From Bangkok it was a couple hours north on Air Asia to Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan Province. (As a quick aside, we love Air Asia, a relatively new discount airline that, for the price, has been great.) This is the start of a three-week exploration of Yunnan Province in the southwest of china. And so far it’s great even beyond the fact that – except for a brief week in New Caledonia – this is the first time since September we’re finally in a place where they drive on the right side of the road. It’s actually a little disconcerting; I’d genuinely gotten used to the left-side stuff.
At any rate Kunming, a city of some 6.5 million people, is known as the City of Eternal Spring. And while we only spent a couple days there, it certainly lived up to that reputation during. After months across the South Pacific, Australia, Bali, and Bangkok, we’ve had plenty of hot weather. Kunming? Daytime highs in the mid-sixties, just about perfect for touring. And nighttime temperatures in the mid-forties, just about perfect for sleeping. Oh, and the cherry blossoms are just starting, adding a nice little touch of beauty. Amusingly we’re going to be in Japan in April, supposedly for their cherry blossom season, so we should be getting lots and lots of pretty pink flowers over the next several weeks.
With three days of our three weeks under our belts we’re already experiencing much of what we love about China and much of what makes travel in China challenging. In that sense this relatively brief pass through Yunnan might be perfect; just enough to experience what we love and out before the rest of it drives us too crazy.
What’s the love part? Part of it is just the feel of true adventure; this is what I dreamed being a permanent nomad would allow, a part of the world not many Westerners get to. Beyond that, it’s just so nice to fly into a city and have a gleaming new airport where the immigration process is easy and the bag collection is quick. And transportation can be a delight in China; in this case the drive into town on a big, fast, comfortable freeway is nothing like the pot-holed congestion of Boston or New York. The food in China is often just out of this world (more on that below) and stunningly inexpensive, and the architecture – where they haven’t torn down the old stuff – can be great.
The stuff we don’t love so much? There are real challenges traveling in China. Even in a big city like this, the provincial capital and regional hub, there’s really not much English spoken. When we checked into our cute boutique hotel the sweet young woman barely spoke any English at all. She was trying, but it was hard to communicate. And that’s at a hotel that presumably caters to tourists. In restaurants and bars it can be much worse. One day for lunch, when we were on a day trip out of Kunming, our driver took us to a restaurant that basically had fresh ingredients out and presumably we were supposed to tell them what we wanted and how we wanted it cooked. Not easy to do. Fortunately they found a menu with pictures and that worked, but it’s always a challenge. With that said, Mark has been studying Chinese again and it’s been a godsend on occasion.Other drawbacks? Because the Chinese government blocks Google (and lots of other sites) we need a VPN connection that essentially bypasses local servers and heads straight to Singapore or San Francisco to get access to Google Maps. As we live and die on Google Maps, it’s a real inconvenience when the Internet in general and then the VPN connection can be more than a little flakey.
Smoking, everywhere, is an annoyance. Not just out and about, but regularly in restaurants. And oddly it’s hard to get tea in a restaurant. Really. In China. Usually they bring you a pot of hot water, and that’s it. Don’t they know there’s supposed to be unlimited tea in China?
The noise; Chinese don’t have the concept of “inside voice,” and outside it can be even worse. It’s not just voices; there’s obviously no prohibition on the amount of noise a business can make because often – a mobile phone store, McDonald’s, anything – will just be blasting music or announcements or whatever outside their shop.
And the hacking and spitting. It is obviously not considered rude to hack up phlegm, apparently from the soles of your feet, and spit out whatever comes up. Disgusting to us, but not something that’s an issue here.
With all that said, we still love traveling in China. Kunming, for instance, is beautiful. It’s a huge, sprawling city and we’ve only seen a tiny fraction of it, but where we’re staying in the old city it’s beautiful. Our hotel is one of those historic old Chinese buildings and there’s a bunch more like it. While you don’t find parks dotted around everywhere as in Paris, for instance, the parks they have can be beautiful, attracting fun crowds on weekends in particular.
One of the thing that surprises me here in Kunming, even though we’ve seen it before across China, is how comparatively wealthy people are. Economists have been predicting a Chinese crash for years – decades, probably – but so far the boom is still on. When I think that in my lifetime, during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, literally millions of Chinese starved to death, today’s wealth seems inconceivable. And yet much of this place looks like just a slightly exotic middle class community. Our tiny little piece of Kunming, in the middle of the Old Town, is just a beautiful little slice of old China blended with modern luxury.A real highlight of traveling in China is the food. It can be difficult to communicate what we want, and to find restaurants where the menu is more than just Chinese symbols and a price, but when it works it can be absolutely great. On our first day here, for instance, we got into the city after noon, so we had to hurry to check in and find a place to eat before the restaurants closed for the afternoon. We ended up at an utterly uninteresting-looking place on the second floor of a small mall nearby. It had pictures, they were still open after others had already closed, so we sat down. The food was just amazing – tasty, fresh, fiery (why does the noun “fire” become the adjective “fiery”? Why does that “r” let the “e” just jump in front of it?), garlicky, gingery. Everything has a bunch of peppers, including often the Sichuan peppers that leave your tongue and lips almost paralyzed for a few seconds. Great stuff. And pretty much every meal so far has been amazing, with flavors and textures that are just utterly new.
There is this weird thing with tea, though. You’d think it would be easy to get in China; you know, the whole “all the tea in China” thing, right? And yet when we go into a restaurant overwhelmingly they bring us what looks to be a teapot, but it’s just hot water. And when Mark asks for tea, in his functional though obviously basic Mandarin, they point at the hot water. That’s not tea! It’s just strange how hard it is to get tea in China. And, just for the record, and despite all the American stereotypes of the Chinese laundry industry, we rarely find anyplace to do laundry except the hotel sink.
In addition to hanging out in Kunming, we took a day trip down to the UNESCO-cited Stone Forest about 70-miles due south of here. It’s a big area where limestone karsts have formed and you just walk around marveling at the many shapes and the weird things nature can do. And, if you’re a Westerner, you notice while Chinese surreptitiously point their cameras at you or, more directly, ask if they can have their picture taken with you. We were the only people like us with the whole funny eye thing going on that we saw, so we had a bunch of pictures taken with the locals. Oh, and Mark used the opportunity with our driver, who spoke very little English, to get the best Chinese lessons he’s ever had. Definitely a fun day.
OK, that’s enough; I’ll run out of things to say for the next few weeks in China. But here are a few pictures. OK, a lot of pictures. We thought the place was beautiful.