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.


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.