Cui Hu, Green Lake

This fellow used a water-filled brush to write temporary calligraphy on the stone squares of Cui Hu, Green Lake park, in the center of Kunming.

The days blur by, filled with sights and experiences. I can now cross the street without fear. So I have adjusted to life in Kunming. Previously the weave of cabs, cars, bikes and scooters was terrifying, unintelligible. To cross the street I hugged some unsuspecting pedestrian and stayed as close as love.  But now I simply wait with the rest of the populace and when we have waited long enough, when the buses pause and the traffic briefly thins, we claim the road and cross. Above all never stop to consider the path of this scooter, that bicycle, this taxi. They are steady in their path. You must be too. Stay steady in your path with calm alertness and the way becomes easy. That is how it is done.

View across a corner of Cui Hu, Green Lake, the large park in the heart of Kunming. Islands dot the lake, connected by stone bridges. Construction cranes hover in the distance.

Cui Hu, Green Lake, is at the heart of Kunming. Weekends it is jam-packed with people enjoying the lake and its pleasures, located on islands connected by stone bridges. Lots of trees, food, traditional pavilions and people dancing, including people in ethnic dress.

Below are pictures from a weekday at Cui Hu. If you click on one, then you can use the arrow to move through the 10-image gallery.



Daily Life

May 27, 2012

Seated women playing cards in a quiet area on a weekend

Some have asked about my daily routine, so here goes. For now I’m at school taking one on one Mandarin class, four hours every weekday morning. I like my teacher and look forward to class.

The school is located on the 16th floor of a building a short bus ride from the center of town. The school offers living quarters on various floors in the same building, as well as weekday meals. Most students take the live-in, dine in option. It is practical and convenient. The school also offers group classes, which attract foreigners visiting or living in Kunming.

My school and domicile in the building underneath the Eiffel tower


I live on the 15th floor in a monk’s cell of a room. There is a bed, desk, chair and tiny bathroom. Also a television and dispenser that provides hot or cold drinking water.

I wake up early to the sound of traffic and construction, grab my vocabulary flashcards and review while lying in bed. Chinese characters on one side, meaning in English on the other. Jue Ding, to decide. Yu Yue, make an appointment. I run through them quickly. You can’t usefully cram Chinese, it’s the slow drip of repetition.

I get up, qi chuang, and turn on my laptop. The room has an ethernet cable. It is a happy thing, this string that attaches me to friends and loved ones, as well as information such as Kunming bus routes. I drink a cup of hot water, as traditional a beverage here as tea, and prepare for the day.

My desk with laptop and notebook.

Breakfast is served 8-8:30, typically a buffet of fried eggs, sweet rolls,  fruit (chunks of the local Asian pear, watermelon), yoghurt in a bottle that you drink with a straw, and bread that you can toast and add jam or peanut butter. There’s fresh-ground Yunnan coffee and loose tea leaves, just throw a few in a cup. My fellow students are an interesting bunch, from England, Germany, South Africa, America, Australia, Kazakhstan and Thailand. They are studying Mandarin for all kinds of reasons. One is a translator, learning special terms for the mining industry; an English fellow runs a resort in nearby Thailand. The college age folks are looking to create careers. Some speak Mandarin, some none.  A few of my fellow students are retired and find that 5 weeks of language study, followed by 5 weeks of travel in China, makes a mighty fine vacation.

My teacher is not really shy, but here she is hiding behind the animals of the Chinese zodiac.


Class begins  at 8:30. Ni hao, ni hao, ni hao! Everybody is cheerful, carrying books and hot water or tea. We take off our shoes or wear shoe covers. Class lasts until lunch at 12:30, with one twenty-minute break. My teacher is a hoot. A regular ham, but reasonably effective. Lord knows she has her work cut out for her. I’ll describe Dong Chen in a later post.

The school and dining area take up all of the 16th floor, a warren of rooms and corridors. The one-on-one classrooms are tiny,  barely hold a table and two chairs, but there’s a window and dry board.

View of Kunming from my classroom window


There’s also a library room, kind of the central hub that leads to classrooms. Artworks from around the world cheer things up. All in all the atmosphere is practical, clean and pleasant. Quite a few students are repeat customers, testimony that the package works pretty well. It’s a fun and lively place to be.

