Back to Kunming – Yunnan, China

Back to Kunming

Yunnan, China

After a few weeks of field visits to project sites around Yunnan in southwestern China, I had to leave to be able to give a lecture in Tokyo on the following Monday. Because it was a weekend, the flight schedules between Baoshan were I was and Kunming, the capital, were bad. It was decided to send me to Kunming by car.

The driver, Zhou, and I drove off in a dark green Beijing Jeep Cherokee. It would be a long and rather quiet ride, as Zhou and I didn’t have a common language. At least we had six cassette tapes with Chinese pop music and Western movie themes (Love Story, Moon River, I Just Called to Say I Love You, etc.), which we played over and over again.

When we left Baoshan City we entered into some older villages on the outskirts. Typical Chinese brick barracks; lots of people on bicycles, fearlessly crossing the street seemingly oblivious to the motorized traffic. Soon we entered the countryside. There were mountains on both sides and the road started to climb. There was an emerald green reservoir snaking between the hills.

The higher peaks were totally bare with no trees and quite severe erosion damage. In most places the soil was little more than weathered bedrock. On the small hills and lower slopes there were efforts towards reforestation. The forests were mostly pine trees, some Chinese fir and, unfortunately, eucalyptus. Eucalyptus grows fast, which is its advantage. At the same time, it sucks all water and nutrients from the soil so nothing else grows around it. The roads in Yunnan are mostly lined with eucalyptus with the lower part of the stock painted white, presumably to warn motorists in the dark. Apparently, the trees were originally introduced here by a World Bank project.

As we descended towards the Mekong River valley, we saw two large bush fires. One was very high up on a mountain, so I could only see the smoke. The other one was on a roadside hill. The damage was rather massive and it was still burning. We reached the Mekong in just over an hour and crossed it on a bridge after which the road started to climb back up again. I spotted a third burning hill before we passed from Baoshan Prefecture to Dali Prefecture.

The deforestation in Yunnan is easy to understand when one observes the surroundings. On the road we saw literally tens of timber trucks carrying huge logs. These would probably come from Myanmar, because there are hardly any such big trees left in China. On the entire trip, I saw probably only one spot where there was something resembling a native forest. Otherwise it was either bare or fairly new plantation forest.

One could also see hundreds of local people with their mules or horses pulling loads of smaller firewood. Sometimes bundles were tied to the sides of the mule. The demand for firewood is huge. In many places, even the eucalypti planted on the roadsides had been cut down to the white painted stump. Consequently, the erosion damage on the hills was severe with huge gullies and sheet erosion. Massive landslides could be seen in many places.

The road was winding through the mountains, but was in good shape, mostly asphalted, with some stretches of ancient cobblestone. The traffic was rather heavy, with trucks, buses, cars, tractors, motorcycle taxis, bicycles, cows, people, mule wagons, children, an occasional goat family with a few kids crossing the road. But mostly it was trucks. Random samples of 50 meeting motor vehicles at two locations in Baoshan and in Dali counted, respectively, 78 percent and 82 percent heavy trucks.

Zhou was a good driver. He drove as fast as was safely possible and overtook the trucks smoothly with his horn blaring. In Yunnan, it is customary to blow the horn when you overtake a vehicle, when you’re meeting another vehicle, when you pass through a village, when there are people on the road, and on a number of other occasions. In fact, it may be useful, because the Yunnan drivers in general are quite unpredictable and don’t follow what happens behind them in the traffic. Zhou even thought it useful to blow the horn to the People’s Liberation Army truck that was acting slowly at a tollgate. In general, the trucks were extremely slow and sometimes moved uphill in convoys of 8-10 vehicles. Sometimes there was a timber truck advancing at 30 km per hour overtaking a tank truck moving at half that pace.

As we again descended into a valley, the population density seemed to grow. There was constant habitation by the roadside. Big quarries were extracting gravel from the hillsides leaving huge open scars. There was also much construction and we saw armies of workers constructing a modern highway on the other side of the river that the road was following.

In late afternoon we arrived in Dali City where we could enter the completed part of the fabulous new four-lane Chu-Da Expressway. The aim of the highway is to connect Kunming and Baoshan. Some parts of the road were already in use, but there were still a few hundred workers at places finishing the landslide protection and other works. Interestingly, all of the signs were both in Chinese and in English (“Rear end collision – keep space”; “Overtaking lane – Carriageway – Hard shoulder”). The tollbooths and tunnel entrances were designed like old Chinese pagodas, with blinking neon lights after dark. Inside the tunnel it was quite dark, as the only light came from bare 100W bulbs hanging from the ceiling at every 20 or so meters.

