With bad environmental news coming from China — oil spills, melting glaciers and more — Westerners may be pleasantly surprised by Kunming.

This city of 5 million people faces its share of environmental challenges, such as water pollution and increasing car ownership. But Kunming also has electric motorbikes, tree-lined boulevards and breathable air.

“Here it's generally blue skies,” says Chris Horton, editor of the Web site Gokunming.com. “Kunming is for people who want to be in China, but who want a better quality of life than [they would find in] Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou."

The Spring City

Kunming's name translates to “Spring City.” Sure enough, compared with other large Chinese cities, the place feels greener and less smoggy. In 2008, a city spokesperson told a local newspaper that Kunming would have 800,000 new trees by the end of 2009.

If you visit Kunming, check out its parks on the edge of the city. On a November visit, I hopped a public bus to Xi Shan ("the western hills"). This hilly protected area offers nice views of the Kunming skyline.

Water woes

In spite of its green vibes, Kunming faces a host of environmental problems. A central one is Dianchi Lake, the sixth-largest freshwater lake in China. According to the state-controlled newspaper China Daily, more than 2 million people have settled near the lake since 1989, and almost third of Yunnan Province's “economic output” empties into Dianchi's drainage basin.

Last March, the city's mayor, Zhang Zulin, announced that he would allocate $146 million for lake clean-up efforts. "The heavily polluted lake is an eyesore in Yunnan Province,” he said, “and cleaning it up has been one of the most difficult problems for the country.”

Mei Nianshu, chief executive of the Environmental Protection and Public Education Association of Kunming, tells me that Dianchi pollution contributes to water shortages in the city. According to the activist, a Yunnan University professor found that Kunming has enough water to supply each resident with only 200 cubic meters of water per day, which Mei says is about 7 percent of China's national average.

That's ironic, says Justin Kiersky, editor in chief of Yunnan Magazine. “You have every natural resource that you could possibly desire [in Yunnan Province],” he explains. “All you have to do is have proper resource management, and this city could be an example for the rest of China."

To raise awareness about Dianchi Lake, Mei Nianshu's environmental organization holds monthly “Love for Dianchi Lake” events, in which volunteers do water quality inspections. It's a good start, she tells me, “But if you just get the citizens [involved], it doesn't have much influence.” Mei says she also pushes her message to Kunming politicians.

Chris Horton of Gokunming.com, a “recovering” business journalist who has lived in Kunming since 2004, says he gets the impression city officials are taking environmental issues seriously. For example, he says, a river feeding Dianchi Lake has always been “stinky and unpleasant,” but lately, “there has been some improvement.”

Vehicular frenzy

Last year, Kunming became the ninth Chinese city to have 1 million registered cars. In November, Kunmingers were registering 900 cars every day. Horton says he worries that increasing car ownership will have an adverse impact on Kunming's air quality.

On the bright side, Horton says, he's hopeful about several green transportation initiatives, such as a new bike trail around Dianchi Lake and a rail line connecting downtown with a new section of town. A fellow expat, Colin Flahive, adds that Kunming's bus system is “pretty good.”

Still, Flahive says, driving is still is the easiest way to get around the city, and electric motorbikes siphon electricity from Yunnan's power grid (which comes from hydro-electric dams). Moreover, he says, “It's still pretty easy for Chinese [citizens] to buy cars, and the used car market is coming online."

Green eats

Flahive runs Green Kunming, a CSA-style organic food distribution system. Every week, Green Kunming distributes rice, vegetables, sausages, yak butter, artichoke hearts, tea, eggs, hemp soap, “tibetan well salt” and other products to about 60 regular customers. A large portion of that harvest comes from producers near Kunming and Dali, a mountain town five hours west of the capital by bus.

Flahive, who also maintains a provocative statistics Web site and co-owns a popular Kunming coffeehouse, says most of Green Kunming's customers are expats, but that he's advertising at Chinese health clubs and yoga studios. "Food safety is a big issue in China,” he notes. “Chinese people aren't dumb; once they lose trust in something, it's hard to get it back."

Hitting the trail

Expats and travelers like Kunming for its proximity to the outdoors. Yunnan, the eighth-largest province in China, borders Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Comprising 394,000 square miles, it includes rivers, mountain peaks, alpine plateaus and tropical jungles. China's first national park, Pudacuo National Park, was established here in 2007. The following year, according to an official at the Yunnan National Park Management Office, China's central government designated Yunnan a pilot province for a proposed network of national parks.

Tourists with a week to spare will probably want to visit Yunnan's two famous mountain towns: Dali and Lijiang. Both are connected to Kunming via afternoon and overnight bus rides, respectively. The former is reportedly a great place for bike touring, and the latter is near the famous “Tiger Leaping Gorge.” Some intrepid travelers arrange tours of Tibet — for hefty fees — through Kunming travel agents.

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