Lunch is vegetable dishes, maybe a tofu dish, a noodle dish with a little chicken, and rice. Most dishes have some heat. Yunnan adjoins Sichuan province and heat is ubiquitous, but also there are sometimes plain platters of cucumber or carrot, or cooked greens.

In the Keats school library. A classroom is through the door to the right.

After lunch I rewrite my notes from the morning class, and do an hour of homework. I might take a walk, buy some small necessities, or have a foot massage.  Or I might  listen to Bonnie Raitt or Al Green and take a time-out. Dinner is 6-7PM and similar to lunch.

A calligraphy student from Germany, practicing in the dining room. The cook at back is removing dishes from the buffet counter.


Several nights a week I have calligraphy and tai chi classes, which keeps me a little too busy. But the instructors are outside vendors, not part of the school, so it is another way to rub shoulders with Chinese people. The calligraphy instructor comes to the school and we have class in the dining room. He speaks no English, and he is a diminutive man who wears his pants hitched up to his chest and carries a bunch of keys on his belt.


I meet the tai chi instructor in a forgotten courtyard behind a nearby building. He is a young man, a loose coil of silky smoothness and strength.  We practice while people scurry about and children stare, and night droops a shroud around us.

Because Kunming is a year-round warm city much activity takes place at night. Restaurants are always busy, and the street life bustling. It’s not uncommon to turn a corner and find 40 or 50 people, mostly women, dancing to music under the streetlamps. Outside the storefront shops people are sitting on makeshift tables and chairs, drinking tea, playing cards, or talking. Scooters, cars, bicycles and pedestrians create a tidal backdrop of motion, while colored lights blink and blare. Shops are open late, till 10PM or midnight.

Weekends there are no classes and no meals, so we fend for ourselves and have time to explore and practice speaking in real life situations. I’m always having to ask directions, usually not understanding the replies. I’ve yet to have an outing go as planned. That can be daunting, confusing and tiring. But the Kunming people are friendly and I always find someone to exchange a few sentences with. That is great fun. My favorite part.

This mother and daughter pulled over on a scooter to talk. The daughter, 13 and wearing braces, was on her way to a Sunday extracurricular math class. We chatted in English and Chinese.

Black Stone Forest, Kunming

Path leading into the Black Stone Forest, 55 miles southeast of Kunming

The stone forest is must see for visitors to Kunming. It’s an hour out of town by car or longer by bus or train. Travel arrangements can be sketchy. Want to take a bus tour from your hotel? Be prepared for stopping at innumerable shops selling souvenirs and craft items.  Want to go in a minivan? Prepare for possibly switching from a nice one to a rattletrap. You just don’t know. That’s part of China’s challenge and allure.

We made arrangements for a private car and driver, sharing the RMB 500 cost among several, but in the end we paid more. Tolls, the driver said, demanding an extra RMB 50. It’s hard to disagree when your Chinese is so limited. But we did. It’s good language practice. You take it when you can. However the Chinese have a different sense of appropriate volume. They often talk in a way that seems loud and angry to Westerners. Sometimes you think two people are having an argument, but they are just having a conversation. So it felt like the driver was shouting at us.  It was disconcerting. Like an onslaught of angry crows.

We’d gone to Naigu Shilin, the Black Stone Forest, part of a complex in Lunan Yi [an ethnic minority] Autonomous County. The entire area could be thought of as a giant Chinese garden. The contorted, sharp-edged limestone pinnacles stretch up 20, 50, 100 feet. If you have a feel for rock this is a great place. And so nice to breathe in the fresh high-elevation air, and hear the sharp cry of hawks and other birds.

Stone artisans have created paths in and around the formations, carefully scribed to the rock. Some paths lead to winding steps and views of the red-soiled agricultural countryside. In other places the rocks crowd the path like night to create a cave, dark and close, even a little scary.

This smaller Black Stone Forest doesn’t have the thronging tourists and buses of the other, better known stone forest, called simply Shi Lin [“Stone Forest”], or the cloying nomenclature found there for rock formations [“Two Birds Feeding Each Other,” “Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon”]. But It also doesn’t have any services, or food and water for sale. And information is hard to come by. The guidebooks are not so helpful and there are not good websites. You might find large parts of the stone forest closed, for example, after you have entered. You just don’t know. And if you want to look up the birds that have such distinctive cries after your visit, well, again, good luck.

