Thor's Travel Notes


Flying to Kunming

@ Monday 31 January 2000

The flight to Kunming from Wuhan was scheduled to leave at 7.40am, but the pick-up from the front gate of my university, in a Wuhan Airlines car, was arranged for 6.10am. This meant that I had to get up around 4.30am in the morning. Even then, somehow it was a rush. But I rushed, and stomped down to the front gate toting an overnight bag on a fold-up trolley. The normally busy entrance was dead, and deserted, and very cold..

The white car with the blue lettering on its door came as promised. A nice warm car with a driver who seemed to like speeding on the wrong side of the road, across double lines. We had a few stops to pick up some others - a soldier, a couple who waited in the wrong place, but we got to Hankou Airport in good time. This is the old city airport, on the northwestern side of town, and very well disguised (one town planning map I saw showed it as market gardens, no doubt to fool the enemy..). We crept through a gate which had no signposts at all. From the outside there is just a neglected three meter brick wall of the kind that conceals countless rust-belt factories in China. In other words, we were entering a region iconic to Maoist China, unlike the airy glass and marble palace of Tianhe "international" airport, an hour's drive east of the city.

Anyway, we came to the kind of old-fashioned "temporary" terminal building that I've seen in various Australian ports too. But such places do work in their own way. We negotiated a couple of opaque glass partitions, found ourselves in a largish hall furnished with banks of plastic seats in various primary colours. Yellow, blue, red, green seats, with blue & white tin signs on standposts in each section. The flight signs were all in Chinese of course. How was I to find my virtual departure lounge? One of the women in the car had actually smiled at me. She was wearing a knitted brown woolen cap, and a woolen shawl whose bright colours proclaimed her as "ethnic". In Han monoculture this was like wearing a neon sign, but her walking signpost style also made it easy for me to discreetly follow her lead.

We sat and we sat. The departure time came, then went. Eventually even I figured out that something was wrong. The girl at the desk actually spoke some English. Kunming airport was closed, and the flight would not leave until 10am she said... Aaagh! Up at 4.30am just to get a flight at 10am. ... so that meant Kunming at lunchtime, and a hotel at maybe 1pm ... maybe full up ... let's see what happens. Gradually the hall emptied of people, moments of silence echoed from the steel trussed rafters and polished linoleum floor.

10am wasn't the end of our wait for Kunming. It was just the beginning. A little after ten, they had realized that there was a "waiguoren" in the airport, so for a while announcements were made in English also. Pre-recorded, I think, because each announcement was played, then played again, and again, and again. Once I counted six repetitions in immediate sequence, in Chinese and English.

The news that came at 10am was not very welcome. The flight would depart at 12 noon sharp. By this time the morning rush had ended and the Kunming hopefuls were the only people in the whole terminal building. We settled down for a long wait. Me in what I'd hoped was a quiet corner to do a bit of recording and writing. In fact I finished a poem that I had begun three years ago, about the very beginning of my working life (When Eyes Came Out of Hiding). Up in another near-empty corner of the echoing terminal building a group of off-duty policemen lived up to the reputation of local Wuhan-hua speakers for loud discussion. Some out-of-town students have commented about this dialect style that if you didn't watch the protagonists, you'd think they were fighting.

At some time late in the morning they decided to pacify us with refreshments, so two cartons arrived. One contained orange cordial, and the other those throwaway plastic bowls of pre-cooked instant noodles. The idea is that you add hot water for an instant banquet. I declined.

Well, twelve o'clock rolled around and nothing sharp happened. I went and bought myself my first cup of coffee in five years, then decided to try to find out a little more about the source of our suspended animation. So to the counter girl, who had a little English, smiling brightly I asked "what EXACTLY is the problem?" You'd never guess, would you. It was snow. Kunming was under twelve inches of snow. Here I was leaving Wuhan to get away from the cold, traveling to the city of eternal spring .... and it was snowed under. What to do?

After a while I was casually approached by an ethnic Chinese man who spoke good American English. He introduced himself. He didn't really want to discuss the world, the universe and everything, but was just being neighbourly to an obvious outlander, offer a little information on what was going on. Yep, snow, he complained. And they promised that the snow would vanish by 2pm. We both laughed horse laughs, then went our separate ways.

I went back to the lady at the desk, begging for some writing paper. I had already combed the counters selling dried meat and cigarettes, and commemorative coins of the wise Party leaders. She scrabbled under her desk, and gave me a book of forms in Chinese, which was very nice of her. I settled back to write the great novel of the new century.

