Leaving Kunming

Leaving Kunming tomorrow for the small towns of Dali, Lijiang and Xianggelila aka Shangri-la. After five weeks in Kunming you might think I’d be ready to move on, but no, I’ve grown quite fond of the city and language class. Even the nightime noise isn’t such a bother, and I no longer wear earplugs every night to sleep, as I did for the first two weeks.

Dali is strongly influenced by the Bai people, Lijiang by the Naxi, and Shangri-la, at 11,500 feet elevation, by Tibetans. In Shangri-la I am fortunate to catch the annual Tibetan horse racing festival. Not much religion, just people coming from hundreds of miles with their animals and finest new dress for three days of horse racing and partying.

To wrap up for Kunming, below are some slice of life photos with captions:

Convertible BMW

BMWs are the status car of choice. They are called bao ma, precious horse. That’s the actual name of the car. A more colloquial expression is Bie Mo Wo, don’t touch me.

Badminton court

Badminton is very popular. I played a few times, it is aerobic and fun. People take lessons. I was quite amused to see birdies piling up like snow around the feet of a student practicing her backhand, fed to her by the facility’s badminton pro.

umbrellas to ward off the sun

Umbrellas to ward off the sun

When the sun comes out so do the sun umbrellas. Women want to keep their fair complexions. High heeled shoes are the fashion now.

Solar water heating on the roof

Every apartment building has solar heating for hot water. Kunming is fairly sunny. Forever spring, they say.

Crispy whole sweet/hot and sour whole fish

 

This fish was turned inside out, and all the bones removed, before frying and turning crispy.  It was called something like fish squirrel-stye, referring to the appearance.

Discount cards for frequent buyers. Kunming folk have lots of them.

Some of discount cards belonging to my teacher, for bread, dumplings and the like. Some people have so many cards they carry them in special bags. Typically you buy the card, say for 100 RMB, and receive 110 or 115 RMB worth of merchandise,

English language signs are sometimes pretty funny.

Live fish for sale at Walmart

Walmart in China offers lots of unfamiliar things, but at a very good price. Live frogs and turtles for food consumption, dried Yunnan mushrooms, clothing, cosmetics, handbags and shoes are some of the merchandise. There are at least three multi-story Walmarts in Kunming.

Shopkeep pouring water to make pu'er tea

Yunnan is a tea growing region, and there are innumerable small tea leaf sellers. Go into any shop and they will make pots of tea for you to try. I greatly enjoyed the ritualized brewing and presentation. Some tea places are just for drinking tea, though, and friends while away hours enjoying different brews and talking. Besides green and black tea, in endless varieties, Yunnan produces pu’er tea, a unique but not especially well known tea made through special processes.

 

Western Hills (Xi Shan)

I made an early start for Xishan, the Western Hills, to make a weekend day of it. The forest preserve on the outskirts of Kunming is the city’s preeminent landmark and favorite destination, with wooded paths, pavilions, the famous Dragon Gate and panoramic views over Dian Lake to the city.

 Pavilions dot the wooded preserve.  There are five mountains, the tallest about 2000-feet above the lake.

 

Despite my best efforts to communicate correctly in Mandarin the taxi driver took me to the cable car station instead of the main entrance: I had wanted to walk up the mountain, a pilgrimage. But I went with the flow and took the cable car, 70 RMB roundtrip, about $12.

View from cable car

The cable car crossed Dian Lake, picturesque with water flowers and channels, then ascended directly up the mountain. A fast way to gain elevation. The cable car was the most reliable-looking thing I’ve seen in all of Kunming, where infrastructure generally seems a little shoddy and rundown, albeit functional. Fully automated, gleamingly clean, made in Switzerland, the mechanism chugged with reassuring smoothness and the gondola was as red and shiny as a ladybug.

Exiting from the cable car halfway up the mountain I found a visitor center with shops, hotels, street food and restaurants. There was a building housing another chairlift to go further up the mountain. I kept telling the young man at the info booth I wanted to hike up the mountain, not take the chair lift.  He kept directing me inside the building.  No, I said in my best enunciated Mandarin, I want to hike. He directed me by words and gestures to the chair lift. This was repeated several times over the course of fifteen minutes.  Finally I realized he was telling me that to go to upper half of the mountain you had to pay an entrance fee, and by the chairlift was where you buy that ticket. I am indeed an exasperating foreigner, but fortunately the Chinese are very friendly and forgiving.

