Southwestward bound, fleeing the freeze 

Written by Mar 8, 2007 04:03
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A sudden change of plan

I agreed at almost the last moment to fly down to Kunming to meet two friends for a break from the frozen north. They were on a long winter holiday trek through Yunnan, I just needed a break, but I didn't want to be on the road much longer than a week. Just needed time and space to clear my head, that's all. The plan was for me to fly to Kunming then jump on a bus to Lijiang and join my friends there. I got my plane ticket, 1000 yuan on Hainan Airlines, packed my bags, and was all ready to go......

..... and the night before I was due to leave, my friends phoned me and said, "Don't come to Lijiang! It's snowing and freezing cold!"

The last thing Beijingers want on a trip down south in the middle of winter is cold and snow.

So they told me the name of the guesthouse (招待所) they'd booked in Kunming (whose name I can't for the life of me remember. It had something to do with ethnic minorities...), told me to catch bus 51 from the airport to Huanxi Qiao (环西桥)(at least, I think that's the name of the place), and told me to check in under T's name and wait for them, they'd be on the bus from Lijiang and would arrive that evening.

So the next morning I jumped in an early morning taxi to Beijing airport, too early, as usual, and off I went.


The flight was about four hours, from what I remember. I got off the plane, collected my baggage, and walked out in search of this bus. Instantly I was assaulted by the sound of what seemed like ten million hustlers all trying to drag me off to their hotel or taxi or something.

Thing is, I'd just quit smoking. I don't know how many of you have done that, but it's quite a painful experience. And nicotine withdrawal often leaves you wanting to do serious damage to the next person who steps into your field of vision. So I temporarily quit quitting and bought a lighter and a pack of Hongtashan (always sample the local specialties, right?) and got myself some relief. Nerves calmed and no longer homicidal, I went out to look for this bus.

One of the beauties of Kunming is that its airport is conveniently located very close to the city. So close that regular city buses run to and from the airport. All I had to do was find the right bus stop, and that was not difficult. I walked across the carpark, found a security guard, asked him where I could find bus 51, and he pointed me to a bunch of signs and a knot of waiting passengers not 20 metres away. And the bus conveniently announced each stop both on an electronic sign board above the front windscreen and over a PA system, so getting off at the right stop was no problem.

It took me about half an hour of wandering in several different directions, always returning to the bus stop, asking passersby who pointed me in a million ever weirder directions, and searching, scanning, and scouring every sign or piece of grafitti before I eventually found the guesthouse. It was convenientyly located behind a non-descript gateway that led to a less-descript carpark right beside the bus stop. Never mind, I found it, checked in, changed into less stifling clothes more suited to the Eternal Spring, and poured myself a cup of tea.

Figuring that my friends were still several hours away, no doubt having their bones thoroughly shaken on some mountain road, I decided to go out and explore a little.

I stepped out of the guesthouse, lit one last cigarette just to make sure, dumped the rest of the pack and the lighter in a rubbish bin to make sure I'd continue quitting, and wandered off. I found myself a late lunch in some roadside hole-in-the-wall. I can't remember what I ate, exactly. Some kind of mixian (rice noodles), but not the famous guoqiao (crossing the bridge) variety. It felt like my tastebuds had finally come alive after several years of slumber, like I was eating pure energy. Magic stuff. Then refueled, I continued my wandering, taking random turns, just watching, feeling, smelling this life that was bursting around me.

I found my way back to the guesthouse and sat down with a cup of tea (another of my addictions) to wait for my friends. They showed up about dinner time, and so once they'd got themselves settled and had shaken off the day's bus ride, we went out in search of dinner. We found a "Western" restaurant nearby, a place that was evidently trying to recreate the American West. My friend from Colorado assured me they failed. Evidently we weren't in any part of Kunming with a large expat or tourist community. Oh well, the food was, well, odd, but satisfying.

I would've liked to hang around Kunming for a couple more days, but my friends were keen to put as much space between them and any temperature below 15 celsius as possible. Fair enough, they'd just been caught in Lijiang in the snow. At least in Beijing we all enjoyed decent central heating. I doubt they had that luxury up in Lijiang. So it was decided that the first task for the next day would be securing tickets to Jinghong. The pull of tropical Xishuangbanna was too strong on them for any of us to resist.

