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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 26 Feb 2007

Location: Kunming, China


After five months of enjoying private guesthouse or hotel rooms it was back to dorm accommodation. China is not the budget destination it once was and a single room in most of the destinations i planned on visiting cost more than my entire daily budget. So back to dormitory's and the lottery of who shares a room with you. In Kunming i got the equivalent of no balls - an old smelly french man. Better luck next time.

Kunming is a pleasant city of wide roads and tree lined boulevards, small boutiques and shiny glass shopping malls. The large Louis Vuitton shop and gleaming skyscrapers were testament to the properity of a city numbering a healthy four million. The city has undergone intense beautification projects and boasts spacious plazas, landscaped parks, impressive fountains and statues. But this modernisation has come at a cost. Gone are the narrow alleyways and old wooden buildings that once characterised the city. Only a few such streets remain, but passing them on route to find something to eat i discovered the majority were filled with coffee shops.

However, scratch the surface of this city, one which epitomises the Chinese Dream, and cracks begin to appear. Taking a walk downtown amongst the throngs of shopping middle-classes i spotted people excluded from the benefits of roaring economic growth. Men and women living on the streets sat on the pavement sending out their scruffy children to beg with small metal bowls. Further up the road was a man who spent his days lying on his back, shaking violently and surviving on the generosity of passers-by. Later i saw a woman knelt down who repeatedly bowed her head to the pavement. Hours later she was still there. Most distressing was the woman begging for a man laying on a small wodden trolley who was missing a scalp. The stench was awful. This was a wealthy city, indicators both economic and visual suggested it was thriving far more than say Saigon or Ho Chi Minh, and yet i saw nothing like this in those two Vietnamese cities.

After a short walk around the city i decided it was time to eat - if possible. Untouristy parts of China can make a food lover cry. Chinese cuisines are some of my favourite and here I was in a country that specialises in it. Brilliant. But i couldn't find one cafe or noodle shop with English menus. Ordering in China often became a complete guessing game. Every meal a surprise. This day a tiny plate of clear jelly like noodles was placed in front of me. On top was a strange meat that looked like see-through skin and tasted like a shoe. Worse, everyone stared at me as i began to eat. I must have ordered wrong. Was i tucking into a side dish? Was it the condiments tray? I thought back to my two friends Leila and Alice who saw a packed stall in Thailand, ordered what all the locals were and began tucking into the bag of spices and cocunut milk presented to them before realising it was a freshly prepared curry sauce to take home and cook with chicken and rice. The looks they recieved were similar to those a person would get if they bought a jar of Patak's Korma sauce, opened it in the supermarket and started spooning it into their gob. This was the look i was receiving. I made a hasty exit and ran across the street to a bakery. "Safe in here!" i thought, but two of the ladies behind the counter approached me and began repeating a long mantra-like speech in Chinese which went on for about five minutes. "All i want is a pastry!" I wanted to sob - but apparently even a trip to buy a cake in China can get me lost in translation.

I only had a day or two in Kunming. Like Nanning there was not anything i was particularly excited to see. Kunming was simply the nearest jump off point for my next stop. But i didn't want to spend all day doing nothing, so i visited the two Tang Dynasty pagodas in the city. Both are 13 storeys tall and styled with traditional Chinese architecture. I met a Chinese guy called John (his English name) who showed me around both sites and told me the history of them so that he could practice his english. One of the pagodas was set within a leafy compound, and groups of old men and women sat in groups playing Mahjong (an old chinese game) and drinking tea.

Ever since being in China i wanted to buy some really good tea. The Chinese were the first to cultivate the beverage and its importance in Chinese life cannot be underestimated; an old saying labels tea as one of the seven essentials for life. Inspiring poetry and the subject of songs, the brewing and drinking of tea has been raised to the level of an art form in itself. Tea deeply infuses Chinese culture. Serious apologies can be made to others by serving them a cup, pouring an older generation rather than vice versa denotes respect, and brushing the foam on top of a pot in the direction of your guest can be a subtle suggestion that it is time for them to leave.

I visited Tian Fu Famous Teas. The country produces more than 500 types of tea, from light white varieties, to bolder, fully fermented black kinds. I chose a green tea from the hundreds on offer - some incredibly expensive. Not knowing what to do i sat in the servers chair but was quickly corrected; tea is prepared in front of the customer at a table. One of the women came and sat next to me and the tea ceremony began; turning the cups, filling various pots with water and mixing them together, pouring inadequate brews into a bowl, smelling the dried leaves and the aroma of the finished product from a special sniffing cup, and then at last filling two cups. It certainly took longer than putting milk, cold water and a teabag into a microwave. As i took a sip, so did she - though she left the rest of the cup. Perhaps it's custom not to drink alone. The tea was delicious, a light but fragrant green tea which was one of the best i have ever tasted. I bought a hundred grams which cost around half a day's money, and promptly lost the bag a few days later without ever trying it again.

Kunming was a nice city, but i felt two days was all that was needed, so i booked a ticket for my next destination, the small town of Dali.