I paid my 40 RMB entrance fee, declined the chair lift, and ascended on stone stairs. I arrived at the chair lift terminus after 25-minutes of pleasant walking through the woods.

Many of the Xishan’s paths are well-crafted stone steps

From here I had the choice of going to the Dragon Gate, the summit, or into the Xishan woods where ghosts may linger. I decided to go first to the Dragon Gate and to my surprise the way now steeply descended. Despite having read several guidebooks this point of orientation had escaped me.

The steps, wormed into the cliff face, were worn smooth and slippery by countless feet. At one point the path went through a perilous tunnel that seemed more like a toboggan chute. Taoist monks created the path and honored their beliefs with grottoes along the way filled with bright gold and blue religious statuary.

Taking pictures by one of the grottoes cut into the cliff face

The Dragon Gate itself is a small painted doorway, and a well-used photo opportunity with expansive views out toward Kunming and the lake 2,000-feet directly below. However the narrow path easily becomes crowded, and incense and cigarette smoke hung outside the grottoes.

The Dragon Gate, center

 

So, back up the twisting stairway to the Dragon Gate entrance, then to the mountain summit. Since I’ve been eating so many noodles and dumplings the sweaty exercise was welcome. At the top was Lingxu pavilion and panoramic views.

Pavilion at highest summit. It was a little cloudy, so moody views

I took some pictures and then explored. So nice to hear birds and see almost nobody. There were occasional signs in the woods in red letters, some directional, others I suspect saying, do not enter, but I couldn’t read them. That was unnerving in a fun sort of way.

Mysterious signs

On the way down I bought a peach from an ethnic minority woman and her son sitting quietly in the shade. The white flesh was memorably sweet. I wondered if she had grown them. I also worried I had overpaid. You don’t want to feel taken advantage of, and there’s plenty of stories of prices doubling because you are a waiguoren, a foreigner. But later I found out the price was more than fair, and felt bad for being suspicious.

A distant pagoda in the Western Hills

It was mid afternoon when I exited the upper pay area of the mountain, and discovered many people young and old at the visitor center and nearby greenery, playing cards, eating and enjoying a relaxing day out of the city.

There is a road to this point, closed except to buses and minivans, but you can also walk from the main entrance through the woods via the Taihua Ancient Passage. This was the route I had originally planned. I walked down the road to find the Ancient Passage terminus. I was a bit confused, so everything was a discovery and seemed a little dodgy. That’s pretty much the constant state of affairs for me here in the Middle Kingdom. I’m never quite sure if I’m being understood, if I truly understand, and where exactly I’m going. A cloud of mystery hovers over every activity. It’s like a permanent state of quantum physics uncertainty.

It was now 3:30 PM and the ticket woman had been at pains to write on my ticket the cable car stopped at 5:30. That at least was quite clear. So I only had time to visit the first temple along the ancient passage. Rundown in places, the Taihua temple main building was spotless and two workers were touching up freshly-painted statues.

Taihu temple

The temple had extensive well-tended gardens with old camellia and magnolia trees, and stone chairs and tables. There was a pond, and amaryllis in bloom. So serene and peaceful.

Pond at Taihua temple

I lingered as long as I dared and then returned to the cable car, riding down with a older man and his grown daughter. He was diminutive, worn and dark, a laborer, with a big smile and yellow teeth. She was tall and smartly dressed, and visiting from somewhere distant. Their affection was plain. They sat across from me in the gondola, our knees almost touching, and symbolized for me the great changes in China in just one generation. As we dropped down the cliff and then across Dian lake we spoke in Mandarin, following the standard script, how long in China and where was I from, but the dad also wanted to know much my language school cost, and did I have any American money I could show him.

Amaryllis at Taihu temple

Seven snacks of Kunming

 

Skewered snacks ready for the grill. Hot and sour, as with this marinade, is a ubiquitous Kunming flavor.

