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The View from China Part One

by Anne Thompson
July 31, 2012 6:26 AM
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After a week in Russia, I headed for Kunming, the capital of the southwest province of Yunnan, China, where my daughter Nora has been teaching English in a rural village near Lincang. With a population of over 6 million, Kunming doesn't scrape into the Top 20 biggest cities in China (topped by Shanghai and Beijing, both over 20 million). I flew into its brand-new golden hub airport on opening day, June 28; the traffic on the well-groomed highway was just as jammed as Moscow. (An entire set of abandoned hotels near the old airport will now go out of business.) I'm glad I was introduced to China via Kunming, because Beijing is so much bigger. Even for a New Yorker/Angeleno, Beijing is overwhelming.

Kunming bicycle
Kunming bicycle

As we hit the street, it became clear that in China, the pedestrian does not have the right of way. You're on your own, which is also true on Beijing's packed subways, which are sleek, clean, air conditioned and clearly marked, but you have to fight your way on and off. (More Chinese is translated into English in Beijing than Russian in Moscow.)

The cities have walkways over the widest boulevards (sometimes shoddily constructed); in Kunming there were more scooters and bikes in their own lane than cars. Entire families as well as towers of goods were piled onto the scooters, with no helmets in sight, although many folks wore their coats backwards to protect their clothing from soot and dirt, and some wore face masks to protect them from the belching bus exhaust. In China, there is no such thing as emission controls. In Beijing we saw separate traffic lights for bikes and pedestrians.

High altitude Kunming was clean and temperate compared to hot and humid Beijing, which had thick putrid smog far worse than anything I saw in LA thirty years ago--much like LA, the smog piles up during the work week, so that Friday is the worst, then cleans up slightly over the less populated weekend.

Kunming Airport
Kunming Airport

Taxis are hard to get in both cities--there are no rules. They don't stop if they don't feel like it. In Beijing at congested tourist spots like the Forbidden City or Western-friendly Sanlitun Bar Street, taxi drivers barter with potential passengers for high fares independent of the meter. (Non-Chinese speakers give them a card with the destination.) The pedicabs, some motorized and covered, some not, yell out for passengers, and you have to haggle over the pricier fare. We took them in situations where taxis were unavailable. Taking the subway was fine, but finding your way to your destination afterwards was a challenge, even for my Mandarin-speaking daughter, on whom I was utterly dependent.

Watching Nora bargain at a street market in Kunming (and later at the Silk market in Beijing, which specializes in knock-off fashion designer bags) was a sheer delight. She scoffed, sneered and walked away with the best of them.

Nora lives on a fairly limited village diet, so she was eager to hit the western restaurants--Spanish, Mexican--and after a while I too welcomed the familiarity of Starbucks, which are easy to find (as are MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken).

In Kunming we walked through the lovely university campus to the ancient Yuongtong Buddhist Temple, and grabbed a tram over Lake Dian to climb to Dragon Gate on Xishan Mountain. In China, hiking trails are stacks of steep stairs, and while many restaurant, hotel and city public toilets are tiled and sanitary and offer sit-down toilets along with squatters, the rustic one at the top of that mountain I will not soon forget.

We stayed at the reasonable and functional university Yunda Hotel, equipped with wifi, air conditioning, a mini-fridge and a water cooler that heated water for morning green tea, which we had with cereal and yogurt. Nora advised staying away from raw veggies, unbottled or unboiled water and unpeeled fruit. My first night's street food, a steaming bowl of spicy meat and rice noodles, sent me straight back to the hotel; after that I laid off the MSG and was fine. We stayed away from the wriggling live scorpions on a stick, which some daredevils ate after they were fried.

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  • rgm | August 2, 2012 12:29 PMReply

    Fascinating trip. Looking forward to Part Two

  • GHG | August 2, 2012 12:18 AMReply

    I stayed at the Yunda Hotel in Kunming as a tourist more than a decade ago - it sounds like it hasn't changed, a great place to catch your breath. Kunming is a wonderful city, and Yangshuo is as spectacular as you say. Don't know if you tried long-distance Chinese train travel, which is also a remarkable experience. An extraordinary country in so many ways.

  • Anne Thompson | August 1, 2012 8:47 PMReply

    Yangshuo is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been; I had forgotten that "The Painted Veil" filmed there. I may not have adequately expressed how much I loved China and its people. There is enormous exploding power there, and while the government is far from democratic--au contraire--it is patriarchal, even functional, in a fascinating way. More in Part Two.

  • jingmei | August 1, 2012 11:31 AMReply

    Very modern et traditionally mixed in big cities, except the air pollution is a big problem. And many locals treat foreigners as if they are the pets from the zoo. Some places are especially beautiful for shooting films. Some people such as Edward Norton or Jeremy Renner have been there to have a look at least.

  • David Gritten | August 1, 2012 2:53 AMReply

    It sounds intriguing, Anne. Your photo of the karst limestone peaks in Yangshuo reminds me that this was also the setting for a gorgeous sequence in The Painted Veil (2006), so beautifully shot by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh.

  • Deena Jones' wig | July 31, 2012 1:41 PMReply

    Lovely pictures Ms. Thompson. Thanks for sharing. I have to Asia multiple times but a visit to China has always eluded my itinerary. I have to rectify this mishap asap!!

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