Around 3pm they finally called us for the flight. A rush to the exit, and we packed into the transit bus. Our plane was way out on the tarmac, taking us past ten or twelve mothballed propellor craft, white with PLA ensigns on the tails. They looked as if they may have carried around twenty passengers apiece at some time long ago: about the vintage of Lin Biao ? Our own destination was that ubiquitous American, a Boeing 737. I reflect in idle moments that Boeing is America's not so secret weapon. Well, there is the European Airbus, but for the time being the West Europeans are on the side of the angels. What happens to the Evil Empires, large and small, when the Yanks and Europeans cut off spare parts and avionics maintenance? You can't patch these things with old sardine cans like a DC3, and the Tupolevs of this world are hardly in the contest anymore ....

A sharp wind on the tarmac chilled us to the bone. We hoped the pilot was feeling cozy. This airport really is in a residential area. Overshoot the runway here and you wind up in somebody's kitchen. Anyway, we found our seats, belted up, and settled down for the day's main theme: waiting. The captain told us that we were waiting for a clearance from the control tower. Nothing happened. At last a Chinese voice came scratchily over the intercom again. A chorus of "wah!! ayah!!" erupted. Kunming airport was still closed. Would we please go back to the terminal building. So slowly grumpily everyone picked up their bags and trudged back to the bus.

My new American Chinese acquaintance had actually told me that it was possible to get a refund on the fares. He had also told me that some poor lady had been trying to get to Kunming since yesterday, when it was also snowed under. I began to think creatively about where else I could go.

The lady at the desk saw me coming again. It's only at times like this that an airport worker gets to "know" people (a teacher has at least a term to strike up acquaintances). Did Wuhan Airlines fly to Xiamen? At 8.10 tomorrow morning they flew to Xiamen. Should I change, I asked her? Being asked for real advice instead of being abused was a new experience for her. She looked a little startled, then said "well, wait until 4pm". Ah, she must have also heard the story about the horse that learned to sing hymns*... I sat on my hands again. [* Long ago a thief was ordered beheaded, but he begged the king for a year and a day to teach the king's horse to sing hymns. Greatly amused, the king agreed. In a year, the thief reasoned, the king might be dead, the horse might be dead, or the damned animal might learn to sing hymns after all.... (ref. Ursula LeGuin)].

At 3.30pm we went back to the plane. This time the American invited me to take a vacant seat next to him, so at least there was someone to talk to; (it is remarkable how rarely airline passengers will really talk to you. Something has changed since the days of long train journeys..). We did indeed take off this time, up into the cold grey clouds. The whole way we saw cold grey clouds, until descending we saw a land blanketed in white, the "land of eternal spring", as every travel reference brands Kunming.

The ethnic Chinese American was called Frank Liu. An unassuming man, perhaps in his early 40s, with a squarish, slightly freckled face. The palms of his hands were extraordinarily wrinkled, almost monkey-like. I commented later, and he told me that the lines even changed. A palmist who was a friend claimed that it was all a sign of an extraordinarily complicated life.

Well, at least his origins were complicated, because by some weird permutation of great events his Chinese parents had fled from the mainland to Taiwan with the Kuomintang, then Surinam in South America. He had found his way back to Taiwan for education as a food processing engineer. Now he worked for, and perhaps was also a shareholder, in an American engineering company called AirCo, which had spun off from one of the huge European gas corporations (BOC I think). AirCo's lifeblood was a machine for shredding and treating tobacco. So my new friend's mission in life was to look after tobacco machines. He didn't smoke, he said, and figured that the product would only last a few more years until the tobacco addiction cycle was legislated out of existence in most countries.

AirCo didn't sell the technology (it had in the past), but leased it after discovering that a rival had bought and leased AirCo's machines to the Chinese. Frank, as AirCo's Chinese face, had spent two years in Kunming to set up this magic machine and train locals to run it. It was supposed to cut and pack tobacco in such a way that less tobacco was needed in a cigarette. The cigarette companies would sure love that. In the eternal tradition of "less is more", the claim was that smokers also liked it better, and the cigarettes had less tar. It was "safer". After Kunming, Frank had spent two years playing the same tricks in Wuhan, and then some place in China's frozen northwest. But now he was coming back for a few days to keep his toy running in Kunming.

