JB's 2006 Trip To China - Part Six - Kunming Reloaded

Leena makes tea

Lake Dianchi from Western Hill

Eastern Pagoda

Sky Reaching Pavillion on Western Hill

Zhen Wu on Western Hill

Stone Forest

View from Stone Forest

Green Lake Park

Community Area of Green Lake Park

Leena's Guqin instructor

Here is part six (days 6-8) of my recent trip to China, which were spent in Kunming. 

On October 11th, Wei and I grabbed a plane back to Kunming. Wei was still traveling with me as her employer had yet to make up his mind about what he wanted her to do next. If we had known she'd have as much time as she ended up having, we probably would have continued north from Lijiang to Zhongdian, a high-altitude Tibetan area that is the latest to claim the prestigious name "Shangri-La". Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. In the book, "Shangri-La" is a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Since 1933, many places have claimed the title in search of local pride and backpacker dollars. Zhongdian is one of them and has actually changed its official county name to Shangri-La.

Not expecting Wei to be around by this point (but glad she was), I had already made plans to meet a Kunming friend and was looking forward to seeing a couple specific sites in the area. I also wanted to see more of Kunming. This sentiment is lost on many people who want to get out of the cities as soon as possible. However, I look forward to experiencing the big cities of China... good or bad. The cities are the present and future of China and they each have their own personality, in the same way that New York is no Los Angeles.

Kunming is a very nice as big cities go. It's nickname is the "Spring City" because of its temperate weather and vegetation. It’s the capitol of the Yunnan province, and the population is about 4 million, with 1 million of that being in the urban area (spread out quite a bit). It sits at about 6200 feet above sea level and is surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the very large Lake Dianchi. It is the Northern end of the famous Burma Road, and as a result was the HQ for the American Flying Tigers in WWII. Kunming's economy is ranked 12th among Chinese cities.

Kunming definitely has a something that other big Chinese cities lack. For one, at least while I was there, the air was fresh and clean (you could see blue sky when it wasn’t raining). Overall it also seemed cleaner and 'greener' than most. I'd imagine this has much to do with the weather. Kunming, and large portions of Yunnan, is almost tropical (northern end of the Mekong Delta). During the spring, summer and fall, it rains often (and stops raining in the winter). Nothing like a good rain to move the dust and soot out. unnan is a place where if you don't like the weather... just wait around for half an hour... it'll change. I got into the habit of carrying two jackets wherever I went. One very thin waterproof jacket for the warm & rainy spells, a thin but warmer jacket for dry & cold spells, which could be worn under the first jacket for cold & rainy spells. I learned to expect all three over the course of an average day there.

Our first stop in Kunming was Western Hill. I personally didn’t know too much about Western Hill before I got there, except that it was the highest point in the area. As it turned out, Western Hill was a real interesting urban public park, a large hill covered with paths and historic temples/shrines. You could spend days exploring and hiking about the place. The popular sites in the park literally hang off the side of the mountain and afford beautiful views of Kunming and Lake Dianchi.

Our arrival was something of a comedy. As I said, I had no idea of a game plan for visiting Western Hill, and being such a spread out place it didn’t have anything in the way of an information center, etc. So, once we got off the last public bus stop, we did what we usually did, started walking. While walking, an ambitious driver came up behind us to let us on to a very important piece of information… that it was a few kilometer uphill hike, in irregular downpours, just to get to the main area. Being afternoon already, we decided to avail ourselves of his services.

Once getting to the main area we were advised to take the cable car to the peak. At the time this seemed like a good idea. Of course I failed to make the connection between open air cable car, the frequent downpours, and the unknown distance to the top. Needless to say, as soon as I sat on the already puddled wood seats and had the bars lock me into the cable car, it started pouring.

Now, I’m pretty much a go with the flow person during times like this, but if I am in the mood to gripe and whine, I do it better than any other self-centered spoiled western tourist. I spun bitter regret and sarcasm into a thick-murky web designed to trap all hope in the Universe while I sucked it dry. My butt was soaking wet, my jeans & shoes were open to the rain, it was freezing cold, and so foggy you could see none of the scenery that makes cable cars worthwhile… and I made sure the moment was not lost to the silent Buddhist-like contemplation the area was meant to instill. Right about the time I’d start to taper off my invective we’d come across another mini-peak to see that there was no end in sight… just more rain… and I’d start all over again.

Oddly enough, once we reached the top, Wei was still speaking to me… the fog lifted… the sun came out (for a while) … and we carried on without any further mention of the incident. Next time, we’ll take the bus though. As mentioned the walk down was quite beautiful. On the way out of the park we stopped at the very impressive Huating Temple which was reconstructed into its modern form in 1453 (apparently it was on another site before then). Unfortunately, that was all the time available and we missed a good deal of lesser sites within the park.

That was about it for the day as we had put in a good day of walking both in Kunming and Lijiang before the flight. Wei took off with Ivy to eat dinner and find a hostel to stay at. I settled into my hotel room and was able to fix my laptop (Buffy sent me the Windows XP disk from home).