More magic and a few double-takes

So next morning we got some breakfast (I seem to remember eating an awful lot of baozi on that trip, always early in the morning) then jumped in a taxi to the long distance bus station. We secured tickets for a bus leaving for Jinghong that evening and felt good that it was only 9 hours (not so long ago it was a rather nightmareish 15 or 20 hours) and not in a sleeper bus (both my Coloradoan friend and I are too tall to do that comfortably).

On the way out of the bus station the first double-take happened. Out the corner of my eye I saw what I first thought was a pile of traditional musical instruments. I looked around, being interested in folk music, and realised what I had seen was a pile of bongs. For sale. Openly.

Now, I know Yunnan has a tradition of smoking tobacco through a water pipe/bong, but in the West bongs are more often used to smoke substances of a less legal nature, and so it was a bit odd for me to see such paraphenalia openly on sale. My Coloradoan friend felt the same way.

And before I continue my ramble, I need to explain something: My two friends were a couple (emphasis on 'were'). He's from Colorado, we'll call him R. She's a Beijinger born and bred, we'll call her T.

Now that I've got that clear: T had a friend working in Kunming, and we went to meet her for lunch. Just to keep up the pattern, we'll call T's friend V. So we met V and she took us down to the Muslim quarter and found us a restaurant. The place was packed beyond the gunwales, always a good sign, but we managed to get a table.

We ordered us up a bunch of dishes, taking care to sample the local specialties. Which meant, of course, that a plate of bugs ended up on the table, as a sort of test for us two men (grunt!). R and I sampled the bugs, which looked like what in New Zealand we call huhu grubs, and found them nice and spicy, which both of us like. So we got stuck in. T and V, the two Beijingers, found the idea a little gross, but they were both persuaded to try. V ignored our warnings about just how spicy the bugs were, and stuffed several in her mouth, no doubt thinking that if two laowai could handle it, she certainly could. "Bu la!" (not spicy) she said, and then promptly turned bright red and struggled to crunch up and swallow the bugs before her mouth exploded in a fireball that would leave a large, smoking hole in the centre of Kunming. She learnt the hard way she'd picked the wrong two laowai to engage in a chilli-eating competition.

The ladies left to go shopping, leaving R and I to finish off the food and drink a few more beers. I love my beer, but I found most of the beers in Yunnan to be.... wanting. Certainly not the worst beers I've ever had, but not the best either. Anyway, it was beer, and R and I are both beer afficionados, so we indulged. But our feet started to itch and we still had a couple of hours to kill. So I yelled out "Fuwuyuarrrrrrrrr!" in a Beijing accent so strong you'd think Ge You was sitting next to me. The people at the next table turned around. I said, "Hehehehe... Women zhu zai Beijing. (Hehehehe..... We live in Beijing)" with a silly, sheepish grin on my face. The waitress looked right through us because obviously no white person could be calling out to her in Chinese. But we got her attention and got the bill and wandered off.

The double-takes continue, as does the magic

We found ourselves in what looked like a bar district combined with an attempted tourist trap, but we weren't interested in finding a bar or doing these touristy things, and there didn't seem to be any life to the area, anyway. So we moved on.

We found two pagodas whose names I can't remember. Remember, I wasn't there to do touristy things, I was there to clear my head. Anyway, the pagodas looked pretty cool. We also found ourselves a tea house. The tea house was on a pedestrian street running between these two pagodas lined with what looked like more attempts at tourist traps, but there was plenty of genuine local life going on, so we felt comfortable there. This teahouse was also entirely outdoors, which felt especially good for us Beijingers. Sitting outside in the middle of January sipping tea, bliss.

So we ordered ourselves some tea and sat back to relax. At the next table were a group of old men playing chess. I looked over and right at that moment one of these old guys took a hit from his bong. Remember, where I come from bongs are associated with illegal substances. It was quite a strange experience to see and old guy using one, even though I knew it was a local tradition to smoke tobacco through a bong.

After a bit, we decided we should probably find our way back to V's place. Somehow we managed to walk back. We collected our luggage and headed for the bus station. Jinghong beckoned.

 More Kunming Travel Reviews
1. South for the Winter STOCKTOV from CN Nov 23, 2006 18:11
2. <A>To Be a Tourist in Kunming HELENDANGER from US Apr 25, 2006 15:04
3. Where Spring Does Not Fade MISHEN from NZ Dec 2, 2005 07:12
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