Entrance fees are surprisingly high, RMB 175, about $28 dollars. However the price is in line with other cultural heritage sites throughout China. The intent appears to be some combination of making the sites self-sufficient, profitable, and keeping the number of visitors manageable. There are plenty of well-off Chinese who want to see their country, and can afford the tickets for themselves and families. About 3 million visitors a year come to the stone forest area.  You can also purchase an annual pass for only RMB 25 more,  RMB 200.

Local Sani woman doing handicrafts in the shade of natural archway


The day we visited we were the only non Chinese we saw among the families with kids, and tour groups with the Chinese woman all carrying umbrellas to fend off the sun and keep their complexions white and attractive. The weather was hot. Everyone was sweating. There were small guard stations placed about, with tall green flags on bamboo poles to locate them; most of the guards were in the shade with their shoes and socks off, reading.

My companion Joe became thirsty and went back to the entrance for a drink and snack. When he didn’t show up at the rendezvous time I became worried. I waited a while then hightailed it back the stone forest entrance, where



I found him practicing his Chinese character writing. It was the middle of the afternoon but the place was desolate except for a sleepy ticket taker and a ticket seller. What happened? I asked.

Joe on path at Naigu Shilin, Black Pine Stone Forest

“They wouldn’t let me back in,” he said. “They wanted me to pay the entrance fee again.” That was dumfounding because there was literally no one around and he’d only taken a few steps into the building. And of course there was no sign, at least in English. But oh well. You just don’t know. And as he discovered there was no water or snacks for sale.

On the ride back we stopped for lunch and Joe bought a colorful embroidery from a local Sani woman. He negotiated an RMB 15 price and gave her a RMB 20 note. She gave him the embroidery, then a couple of embroidered geegaws. No RMB change. Just the geegaws.

“I was tricked,” he said to me in his soft spoken English.

You really have to be on your toes. But after such a relaxing day in the stone forest it hardly seemed to matter.

Sani woman selling embroidery

Arrival in Kunming and Foot Massage


Massage shop in Kunming across from my language school


nice hot water felt great

It’s a hot hot bucket of water – aaaahh – and you soak those tired dogs. Then your masseuse rubs your shoulders deeply with her elbow while your feet continue to soak. More aaahh.

That’s how my first day in China began, after a 30-hour travel day from Seattle to Kunming in southwest China.

The massage shop is on Dongfeng Dong, a main avenue of the city where I am attending language school on the 16th floor of a nondescript building on the same avenue [Keatings School]. I’m living in a monk’s cell of a room on the 15th floor. I can see many tall buildings and construction cranes from my window.


Working all those pressure points, day 1 in China


After a suitable soak the bucket was taken away, and she began the massage which I suppose is a form of acupressure. My favorite part was the back and forth rubbing on the front of the toe, very surprising.

Outside the small shop was the four-lane avenue, Dongfeng Dong, with Hondas and Toyota Highlanders churning by, and swarms of electric scooters; but a refreshing breeze wafted in from time to time. Kunming is on a 6,000-foot plateau with hills and mountains about, and the weather is famously warm and pleasant most of the time, and there’s often an afternoon breeze. Men dress casually in T-shirts and sometimes even shorts. The women are more fashion conscious, and the array of high heel footwear is dazzling.

Learning language in action is really the best. I didn’t know what they were saying when I walked into the shop, but finally it dawned on me as I stood there that they were asking what sort of massage I wanted, and I said “jiao,” foot, and they quickly said, “ah, jiǎo ànmó,” so I learned the word for massage. Ànmó.

Outside the shop, besides the traffic and parked bicycles and scooters, was a plump caged rabbit in the shade of a tree. What was the word for rabbit, I wondered? Rabbit is part of the Chinese zodiac but I’d never learned the word. I resolved to look it up when I returned to my monk’s cell. I thought I would try to learn to say it, so when I went to the shop again I could ask whose rabbit.

Pet rabbit outside the massage shop

Meantime the masseuse rubbed and pummeled, pulling toes, twanging tendons, and she massaged my calf muscles as well. It lasted an hour and cost RMB 50 Yuan, about US $8.