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From Temples to Office Towers in Kunming

The Bamboo Temple is one of the major Buddhist shrines in Kunming. Built in the 13th century, restored in 1890, and is set high above the city surrounded by native forest and plantation. The temple is well cared for unlike some I have visited in China. Like all such sites, it is heavily visited by tourists as well as active religious practitioners. Two ancient cypress trees (said to be 450 years old) guard the entrance and carefully manicured magnolias and pear trees grace the inner courtyard. During my visit, incense clouds floated up, people bowed before the numerous Buddhas and arhats, and picture-taking was forbidden. After offering my respects, I left the temple and took a trail downhill through the forest back to Kunming. The upper canyon I entered held native oak and Castanopsis spp. trees, the only wild ecosystem I have seen so far in the greater urban area. I descended into planted Eucalyptus. This forest reminded me of similar stands in California, except that local farmers had carved out terraced plots of mustard and cabbage along the lowermost crease in the canyon. Then I was back in the city. Following a concrete-lined stream on a local road that snaked down behind old apartment buildings, I passed under a highway still under construction and connected onto a wide boulevard with newly-planted trees. I was surrounded by construction cranes and the skeletons of high rise apartments; this was the western cutting edge of development in Kunming. Fifty percent of all new buildings on Earth are being constructed in China today. The reason: Over the next 10-15 years, the country expects urban in-migration roughly equal to the entire population of the U.S. It is impossible to appreciate this pace of development without seeing it for yourself. North, South, East, and West: Kunming, like all cities in China, is rapidly expanding inward, outward, and upward. I’d observed this kind of Chinese hyper growth many times, but now on my right arose a dense cluster of 30-story skyscrapers. Holiday City set a new standard for me—not only were these behemoths taller than the Kunming average, there were 21 of them on one huge lot. (The footprint of any one of these towers was far larger than the Bamboo Temple.) Mixed-use commercial/residential in design, the scale of the supporting stores also set Holiday City apart—envision a full-sized WalMart anchoring your apartment home. At completion, there would be new living quarters in this development for 10,000 families. I wandered into the sales room for Holiday City. There was a detailed scale model of the entire complex complete with artificial river, landscaped parks, stand-alone preschool, and maps and models describing every one of the thousands of individual units. The parking lot was full; on this Sunday afternoon middle-class Kunmingers were buying units with enthusiasm. I counted 21 sales representatives engaged with customers. Unlike Holiday City, many new commercial and residential buildings across China remain unoccupied, snapped up by speculators betting that prices will continue to rise. My Chinese friends don’t believe that this will lead to a U.S.-style real estate bubble. The middle class is burgeoning, people are streaming into China’s cities, and the government is monitoring the situation. But nobody really knows where China’s building boom is heading.