Part 1: KunmingClick on any thumbnail to see a full-size version of the photo. All image files are smaller than 65K.
Date: Wed, 13 Apr 1994 15:29:57 +0800 (CST)
From: Zev Handel
I'm back from my week-long trip to Yunnan Province, in southwest China, suffering from a cold no doubt caused by a nasty mainland virus. It was easily one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life in recent memory.
I went off to China with some trepidation. My experience in Beijing four years ago was not always positive; all too often I encountered Chinese who were rude, pushy, dishonest, greedy, selfish. Several people who have traveled to the mainland since then have confirmed that the situation has gotten worse. In the aftermath of Tiananmen, and with the further implementation of economic reform, China is supposed to have become a society of money-grubbers.
Happily, my week in Yunnan did not bear out these observations. Perhaps because of its relative isolation and lack of large cities, it seems to have escaped the worst shocks of liberalization. Even in Kunming, the capital city, where goods and services of all descriptions are freely available, the pace is slow and leisurely.
Yunnan is tucked away between the northern borders of Burma and Laos. To the north lies Sichuan, and to the northwest Tibet. Kunming and the lands northwest of it are at the foot of the Tibetan plateau, at a high enough elevation that the air is crisp and dry and temperatures remain moderate all year round. Sichuan food is widely available and generally excellent; certainly far spicier than the watered down version one finds in Taiwan.
I had arranged to meet three friends the Sunday night of my arrival in Kunming. Cathy was flying down from Beijing; she had spent a month in the industrial city of Taiyuan at a children's hospital. Dan and Larissa, friends of hers from medical school, were flying up from southeast Asia, where they'd already been traveling together for several weeks. Our plan was to head from Kunming northwest along the old Burma Road, first to Dali and then to Lijiang, which is halfway from Kunming to the Tibetan border.
On Monday morning we got our first good look at Kunming city on our way to the bank to change money. The wide, tree-lined streets were divided, by red-and-white concrete barriers linked by chains (much like the devices used in movie theatres to keep people waiting in orderly lines), into car and bicycle lanes. Traffic was light, the air was clean, and everything sparkled brightly in the morning sunshine. Fruit vendors were numerous on the sidewalks, selling ripe strawberries, pineapples, watermelons, crisp Asian pears, and mandarin oranges. New mountain bikes, unseen in Beijing four years ago, gleamed enticingly in shops along the street. Barber shops large and small sported photos of popular Hong Kong models, actors, and pop stars, and recent Taiwanese hit songs blared out of portable radios. A fair proportion of the younger women were dressed rather fashionably, though quite a few were decked out in decidedly bizarre styles. A variety of street snacks were available, including barbecued shishkabob, roasted tofu squares, grilled rice-cakes, and the like. Drink vendors sold sodas, ice cream, and the delicious liquid yoghurt that I remembered so vividly from Beijing, with a delicate sour flavor unparalleled by anything I've tasted elsewhere. Because the soda bottles and yoghurt containers have to be left with the vendor for recycling, each stand had a little knot of people around it, slowly sipping their drinks, waiting until they had finished before taking leave.
We took a series of public buses from downtown out to the Western Hills, rickety old wooden monstrosities that grunted unhappily under the weight of the endless numbers of people who felt they could pack themselves in no matter how crowded the buses became. Each bus, in addition to the driver, had two women ticketers. They worked the door controls, and had the responsibility of making sure each passenger purchased a ticket. This could prove quite an undertaking on the more crowded journeys. People would pass up a wad of crumpled-up tiny bills (although there are coins in China, bills are much more common and exist for every denomination, including 1 Chinese fen, which is worth about a twelfth of an American cent), the ticketer would rip off the appropriate number of miniscule rice-paper-thin bus tickets, make a mark on each with a pen, and send them back through the crowd. At the end of the day my pockets were filled with tiny crumpled up wads of impossibly thin papers: tickets and currency accumulated during the day.
The Western Hills, dotted with Chinese-style kiosks and temples, command a magnificent view of the huge Lake Dian and the city of Kunming beyond its shores. A ski lift provides easy access to the top for those too lazy to make the hike. All along the route vendors sold snacks and drinks, mostly pineapple chunks, pickled vegetables, and flat deep-fried shrimp-pancakes.
According to our guide book, there was a shortcut back home. We could descend
from the hills to a small lake-side village, walk most of the way across the lake
on a small sand-spit,
and take a small ferry to the other side. From there, a public bus would take us
straight back to Kunming. The "ferry", as it turned out, was a long narrow boat,
which could carry several dozen people and bicycles, and was propeled by two
standing boatmen holding long oars. The ride across covered perhaps twenty yards
and took about thirty seconds. On the other side of the lake we encountered a
uniquely Chinese situation. The bus stop lay just a few hundred yards through a
small village. The village had been designated an official minority people's
cultural site, and an admission fee was charged to enter it; furthermore, the fee
for foreigners was thirty times that for natives, and was not inconsiderable.
Another option was to circumnavigate the entire town, which would have taken
almost an hour and caused us to miss our night bus to Dali. Instead, we
negotiated with a speed-boat owner to whisk us up-lake to the outskirts of
Kunming, from where we were able to take a bus home.
This page last modified January 7, 1998.
Zev Handel / zev_web#namkung.com