeast of present-day Kunming. Later on during the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty, the area was given the name Kunming County. During the early 19th Century Kunming constructed a city wall – the hallmark of any true Chinese city at the time.
From 1910 to 1913 the French built the Indochina Rail Line to Kunming, connecting it to Hanoi and even as far as Haiphong on the Gulf of Tonkin. The line was extended to Kunming to tap the vast copper resources in the area. The line still operates today.
In the past, Kunming was considered to be a backward and isolated city. Government officials that fell into disfavor with their superiors were often posted there as punishment. In 1928 Kunming was elevated to municipality status by the Kuomintang-ruled Republic of China. Shortly afterward, the city was about to experience what was arguably its most formative period to date.
During China's war of resistance against Japan during World War II, a large number of refugees from elsewhere in China, particularly the country's north, fled to Kunming. From 1937 to 1938 approximately 60,000 refugees poured into Kunming, which only had a population of around 150,000 beforehand.
Many of these refugees were intellectuals fleeing persecution under Japanese rule as well as Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government – which had already been pushed back to Chongqing but did not control Yunnan, with which it had an alliance but did not rule.
Kunming was on the receiving end of a brain drain that resulted in the establishment of Southwest Associated University, which was located on the grounds of present-day Yunnan Normal University. The legacy of this intellectual immigration is apparent today – Kunming is still one of southwest China's educational and research centers.
During World War II, Kunming was the terminus of military supply routes originating in Burma and later India. American forces were stationed in the city, most notably the Flying Tigers. The design of Kunming's current airport was influenced heavily by the American troops posted in the city during this time.
After the Communist victory of 1949 and the reintegration of Yunnan into Beijing's sphere of control, Kunming quieted down for the most part and rode the political ebbs and flows experienced by the rest of the country.
Today Kunming is a major tourist city in China. It often serves as a mere stopover for travelers on their way to more idyllic or exotic locales in Yunnan such as Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian (recently designated as 'Shangri-la' by Beijing), Deqin or Xishuangbanna, but the city has much to see in its own right.
One of the biggest draws for tourists coming to Kunming (other than the great weather and clean air) is the city's ethnic diversity. Yunnan is home to over two dozen of China's official 55 ethnic minorities. Tibetans, Hui, Bai, Dai, Yi, Naxi and other groups contribute to a cultural melting pot that differentiates Kunming from the majority of other major Chinese cities. Each of these ethnic groups brings with it a unique set of traditions including food, dress, art, music and mythology.
Kunming and the area surrounding the city also have many sights worth seeing. The Stone Forest is perhaps the most popular destination on the outskirts of the city. The Stone Forest, with its limestone columns reaching as high as 40 meters (131 feet) is one of the more unique geographical phenomena in China.
Within the city, Cuihu Park (Green Lake Park) is located in the city's center. The park was once part of Dianchi Lake, but is now filled with small islands covered with bamboo, palms and willows. It is perhaps the best place in Kunming to peoplewatch. Every afternoon around 2:30, people congregate in different sections of the park to play music, sing traditional songs, dance or just enjoy walking around and experiencing the wide variety of free entertainment available. Music lasts until nighttime.
Other attractions in the city include the Bamboo Temple, Kunming Zoo, Kunming Botanical Gardens and the World Horticultural Expo Gardens.