 

I was walking with my teacher in Cui Hui park, in the center of Kunming.  We were strolling around the emerald-colored lake, among the old willow trees and colorful pagodas. We saw several large ornamental carp. “Hmmm, big fish,” she said. “Big enough to cook.”

How a nation as obsessed with food and noodles, breads and snacks stays so skinny is beyond me.

When hunger strikes, whether in the park or anywhere in Kunming, here are seven popular snacks readily available:

Sani woman cooking corns cakes on a rolling grill/cart

 

1. Yumi bing, fragrant corn cakes, here at a small market. Only 1 RMB apiece, about 15 cents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled flat bread with sweet or salty sauces

 

2. Er kuai, a grilled bread made from rice flour, a little spongy and tangy. Comes slathered with your choice of sauces, either salty or sweet, including ground peanuts, and folded. Also can be ordered folded around a fried dough cylinder: a doughnut sandwich. 2.5 RMB.

 

Dou jiang: "bean juice"

 

3. Dou Jiang, described to me as bean juice. Hmmmm. Amazing how important names can be. I tried it anyway. It was simply sweet soy milk. I thought it tasty and on weekends drink a cup with a baozi, for breakfast. Can be had warm or chilled. One dou jiang and one baozi, together 3 RMB.

BTW, I couldn’t get the straw to puncture the top, and made a spectacle of myself jabbing the plastic lid over and over. Finally a passerby showed me the trick. Oh, aim for the edge.

 

 

Rice noodles, mixian, are popular in many different forms, and is served hot, cold, with sauce and in soup. This is cold rice noodles with various vegtables and a little meat.

Cold rice noodles with vegetables, a little meat and spicy sauce. You're supposed to mix the noodles thoroughly with the sauce before eating.

 

4. Rice noodles, mixian, are a favorite Kunming dish, served hot, cold, with sauce and in broth, in dozens of variations, by innumerable storefronts spilling onto the street. The noodles are uniformly delicious. One bowl, liang mixian,  8-12 RMB.

 

 

 

Man buying grilled chicken wing

 

5. Grilled meats, tofu in several flavors and vegetables make a yummy snack, or order as an extra with your noodles.

Chicken feet in a hot sauce

 

 

 

 

6. Chicken feet are indeed very popular, but I haven’t worked up to munching them yet. All in good time. You can also buy them in the store packaged and ready to eat.

 

Fruit seller at night. They use a hand scale to weigh purchases.

 

 

 

7. Fruit is a tasty and healthy  snack, and street carts are loaded with bananas, watermelon, durian, lychees, Asian pears and mangoes, from tropical and semi-tropical regions just a little south of Kunming. You buy by the kilo, although in Kunming ordering a kilo gets you a half kilo. If you order a half kilo you get [and pay for] a quarter kilo. It’s just the local way.

Christmas Eve, Drought, New Airport & YouTube

I was talking with some Chinese friends and they told me Christmas eve is a major holiday here in Kunming. All the young people go into the streets and spray snow everywhere from aerosol cans, “Spprrrechccchh.” Traffic comes to a stop and only buses can get through. It is a recent tradition, they say, and very popular with young people. They don’t care who you are, if you cross their path, “Spprrreccchhhh.”  So watch out.

Kunming weather is mild and temperate year round, of course, so it never actually snows. Whatever the excuse, everybody needs to blow off pent up steam. The holiday is very different from the spring festival, the lunar New Year, China’s major vacation/festival when everybody is indoors with their families after traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to be home. Kunming people also gift apples for Christmas Eve, nicely wrapped and decorated. The word for apple sounds like the word for safe, one reason they are popular. I suspect there’s more to it but it’s hard to plumb. For the young people, it’s all about Spprrreccchhhh. Perhaps a sublimated kind of protest. Spprrreccchhhh

Water is a major environmental issue here in Kunming, a middling-sized city (for China) of six million. The huge lake on the city outskirts, Dianchi Lake, is polluted. When I asked about swimming I was answered with guffaws. No one drinks the tap water. I guess that’s true throughout China and most less developed nations. Some Kunming citizens filter their water, others use bottled water. Nobody drinks the tap water. “You can get sick,” was the refrain I heard over and over. Water is sold in 20-liter jugs. The city produces them, but the mechanism and degree of subsidy I haven’t been able to determine.