We nattered on. I told him about the lunacies of Chinese universities, of which he was quite innocent. We discussed a bit about the lunacies of Chinese politics too, and generally got on quite well. He did mention that Chou Enlai's physician had been instructed by Mao Tse Tung (towards the end of both their lives) not to provide treatment for the premier's pneumonia, this precipitating his death. Mao's final act of betrayal and murder...

As we descended into Kunming, Frank made a call on his mobile, and found that the factory was already closing down for the day. He thought about that for a while, then offered to drop me off in town from his taxi, at the place that I had vaguely selected from the Lonely Planet guide. That was a very handy offer. Hitting a strange city cold (very cold in this case!) is always a hassle. At this time on a frozen evening I wasn't particularly looking forward to it.

There was no way the ground trip was going to be much faster than the air trip. Kunming does have a big, modern airport, a very good one. But outside the queue for taxis was depressingly long. Maybe all the taxi drivers had taken their Spring Festival holidays early. So we waited again. And waited. The cars passed by with big caps of snow piled like ice-cream onto their roofs. Eventually of course a taxi did come, and we made our way into town. It wasn't so far. As Chinese cities go, this one looked approachable. Certainly it wasn't the grim, confused filth of that urban tragedy, Wuhan. Kunming had just been showcased to the world, which no doubt had something to do with its modern looks. We passed the huge exhibition building, site of the International Horticultural Exhibition last October (I stayed away then for fear of ravening hordes of tourists and inflated prices).

In the center of town we came to a hotel that seemed to be the place I was looking for. Frank slipped inside to check. It was. I booked in thankfully, for Y168 a night. That, in this part of Asia, is not so cheap. Not on my Chinese salary. Almost as much as I pay for a foxhole in Hong Kong. The room was on the 4th floor; no lifts. Things worked on the standard Communist system of a lady-of-a-certain-age parked behind a desk on each floor. Her job is to guard the key, let you in if you ask nicely, and fill the hot water thermos with bad grace. I hate this system. It is an abuse of privacy, and means that you have to find the woman (not always easy) every time you go out, even for a minute. It becomes a real nuisance when you have to go in and out several times quickly.

I studied my temporary home. Well, there was a carpet of indefinable colour on the floor, cream walls, two beds, a wardrobe crudely painted off-white, with sliding doors which wouldn't slide ... a toilet seat made of fibre board, painted with flaking white paint. But I could survive here better than out in the snow, it seemed. Ah, but there was also one minor detail which I had overlooked. This was spring city, right? Why would they need heating or air conditioning in a city of eternal spring? I went to bed wearing two pairs of long-johns, two pairs of socks, and four skivvies. In the wardrobe I found one of those ancient, weighty quilts. When I crept under the bed clothes, they were dank, musty ...

A little earlier I had ventured out into the street again in search of nourishment. It had been a long day, and Wuhan Airline's claims to fame didn't extend to fancy catering. By now it was getting late - after 7pm. Most of the stores were closed. Ducking down a little back street I found a lane that had a bit of picaresque colour. Little food shops, small restaurants, halal butcher shops walled with great slabs of cured meat. Places like this always look more magical in the twinkling electric bulbs and deep shadows of night. Right at the end of the lane I came across a very large, very modern, two-storied supermarket. Just what I needed. Bought some bits and pieces, then trudged home again through the snow.

"Does the restaurant have a menu in English?" I asked the hotel receptionist. What a daft question. Of course not. By now it was around 8pm, so I went up to the second floor and stuck my head in the restaurant door. There were piles of empty dishes everywhere, and clouds of smoke billowing out of the kitchen. The tables were deserted. No cosmopolitan meeting place, this. It was clear that the staff were going home for the night, and maybe for the year. Sadly I made my way back down to the damp street, watching for sudden slips of snow off branches and eves. Yes, somewhere there was one of those ubiquitous Kentucky Fried imitation joints, where they charged me the price of a full restaurant meal for a cardboard box of cardboard chicken in some kind of spiced batter.

Back in my frozen little room, still hungry, I picked at the bread roll I'd bought in the supermarket, and split it. There, neatly curled, was a strand of human hair. I regarded it morbidly, and wondered what part of a person's anatomy it came from. Should I discard my poor man's dinner? At last, the pangs of hunger overcame any such delicacy. I put the hair aside, and ate whatever it was that remained.

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* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Flying to Kunming"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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