KUNMING, CHINA — Kunming, China.--China's city of eternal springtime has burst forth in that most youthful of fashions: mini-skirts -- black ones, worn tight and to the mid-thigh. In this trend, Kunming may only be following the lead of China's fashion capitals, Canton and Shanghai. But nowhere else in this high-buttoned land is the morning parade of bicyclists quite so revealing.
The year-round pleasant weather on this high plateau in far Southwestern China lends itself to such attire, of course, as well as to an unusually lively street life. Private entrepreneurs of all stripes -- called in Chinese "getihu" or "individual units" -- abound here, peddling everything from carved pineapple slices off street-side carts to electronic gear for karaoke (Japanese-style, sing-along videos) out of open-air shops.
Down Kunming's twisting alleys, old men lean from the shuttered, second-story windows of traditionally-styled houses in scenes unchanged for hundreds of years -- except for the bright chrome and mirrored facades of the thoroughly modern hair-styling salons and coffee bars that often occupy the storefronts below them.
At night, blind massage therapists, moonlighting from the city's massage hospital, stand in soiled white medical jackets by their stools outside the city's tourist hotels, calling out at the sound of approaching footsteps. Clumps of young prostitutes, unusually obvious and aggressive for China, share the street-side action.
Kunming is likely still best known in the West for its World War II role as the northern terminus of the famed Burma Road. It was to Southwest China that Chiang Kai Shek's retreating Nationalist army fled from Japan's occupying forces, and it was to Kunming that 160,000 Chinese laborers built by hand a nine-foot-wide, 715-mile-long road from Lashio in Burma in 1936-37.
The road was China's only link to the West until it was severed by the Japanese in 1942, after which scores of American pilots lost their lives keeping Kunming supplied by flying from India over the dangerous "hump" of 15,000-foot-high mountain peaks.
Wartime Kunming was famous for its rampant black market in the military goods brought there at such great cost to human life. These days, the Burma Road is hardly as hazardous, but it is once again achieving a certain renown for its illegal goods: primarily heroin and gems brought across China's border with Burma, now wide open.
In a one-room apartment in central Kunming, a Chinese acquaintance in his mid-30s recently laid out packets of uncut rubies ranging in size from mere specks to a small bird's egg, gems of undetermined quality that he claimed were worth almost $8,000 altogether. He has been smuggling the rocks from Burma for six years, mostly for Hong Kong and Taiwanese clients.
"I can supply you with $20,000 worth a month," he offered. "If I get enough money, I will buy myself a passport and go to America. Of course, I would bring along some rubies to support myself there."
Leaving Kunming, the Burma Road of today is four lanes of
substantial, engineered blacktop. By the Sino-Burmese border more than 500 miles to the southwest, it is reduced to a winding lane of macadam.
Wheat, beans and corn give way to sugar cane, pineapple and terraces of tea plants. Houses are of bamboo thatch and set on stilts. Women wear the straight long sarongs of Southeast Asia and use bright scarves to wrap their hair in tall cylinders. Water buffalo stray onto the highway, competing for road space with the ubiquitous "iron buffaloes," the small, crude tractors that noisily tackle everything in rural China from plowing to serving as local taxis.
The end of the Burma Road in China is an entrepot called Ruili, an overgrown crossroads rippling with the largess of the Sino-Burmese trade. In the city's central market, Pakistani gem traders squat in the shadows with diamonds, jade and sapphires glistening in the palms of their hands. Hawkers for games of chance bark their spiels over competing sound systems. Heroin is peddled widely enough here that this small town of about 90,000 has become China's drug and AIDS capital. As in Kunming, prostitution is blatant.
In Beijing and Kunming, higher officials decry the unwanted flies that have come in Ruili's open door. Ruili officialdom, however, plays down its city's problems, appearing more concerned with ensuring the rising flow of profits from trade and tourism.
"We'll solve the drug problem just like we won the Opium War," says Yang Wen Qiao, Ruili's public health director, in a neat distortion of the outcome of the war that China lost to Britain 150 years ago. The city's director of foreign affairs, Du Chun Song, moans: "We have tourists come here who are actually afraid that they'll pick up AIDS if they use the chopsticks in our restaurants."