The next day we took off for the Stone Forest, about an hour drive out of Kunming through interesting countryside. The Stone Forest is a large protected area of Karst Limestone formations. We walked around here for about two hours with our native guide “George”. George was a member of a local minority group that had apparently been given over management of the park area. The Stone Forest is due to receive UN World Heritage site status soon (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/) after they remove some buildings, etc.

I would say that every time I’ve hired a guide for something like this, it has been a good investment. It’s the best way to learn about a place, and not just the obvious things that you will see on signposts and in pamphlets. In George’s case this was especially true. He spoke decent English and being a native he was able to fill me in on all sorts of obscure information, and answer all manner of questions. For example, there is a bowl-like area deep within the Stone Forest that his ‘tribe’ uses for an annual festival that includes wrestling matches and other physical competitions. He also provided a briefing on the native dress, and how one’s headwear distinguishes whether you are ‘of age’, single or married. Quite handy.

In the evening we met for dinner with my Kunming friend Leena, and her friend Tony. We met in “Culture Alley”, which is a nickname for street full of food establishments where you are most likely to see Westerners, as it’s right next door to Kunming University (which I think was originally built by the French in 1923). The place we ate at had some terrific, and cheap, local Yunnan fare. I think the four of us had a table full of food for roughly $15.

Tony works as a translator for a German company in Kunming. Although Tony’s company was German, and the boss was German (but spoke English as well), Tony’s job was to translate items for the company into English, not German (an indication of how prevalent English is as the language of business).

After dinner, Leena, Tony and I walked around Green Lake Park at night. Green Lake Park is a large public park in the dead-center of Kunming. It’s a big lake surrounded by sidewalk, with many small islands that are also connected by walkways. There are some temples and other structures on the islands as well. The perimeter of Green Lake Park is the place to hang out in Kunming, as some of the best restaurants, nightclubs and shopping surround it.

It was a Thursday night, which was also the regular night for “English Corner” along the south-eastern edge of the park, across the street from the five-star Green Lake Hotel. “English Corner” is something that goes on in many large Chinese university cities. One night a week, Chinese and others will gather to speak to each other in English, just for practice and friendship. I would guess there were about 250 people out on this night, all gathered together into smaller groups and chatting. If you were a single Western man, moving into one of the major cities for a spell, finding out the time and place of the local English Corners should be one of your priorities. ;)

The next day, Friday, I was on my own... at least for a little while. Wei had received a ‘final decision’ from her boss and took off for Guizhou in the morning. I would meet Leena later, but I had the better portion of the day to do my typical aimless wandering.

First thing I did was to head off for the ancient and “famous” Flower and Bird Market. It ended up being a bit disappointing, at least in terms of flowers and birds. The only birds I saw were a group of sparrows that a crowd of Chinese men were admiring. There were four bamboo cages full of what seemed to be ordinary sparrows, but in each cage the sparrows had a different color piece of thread around their wings. The men were quite animated in their discussions as they bent over the cages and reviewed the birds. Some were holding the birds and looking very closely at their wings and undersides.

They were a couple other places with turtles, fish and plants, but for the most part it seemed to be the usual Chinese kitsch vendors. I also walked through an adjacent mall with a few aquarium stores on the first floor and then a couple dozens places selling the same jade and/or jadeite products on the second floor. Meh…

Green Lake Park in daylight was much more interesting. As with most Chinese urban parks, it was full of organized groups engaged in activities like tai chi, ballroom dancing, sword dancing, playing mahjong, and playing cards. In one little area I ran into several different groups, or bands, of people playing musical instruments or singing. All the groups had their own play sheet though... a half-dozen different songs being played on unusual Chinese instruments while ladies sang high-pitched traditional songs and the guys screamed out Chinese opera pieces. There was also a group of 50 or so people singing what seemed to be Christian hymns. It produced an altogether interesting effect.

In the afternoon I met up with Leena to sit in on her old Guqin class. The Guqin is a plucked seven-string Chinese instrument of the zither family that has a history of at least 3000 years. It’s long and played while laying flat. Interesting Note: In 1977, a guqin recording was included on the Voyager Golden Record sent into outer space by NASA, the longest music excerpt included on the disc.

Leena studied the Guqin for a few years, and her teacher is quite good. He has made his own CD (which I’ll post some songs from later) and has played for international audiences. Leena no longer takes classes but her teacher allowed us to sit in and listen to him and two of his students play. Leena also played a few songs which sounded flawless to me.

This was a very pleasant and relaxing afternoon. Guqin music is very peaceful and while we listened Leena prepared tea and served fruit. Her teacher was also very welcoming, allowing me to take some pictures and even play a few strings myself. I would certainly chalk this up as one of the best experiences of the trip. Afterward, Leena and I walked around the southern area of the city, near the city’s Ancient Pagodas. When she went home, I walked around Green lake Park at night again and ended up at a Cafe in Culture Alley.

2006 Kunming Gallery

Next Up... Part Seven... Chengdu