All visitors to Yunnan find themselves at some point in KUNMING, the province's comfortable capital and transport hub. The large population of young foreign expats, mostly students and teachers, testifies to Kunming's appeal as the Seattle of China – the most laid-back city in the country. The city's immediate face is an ordinary blend of broad, monochrome main roads and glassy modern office blocks, but its character is partly salvaged by the surrounding temples and fine lake-and-limestone-hill landscapes.
Basking 2000m above sea level in the fertile heart of the Yunnan plateau, Kunming does its best to live up to its traditional nickname, the City of Eternal Spring. Its citizens remain mellow enough to mix typically Chinese garrulousness with introspective pleasures, such as quietly greeting the day with a stiff hit of Yunnanese tobacco from fat, brass-bound bamboo pipes. Other novelties – clean pavements enforced by on-the-spot fines, an orderly traffic system, and a low-profile but sizeable gay community – suggest that Kunming's four million or so residents enjoy a quality of life above that of most urban Chinese.
The public focus of Kunming is the huge square outside the grandiose Workers' Cultural Hall at the Beijing Lu/Dongfeng Lu intersection, alive in the mornings with regimented crowds warming up on hip pivots and shuttlecock games. Later in the day you can consult a fortune-teller, or receive a shoulder and back massage from the hard-fingered blind practitioners who pounce on passers-by. Rapidly being modernized, the city's true centre is west of here across the Panlong River, outside the modern Kunming Department Store at the Dongfeng Xi Lu/Zhengyi Lu crossroads, a densely crowded shopping precinct packed with clothing and hi-fi stores.
Though Kunming boasts few specific sights, the countryside around holds enough to keep visitors occupied for a good few days. Extraordinary sculptures make the westerly Qiongzhu Si the pick of local holy sites, while further afield, Shilin, the spectacular Stone Forest, is an enjoyable day-trip if you can accept the fairground atmosphere and the crowds dutifully tagging behind their cosmetically perfect tour guides.