Even the tap water is  in limited supply. This spring there are rolling water stoppages in outer neighborhoods, so entire areas will be without tap water during the day, for several days at a time. When there was rain recently people on the outskirts filled containers and vessels with water, or so I heard.  It’s hardly rained the past three years.

The drought has affected all of Yunnan and the reservoirs and watersheds are at 70-percent of normal.  In agricultural areas, which is basically the whole province, the drought is an enormous problem, and the wild mushrooms for which Yunnan is famous are harder to find and gather. Climate change is a big contributor to the drought, say  authorities.

The local television station devotes three-quarters of its programming to water topics and conservation, but that’s probably useless since most people watch national stations, and the soaps set in ancient China. The imperial costumes and hairstyles look terrific on the big flat television screens that adorn even the shoddiest homes and stores.

Tobacco is an important cash crop in Yunnan. The first director of the Kunming Botanical Garden introduced the plant in the 1940s. Yunnan tobacco is considered the best in China. Top quality cigarettes sell for 50 yuan a package or more, compared to Marlboros at 15 yuan, about USD $2.50  There’s a cigarette factory in Kunming. Certain of the ethnic minorities smoke cigarettes and tobacco in large bongs. It is quite enchanting to watch. Others use small decorated pipes. Tobacco and smoking is an important part of their culture and rituals, including for example funerals.

Flowers are also an important cash crop in Yunnan, exported to China and the world. But there are almost no flower shops or vendors in Kunming.  I asked about it. Maybe on “teacher’s day, or love day, or mother’s day,” flowers might be given, I was told, but it is not a widespread habit. Flowers require care and fade. They are associated with funerals, especially white flowers. Flowers also carry symbolic meanings, both singly and in association, so a miscommunication is possible.

Books are not especially popular gifts either. The word for book, shu, is pronounced the same as the word to lose. As in losing money. Not auspicious. Fruit makes a better gift. Fruit stores offer spiky lychee globes, thin-skinned white fleshed peaches, fire dragon fruits that look like a Tibetan demon’s head, perfectly manicured small dark grapes, fragrant mangoes, bananas and more, and you can buy a straw basket at the same shop to make a gift. Or stores sell packaged food items for gifting, including eggs which you can bring to people in the hospital. A combination of practicality and symbolism. Of course, for children or wedding there is the all-time favorite, qian, money.

Kunming is growing quickly despite the drought, with massive infrastructure projects everywhere. They are building a subway, expected to be completed within two years. There’s a gold exchange set to open which has London and New York fretting. The new international airport, USD $3.6 billion when all phases completed, opens next month. It will be the fourth largest China, augmenting Kunming’s role as an international city and favorite destination for Chinese tourists who fly to Kunming and go on to the tourist cities of Dali and Lijiang. More direct international flights are planned. Tourism is the number one industry, but trade with Southeast Asia is increasing rapidly and Kunming is the gateway to Vietnam, Laos, Burma and the other southeast nations.

Lest you think I am getting too comfortable, drinking Yunnan’s pu’er tea and eating rice noodles, lost in language study, rest assured, everyday I forget and try to view YouTube. But you cannot in China. YouTube is behind the government’s Internet firewall. So is Facebook. And there is increasing crackdown on the wei bo, the Chinese micro blogs. I am reminded this is an authoritarian society whose enveloping steel I cannot readily fathom. Spprrreccchhhh. Spprrreccchhhh.

The two-story buildings of old Kunming barely exist anymore. Note new 25-story apartments in background, and the SUV vehicle that barely fits in the street..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kunming is a city of 6 million. Low arched building in foreground is a sports center including for playing badminton.

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.

paviion-bridge-cui-hubridge-buildingssmall-group-dancing-shrubswaterbrush-feet-cui-hufried-dough-sauce-cui-hudancers-fans-cui-human-waterbrush-other-people-cui-hufamily-kid-railwoman-mickey-mouse-benchnoodle-shop-interior-cui-hu

 

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.