In a long mild curve to the right in a rather steep downhill section, there was a timber truck that had hit the middle barrier separating the lanes going into opposite directions. Apparently, the truck had gone too fast and the inertia of the heavy load had centrifuged it to the railing. It appeared that no one was hurt, but the logs had fallen from the load and the truck itself looks quite damaged.

Our joy of speeding on the freeway was short-lived. Soon we hit a sign telling us to get off and continue on the old road. It immediately veered off to the mountains and five minutes later we came to a roadblock. The peasants were in the business of cutting the roadside eucalypti and one large trunk had fallen and blocked the road. Zhou took the opportunity of squeezing into the beginning of the growing line, cutting in front of some ten other vehicles. There were about twenty peasants working on the trunk with their chain saws, so it didn’t take many minutes before the road was cleared.

This was a densely populated area with many villages. One of the larger ones we drove through belonged to some ethnic minority (probably Yi) and the women were dressed in their traditional colourful costumes. From the highest point of the road there was an excellent view far down into the valley. It looked crowded with farmhouses and rice paddies.

At dusk we arrived at a larger town and soon saw the blinking neon lights of the Chu-Da Expressway tollbooth-pagoda beckoning. At 7:20 p.m. we were back on the road and heading east at 140 km per hour. Twenty minutes later we stopped to fill the tank. Zhou uttered the two English words that he had apparently learned prior to us embarking on the trip: “piss” and then “dinner”. We crossed the freeway (we actually crossed the freeway through a little gate in the middle partition) to get to the restaurant on the opposite side. It, too, was operated by the Chu-Da Expressway Corporation. The room was large and neon-lit and looked like the gas station restaurant it was. There was a television set on a wall and most of the staff and customers were staring at a game show. Unfortunately it seemed that the Chinese TV had modelled itself after the Japanese one.

Zhou ordered two large bottles of Dali beer and dinner consisting of deep-fried pork, sauteed squash, soup with green leafy vegetables and tofu, succulent lotus root fried with very hot chili peppers, and rice. In few countries could one get such a delicious dinner at a freeway stop.

An hour later we continued for the final 110 km we had to go before the day’s task was done. We arrived in Chuxiong City around 9:30 p.m. Big city, bright lights. Everyone seemed to be out spending the Friday night. There was a big park with fountains lit up with coloured lights. Thousands of people could be seen walking around or listening to somebody playing the guitar. We found the Chu Xiong Hotel and there was vacancy. In Chinese style, we paid upfront to the nice lady at the reception. Then we walked to the building where our rooms were supposed to be and found the floor guard. We paid her a deposit of another 100 yuan per person (for the keys, I presume) and she opened the doors. It turned out to be a very satisfactory place, indeed, for merely 110 yuan. According to the tachometer we had covered an incredible 595 km today.


Chuxiong was already bustling with life when we hit the road at 8 a.m. People were bicycling around the park. Workers were marching in columns with tools on their shoulder. A Lionel Richie clone was crooning Say You, Say Me on our cassette player. The morning sun was sending down its rays through the clouds like in a biblical impression. The hills in the horizon showed many shades of grey. Mist was lurking between them waiting for the sunshine to disperse it. The expressway had ended, but the road was a very good two-lane highway. At this hour on a Saturday morning the traffic was light. We only had 160 km left to cover.

Here, closer to Kunming, the hills were lower. Initially it seemed to me that they even were in a better shape; then I saw all the erosion scars and the quarries. There were efforts to reforest the slopes. The government was doing its best and there was increasing awareness of environmental issues. But as long as people would cut down what others planted, reforestation was rather hopeless: poor people trying to eke out a living; richer ones in their greed after a fast yuan. The sheer number of people is another factor that cannot be overlooked. China just is immensely densely populated and there is hardly any place that has not been altered by acts of humans.

As we approached Kunming, the landscape became increasingly urbanized and industrialized. About 30 km before the city, we passed through an industrial town. The roads were dirty and factories spewing up pollution into the air. One could barely see the sky. After that, the landscape became more and more city-like. The number of cars increased constantly.

We arrived at the offices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in central Kunming at mid-morning. It was Saturday, so the offices were closed, but our old friend Li was waiting for us, dressed in a lumberjack coat and wearing his Nike baseball cap sideways – like an all-American boy. He is a good young man, very concerned with the environmental destruction and air pollution in Kunming. He is also saddened by the destruction of cultural heritage in China. During the Cultural Revolution many temples were destroyed. Now, in the name of progress, old buildings are torn down left and right to give way to high rises to accommodate the businesses and people in the growing city. Ten years ago Kunming had 1 million people. Today it has 3 million. The construction is moving at a rabid pace. There are already many steel-and-glass office towers and many more are coming up by the day. Similarly, modern apartment complexes are being built. At least the construction looks quite solid and the houses are not mass produced bunkers, but quite nice looking units. This was the city that I would explore for the last day of my visit.

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