Kunming Into China

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

It was a bit of a rush, though I didn’t know it yet. I was at the Vietnam-China border at Lao Cai-Hekou trying to figure out which line to enter. At last I did (it took about five minutes) and that was when the trouble began. Three of them peered over and through my passport as though it was missing something. They kept flipping and looking and a Chinese couple came behind me and the officers gladly dropped my passport in favour of something easier. Everyone and anyone, it seemed, could get ahead of me, so I took the liberty of redirecting those walking up to ‘my’ window to another locale when at last a supervisor showed up. He flipped as they did and I showed his where the Vietnamese entry stamp was as well as the visa and the ID page. He didn’t like that the passport was not crisp and neat, but you trying wearing it on your body in the tropics and see how well it holds up. At last I was through Vietnamese customs, and that was supposed to be the easy part.

The Chinese customs officers were every bit professionals. They knew where to go, what to look for, and so on. This did not make their processing of my entry and faster, however, just more thorough. I had nothing to hide, so I wasn’t too worried, but it crossed my mind that if for some reason they refused entry I would be stuck in no-man’s land between two countries I had no ability to be in. Thankfully, this was not an issue as I finally got my visa stamped and moved onto to have my baggage x-rayed. They weren’t concerned with anything except for my books, which I had to take out and let them flip through. I know that the Chinese Lonely Planet is banned and often confiscated from travelers because its map draws Tibet too large and counts Taiwan as its own country but otherwise I guess they were looking for anything political or offensive. I had neither and at last I was in China, standing on the street, and looking at a bewildering display of Chinese characters and buildings surrounding the chaos on the streets.

Now what?

Bus station. Find out when I can get the overnight to Kunming. Finding that, or anyone who spoke English, was not as easy as I’d expected – and I expected a challenge. In the end I did not find an English speaker but did find the bus. It was 5:50 and the overnight bus left at 6. And she would not accept either dollar or dong despite being on the border. She also had a 6:30 bus but waved in a negative way that I assumed meant it was full or not a sleeper. So, ten minutes to get my money changed. I failed. I couldn’t find anywhere to change and every time I asked a local where I was pointed in a different direction. Finally I went into a store (one of many I’d tried) and a woman came with to show me where and then saw the bank closed. So the store did the exchange for me and I ran back to the bus station as fast as possible, making it at 6:25. I had the money, I had no breath, and still the woman shook her hands that I couldn’t take the bus. Then, seeing I’d run and gone to great effort, pointed me towards the bus with my money. Kunming? He nodded and asked me for, I assumed, a ticket.

I pointed at the window which accomplished nothing and then took out the money so he understood I had yet to pay for it. And they found me a spot on the bus for 120 Yuan, at the very back, a big bed for 5 people with room for three comfortably. You haven’t been properly welcomed to China until a 70 year old man is dangerously close to spooning you or else playing footsy as you hug your backpack in terror. But I made it, I passed my first ordeal and somehow found sleep that night. I awoke in the morning as the bus emptied in Kunming and pulled myself off the bed, off the bus, and figured out that it was bus “san” (three) to the place I wanted to go. When I got on the bus, I let the driver know assuming that if I missed it, she’d let me know. There were only seven of us on the bus and I sat at the very front trying to follow our progress on the map. And soon I realized we’d passed it. She looked back at me and waved her finger in a circle in disdain and I assumed meant we’d be there on the way back. But twenty minutes later we were on the same roads back as we’d taken. I figured out where we were at one stop and resolved to get off – it was walkable. But she waved me to sit until the next stop and at last, at last, I found a hostel.

Yes, China was to prove a lot more difficult – and fun – to get around than other countries in Asia. At times, this would be frustrating, but the necessity of communication and lack of English means I’m hoping to learn a bit of Chinese in my one month here. Already I’m learning some of the characters as I go from place to place and I can count to one hundred rather shakily. I don’t expect to be speaking it, but I’m hoping to at least make getting around more fluid. Anyway. There I was on Jin Bi Lu in a fairly good part of town and my hostel was right there, The Hump. It was a good place and I really didn’t realize how much I miss the hostel experience as a solo traveler. I met up with a German guy named Grieg that morning and over a shake at the hostel met a girl from New Zealand named Aimee. The three of us wandered the town, heading north to the university district and Green Lake park, then getting lost as we made our way south to the Bamboo Temple bus.

It was a 45 minute ride out of Kunming to the Bamboo Temple and 20 Yuan ($3) return, but worth it and the $1 entry. It was an expansive temple filled with clay and papier-mâché figures. It is famous for two things, one is a temple whose walls are lined with surfing Buddhas riding the waves on various animals. They are not painted, however, they are clay and project from the wall like a 3D movie. The other is a small room that is filled with over a hundred clay figures of ordinary people from all walks of life, sculpted in fine detail and very lifelike indeed. After this, we returned to Kunming and decided that since Yunnan is one area of China with a large Muslim population (esp. Kunming) we should get a muslim meal. We finally found a place listed in the Lonely Planet as having dozens of muslim restaurants and found one, but we ate there and the food was delicious even if we ordered far, far too much. We were treated like VIPs there, with two girls standing over the table ready to answer to our most random whim, top up glasses, and whatever we may require – or not require.

The next day I took another excursion with the Grieg and three Israeli girls staying in my room – they’d come to the table and invited us to go with them the day before. We went to Xi Shan (she-shan), in the hills on a lake outside Kunming, and it definitely was not worth it. The pollution here is unbelievable, honestly. The smog here – in the countryside – is worse than Jakarta, worse than LA, worse than anywhere I’ve ever seen. The lake itself, which apparently hosts a lot of heavy industry on its eastern banks, is full of algae and a toxic shade of green. We were on the west bank (with Israelis, hahaha!) in the hills and maybe the pollution was good in that we couldn’t SEE what was causing it. We climbed the hills passing many-a-stall on the roads and paths and ate our picnic lunch up near Beauty Peak. Then it started to rain a bit and we went up to the pagoda at the top then back down and returned to Kunming.

That night, we went out to the ‘bar area’ to see Kunming’s famous nightlife. The girls had already been here and loved it but when we returned there was little open and still less happening. That didn’t stop us from sitting in a busier place and grabbing a drink and some food – not to mention sitting on the steps of the police station drinking a really cheap and awful bottle of vodka. Before long, it was time to call it a night. And the next morning, I was on a bus to Dali with another Israeli who I’d traveled around with yesterday, a guy named Ori. The girls were staying another day in Kunming (which I probably could’ve used but at the same time my time is limited) and Grieg is heading south rather than north so we said goodbye and made our way to the bus station. I am excited to find myself somewhere new in a country that is still new to me.

Kunming Photos

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