Reflections from a Green Lake


Our guest house in Kunming is a few hundred metres from the Green Lake, which sounds like an obvious magnet to someone with an interest in algae.   The name itself seems to embody the well-publicised problems of water pollution in this huge country and I walked down to the edge fully expecting to gather material for a post about extreme eutrophication.

This is not a post about extreme eutrophication.  That’s partly because it is not easy to get close enough to the water itself in order to look closely at the algae.  I did see some floating cyanobacterial scums amidst the duck weed and lotus plants, but I’m also not equipped with a high-power microscope whilst on my travels, so would not have been able to make a detailed diagnosis, even if I could have got a sample.   However, my feelings about the lake have changed over the four days that I have been here, and as I believe that travellers should prepared to be changed by what they encounter, I thought I should explain my change of heart.

Green lake is a small lake with a perimeter of about two kilometres and an area of about 15 hectares set in the middle of Kunming.   According to a book I have been reading, this whole area used to be part of the much larger Dianchi Lake (which will be the subject of a future post). However, during the Ming Dynasty, about 600 years ago, the area that we now know as Kunming was reclaimed, leaving Green Lake as a low-lying remnant.   At this time it was known as “Caihaizi”, the vegetable lake, perhaps because of the lotus plants that grew there.   If you want to apply a very basic measure of ‘naturalness’ to a lake, you could start by measuring the proportion of the perimeter that is artificial. In the case of Green Lake, the perimeter is 100 per cent artificial, unless you add in the islands and the causeways leading to these, in which case the proportion of artificial margins rises to 200 per cent or more.


A corner of Green Lake, showing duckweed blooms in the foreground and one of the causeways on the right.  The upper picture shows the lake with lotus plants in the foreground and Kunming rising up in the background. 

Yet the lake margins and the islands are thrumming with activity: joggers use the lake margin as a running track, badminton players set up nets between trees and thrash shuttlecocks back and forth whilst elderly men show off wiry torsos on the gym equipment.  Then there are the more quintessentially Chinese activities: groups of people practising Tai’chi and Quigong just a few metres from a dance class practising some moves.   On one of the islands about half a dozen different styles of dance are taking place, each moving to an amplified tune, all of which seem to bleed into one another.  We sat and ate cold noodles (local speciality: better than it sounds) in a café at one side until the noise drove us away.   A little further from here, on a bandstand on one of the causeways, a group of musicians played traditional instruments.   There were also pedalos and motorboats for hire on some of the sections of the lake, plus shops selling Yunnan tea and coffee and other souvenirs.


Cultural ecosystem services at Green Lake, Kunming.  The top image shows a group practising tai’chi and the bottom image shows a dance class nearby. 

After a few days here I am growing to love Green Lake.   It is a small ‘green lung’ set in the heart of a large, busy city to which local inhabitants, especially the elderly, seem to gravitate.  I have not written about ecosystem services – the benefits humankind derive from natural systems – for some time.  When I last touched on this subject, it was to consider the conflict between conservationist’s desire for naturalness and ‘cultural ecosystem services’ (see “More about ecosystem services”).   Green Lake seems to encapsulate this conflict very well: it is about as far from a ‘natural’ lake as it is possible to get yet, at the same time, it plays a role in the health and vitality of the local community partly as a result of the many modifications that have occurred over time.

To paraphrase jay-z, China has 99 [environmental] problems but Green Lake ain’t one.   I’ll come back to one of these in the next post but, meanwhile, I’m going to take one more stroll through the elaborately decorated gates at the entrance to the closest causeway and enjoy the pleasures of Green Lake for a final time before we move on.


A gateway to one of the Green Lake’s causeways in Kunming.


The book to which I refer is “Green Lake: Reflections from the Surface of China” by Hardy Wieting Jr (, a conservationist who happened to be staying at the Lost Garden Guest House, near Green Lake, at the same time as us.

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