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Gifts of blood follow Kunming horror

  • 07 March 2014

They call Kunming the city of eternal spring. The climate, like the surrounding plantations of tea and tobacco, is a source of regional pride. Perched at a heady 6234 feet but geographically closer to Bangkok than Beijing, the effect is a near endless string of warm, golden days and cold, crisp nights. Cherry blossoms in full bloom complete the idyll.

The city is more of a waypoint for Western travellers than a destination though. Downright sleepy compared to other Chinese metropolises, it remains the logical jumping off point for trains north to ancient Dali, with its curled roofs and cobbled streets, or Lijiang and the eastern-most point of the Himalayas.

The Chinese themselves are no strangers to travelling these parts. They enter Kunming like pragmatic pilgrims seeking work, transit through it to reach their universities and schools scattered across the country, and return home in a great tidal movement for major Chinese celebrations. For many, train travel is the most affordable and reliable means of travel.

This regular pulse of modern China makes the attack at Kunming's train station, apart from the alleged political motives, an attempt to slash one the great arteries of China's contemporary existence.

The first my wife and I heard about the attack was a cryptic text message from my tutor. She warned us against going outside because of violence the previous night. Violence of any sort, let alone the Manichean carnage that made international headlines, is not easily associated with Kunming.

We had come to the city two weeks earlier for a university semester abroad. The mild climate, clean air and low cost of living were an attractive trifecta for a couple with a seven-month-old son.

When my tutor mentioned that separatists were being blamed (looking at the casualty rates I assumed it was a bombing), I was confused. This confusion was partly geographical. China is home to approximately 10 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority who live predominantly in Xinjiang. The capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, is some 2400km away from Kunming. Nor is there any close association between Uighur separatism and Kunming.

Xinjiang is part of China's restive, western-most territory. It shares borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan among others. It is resource rich and strategically important. Security here is tight and visible. My Lonely Planet says the people here are closer to Borat than Beijing. It's a silly line but not without a point; Beijing is distant in more ways