<A>To Be a Tourist in Kunming

Written by Apr 25, 2006 15:04
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Kunming. My friend Daniel and I flew into Kunming after a few relaxing days in Hainan during the last half of Spring Festival last year. We'd heard that it was Spring City and were looking forward to a few more mild days before going back to the snow in Hebei. We'd booked a night in a hotel online with the idea that, once there, we'd be able to find a cheaper place for our second night. So upon arrival, we checked in at the four-star Jinjiang Hotel, which is in a very urban area. It had a big, impressive lobby, but our room itself was pretty average. After checking in, we headed out and went into a small place around the corner to eat some of the local cuisine. It was one of the only non-Western places I went to in China where they had something like a buffet. I pointed out three pans of food that looked decent and they were all scooped onto a plate for me. As we sat to eat, a little boy who'd followed us in continually tapped us and asked us for money. He was chased out once or twice, but always came back. I was suprised in general by the number of beggars on the street in that area.

Yunnan Nationalities Villages

We'd gotten into town early enough that we could hit our first destination that first day, so we headed for the Yunnan Nationalities Villages. Although these "villages" are only govenment representations of how various ethnic minorities in Yunnan live, it was still very much worth the 35 yuan to visit. It covers about 90 hectares and is supposed to represent 26 different minority groups (although when I was there, only 12 of the villages were completed).

We showed up mid-afternoon and had time to cover far less than half the park in the several hours we were there. Throughout the day, there are performances by groups in each village, showing traditional dances and teaching you a few words in the different dialects. One show, at which we were the only spectators, fed us bread and wine, gave us a free necklace each, had us up on the stage to dance with them, then posed for pictures with us afterward.

For me, though, one of the best features of the park was the fact that, because it's so big, there's no set time you have to leave. They stop letting people in around 5 p.m., and performances stop around 6 or 6:30, but we stayed until 7:30 or 8, when the sun was down and the only people we saw were cleaning the grounds. It gave the park a very different, personal feel.

Blind Fixes

That night, when we got back to the hotel, we noticed that outside were maybe half a dozen people in white coats standing in front of chairs. Some of the chairs were occupied, and the seated people were getting backrubs. We got closer and noticed that the people in white coats mostly had their eyes shut. Then we saw a sign explaining that these people were blind masseuses and masseurs. Daniel had a sore back so suggested we try it out. Daniel speaks Chinese and was able to talk some to his guy, but I didn't speak much Chinese at all, so when my woman tried to talk to me, I could barely answer even her most basic questions. But that was a perpetual frustration for me, not isolated to this event. Anyway, it was a nice massage, and Daniel claimed the blind man fixed things no professional he ever went to in Austrailia could fix. From what I've heard, it's extremely hard to be gainfully employed in China if you're blind (or handicapped in any way), so this was one of the few things these people could do to earn a living.


The next morning, we'd made arrangements to join a group from the hotel to go to Shilin, the so-called stone forest just outside the city. It was a Chinese tour group we were joining though, so on the bus on the way there, our guide spoke only in Chinese, leaving me just as un-edified as I was before. All I learned about the location came from my eyes and books.

Shilin is another area too big to cover in just one day. It's called "The Stone Forest" because it's a large area of rock formations that, from a distance, resemble a forest. At some point, some Chinese person wandered around the park and started deciding various rocks looked like different animals, people, or other objects. Some I could see, and others I couldn't. Names of formations include "elephant on a platform," "woman waiting for her husband," "mother and son going for a walk," and "goddess of mercy emerging from the water".

There were almost as many people dressed in stereotypical minority clothes there as in the park the day before, but here, the people were selling things as they walked around the park. Overall, I didn't find Shilin as much fun as the minority villages, but it was worth a look. The admission was a whopping 80 yuan per person, plus the cost of getting out there in the first place.

A Meal, a Walk, and Hotel

That night, we found a new hotel (the Kunming San Yuan) and then headed for supper at The Brothers Jiang, a noodle place highlighted in The Lonely Planet guide. The noodles there were good, and portions were huge. It's one of those places where they give you a bowl of broth and then, depending on how much you want to pay, you get some pre-set number of sides to add in. We got something like 12 sides each, many of which I wasn't interested in, but you can't change your sides. During the meal, I managed to bump the table (we sat in a western-style booth) and spill broth all over my pants. Cause I'm smooth like that.

After eating, we wandered the streets for a while to see what we could see. Because it was so late, most things were closed. We walked down some streets that were obviously markets during the day, but deserted and locked up at night. We also passed what appeared to a police station. A bunch of Chinese policemen were gathered around having a meeting with the door open. Daniel walked by a couple times, trying to casually take a picture, but he was spotted and reprimanded.

The San Yuan Hotel was one of the cheapest hotels we stayed at during my whole year in China, and we got what we paid for. It was more like a hostel without the community aspect than a hotel from what we could see. The two of us settled into a room with three beds and not much else to speak of. We got a key, but when we went out, we had to leave the key with a woman at a desk at the end of the hall. When we got back sometime between 10 and 11 at night, we had to hunt this woman down, which was not easy. The room we had was on the fourth or fifth floor and directly across the street was one of the main bus stations in Kunming. The bus station proved to be quite loud all night long, and I got a horrible night's sleep.

Takin' it to the Streets

Early the next morning, we got up to see what we could before our plane left that afternoon. We got out our Lonely Planet and saw that there was supposed to be a neat Muslim district and some temples within walking distance of our hotel. We took off for this area, which turned out to be really beautiful.

The old downtown area more than worth a bit of a walk. We found all sorts of things there, in the streets. There was a huge map on the ground of old Kunming that people were walking around. There was a pond that almost looked orange from all the goldfish in it. There were several temples and pagodas, none of which we went into, but all of which looked impressive. And as in several other big cities I visited, there were a lot of brass statues peppering the streets. All of the tourists wandering around seemed to be Chinese. This was the case everywhere we went in Kunming. Maybe it was just because we went there during a Chinese holiday, but there didn't seem to be many Western faces anywhere, which certainly isn't a complaint.

We searched and searched for the Muslim street, but failed to find it. In the end, we decided the Lonely Planet was out-of-date. There were a few quiet alleys with a street vendor here or there, and a Mosque or two, but not the street of vendors and delicious food that was promised.

In general, I'm not sure what I expected of Kunming, but I found it more urban that I had anticipated--at least at first. It wasn't till that last day, when we wandered around downtown, that I saw anything that made me think "Spring City". So if you hit Kunming, the major tourist attractions are worth seeing, but I recommend wandering downtown (around where Nanjing Lu and Zhengyi Lu intersect) for a while, too. That was the only part of Kunming I'd go back to see again.

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