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.



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.

Restaurants in China

Girl serving beer

I’m heading to China in a few weeks, to study and then do some work at the Mogao Caves, the World Heritage Site at Dunhuang. I’m worried about ordering food. I hope I don’t come back thin as a rail. I can order order dumpling and beer [ yi pan jiao zi, yi ping pi jiu] but it’s sketchy after that. How long can you survive on dumplings and beer? Well, I guess there’s always point and indicating, I want that.

My Chinese friend tell me some restaurants ask for pay before they serve you food. Some places are so crowded, she says, diners can just disappear. Chinese version of dine and dash, I guess. I’m glad she told me, I’m sure I’d be confused if the restaurant proprietor was demanding money when the meal hadn’t been eaten. That’s not everywhere, of course, just some places. And she says be sure to order bing pi jiu: cold beer. And don’t be surprised if cold beer costs more than warm. “Electricity is expensive. You pay a little something extra for the refrigeration.”


Young Chinese at leisure at the Singing Sands, in the desert outside of Dunhuang City in Gansu province. Domestic tourism has increased hugely along with rising incomes and better infrastructure.


Studying Chinese is hard, especially sitting in my small office in Seattle. I sometimes think, if I had put this much time into studying Spanish, I’d be so much further ahead. Chinese has tones; no alphabet to aid with pronunciation; no overlap with romantic or European languages to provide some shared cultural stepping stones. It’s utterly foreign. Chinese is about four times as hard as Spanish. That estimate comes from the State Dept. In fact I think it is number one on their list. And Spanish is spoken all through the United States.

My friend Mark went to Taiwan to study language and tai chi, but after six months back in the US most of his Chinese had vanished like water vapor. Now if he meets a Chinese speaking person he can say a couple of phrases, and they gush, oh, you speak Chinese so well, but he knows the reality.  The reality, especially for those of us coming to a second language later in life, is that if you do not keep it up regularly it disappears in a blink. Heck, if I go a week without reviewing my lessons I start backsliding [ I use the Integrated Chinese textbooks, very popular].

What’s the word for beverage again?

I have some work affiliation with the World Heritage Site at Dunhuang, the Mogao Caves on the Silk Road, and so have a professional interest in pursuing Chinese language and Chinese culture. And China with its great population, economy and energy is poised to be the defining giant of the 21st century. Those are great reasons for studying Chinese. But it takes a great deal of time and daily commitment.

Bobblehead and Practical Uses for Chinese

Do you think a bobblehead would be a good gift for your mother?

It was our mom’s 80th birthday, we’d been casting about for what to do. A Groupon-like deal had crossed my desk, $50 off a custom bobble head, and I thought a bobble head of mom might add some levity to the birthday festivities.

“Well, maybe,” said my sister.

I bought the discount, and immediately started the process, as my mother’s birthday was coming up quickly. You had to send in a frontal picture and a profile, along with certain information like eye color, skin color, hair color: They offered tiny swatches to choose from. That was hilarious, I thought. Build a head. Plus you selected the body type and clothes from a stable of pre-sets: office casual, slinky girl in a shoe, bathing suit babe, and any accessories you might want, like glasses, or watch, or something printed on the clothes like, take me shopping.

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Why Study Mandarin? The less polite version

Sometimes necessity makes you do things.

This was part of the same short trip to Beijing as the previous post, and we took a car to the pearl market, located in a department store-like building. We passed levels with luggage, clothing, shoes etc. and went to the pearl vendors. They occupied an entire floor, hundreds of them, each with a small, same-sized station in the cavernous room. They had big numbers displayed on poles, so you could find your way to a particular one. It was noisy and confusing, kind of like the stock exchange floor. My friends, fluent in Mandarin, both American but one born in China, had purchased before, so we muscled our way through the throng to Vendor #268.

Hardly occupying more footprint than a card table, the vendor presided over an array of pearls from a high stool. They were simply hung on strings, arranged by kind, size and quality. A waterfall of preciousness displayed as casually as onions. Hundreds of coils, fresh and saltwater, some tiny like grains of rice, others approaching golf ball size. Plus red coral, jade and precious stones I didn’t recognize.

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Why Study Mandarin? Summer Palace

Around Kunming lake at the Summer Palace, Beijing.

I had several challenging experiences in China that led me to study the language. I was in Beijing with a friend who was there on business. We were staying on the Tsinghua University campus. He went off to his meeting. We agreed I would go to the Summer Palace. It was a warm summer day, and the skies were uncharacteristically blue. A perfect day for a walk among the hundreds of beautiful acres. He wrote the address in Chinese characters on a piece of paper, as well as the return address for where I needed to go, and put me in a cab.

The Summer Palace was wonderful. I strolled on the paved walkways, enjoyed the classic pavilions, the studied vistas, the greenery, the vast manmade lake, but most of all enjoyed the people enjoying themselves: families, clusters of young girls, couples, kite flyers, people licking refreshing ices.

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