Thor's Travel Notes


Kunming by Shanks-Pony

@ Tuesday 1 February 2000

The dreams that come with creeping cold are easy to leave. I awoke early in the morning, about 5am. It was to be another chilly day, at least in the beginning, but not snowing thank god.

When I first come to a city I am apt to do a lot of walking, and so it was with Kunming. The sense of proportion you get about a place from shanks pony is quite different from that on four footed pony, bicycle, bus or limousine. On this day I guess I walked for about ten hours altogether. Firstly, along Dong Feng Lu (East Wind Road) where my hotel was, as far as Beijing Lu, where I did a hard left and walked, and walked, to what the map said should have been a railway station.

Overnight much of the snow had melted away, except on grassy areas, pot plants etc. I photographed a chesty stone lion with a clumpy crown of snow on his head. There are umpteen stone lions in this city. There was also a peacock made of flowers, with a long tail of snow like a bridal veil -- quite catching. The monkey made of flowers on a big roundabout was also daubed in snow.

Every city in China has a Beijing Lu (and a Nanjing Lu, and a Jeifang Dadao, or revolutionary way) ..... This particular Beijing Lu was a bit of a disappointment. Clearly a main road, but rather uninteresting, maybe because the many small shops were closed for the Lunar New Year. Eventually, after several kilometers I came to a great swooping underpass, with a large building in the final stages of construction along the ridge above. By all logic it had to be the railway station. I detoured around the underpass, plodding up a muddy track to the high embankment. Well, maybe the building on top would become a station someday, but the living railway station was nowhere to be seen. Chinese railway stations tend to be dark, grubby holes, sometimes great gaping holes like the main station in Guangzhou, and sometimes so small and cluttered with dusty hawker's stalls that you can miss them altogether. No doubt the Kunming version was hiding in a culvert somewhere..

The rail lines themselves looked like something out of a Russian film for art cinemas. Cold steel spearing into the distance has an odd yearning about it, a Doctor Zhivago feel, especially when the canvas is bleached white, with a few dark brush strokes of shadow. I took a photo of some rugged up maintenance workers out on the tracks.

When you are walking like this there is obviously nobody to talk to, so I get into the habit of looking into people's faces (perhaps a little rudely) and trying to figure out "who have we got here?", "what sort of people are these?", "what picture of the world is behind those eyes?". Well I have to say that Kunming, even if it was half shuttered for the New Year, and uncharacteristically chilly, is perhaps the most attractive city that I've seen in China. It is a very approachable place, or at least the CBD is. The traffic actually follows rules. It has an air of purpose and modernity which suggests a lot more money than you find in Wuhan (or maybe it is just better spent, instead of being squirreled away in private bank accounts).

BUT, looking into the faces of the people.... No they weren't the grim crowds from the Hong Kong sidewalks. Come to think of it, sheer loneliness may have spooked the few hardy souls who were about. They looked miserable. Also, um ... how do you say this dispassionately ... these Kunming people were ugly. Alright, alright .... as one of the world's uglies myself, hopefully I'm allowed to say these things. But there is no doubt about it, even the children I saw on this grey morning looked OLD. The typical body shaped seemed to be square, clumpy, chubby faces with heavy jowls. Their skin looked coarse and ruddy. Every man was smoking. As a group they just looked knocked about. The human family comes in all shapes and sizes. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but Penthouse would find slim pickings for beauty queens in the Kunming I happened upon. By way of compensation, my flight traveling friend, Frank, told me the day before that Kunming folk are much more welcoming than the Hans of Wuhan. I haven't had a chance to test that, and probably won't either.

Anyway, I walked along the railway line for a few hundred meters, and then hopped over the lines themselves, following some old peasant ladies. It looked like a short cut, but the path led to some muddy backstreets, unpopulated except for a huddle of small boys, and I had to slip and squelch around for quite a while to find a way out.

About halfway back to Dongfeng Lu another large lu cut across it: Renmin Lu (People's Street, and also universal in Chinese cities). Anyway, I turned left into Renmin Lu, and shortly found myself outside of Xinhua Plaza. Xinhua, meaning talk or gossip, is the largest book chain in China, naturally owned by the government. Not surprisingly Xinhua is also the PRC news-cum-propaganda agency. Although it is nominally a single organization, the quality of Xinhua's retail outlets varies dramatically. In Kunming, the management has actually gotten its act together. There are three floors, with escalators, spaciously distributed bookshelves, nice places to sit. Maybe this was the best bookshop I saw in China as far as layout goes; (there are one or two nice ones in Nanjing too..). After all this retail seduction .... I didn't buy a thing, which I was to regret later.

I kept tracking eastwards up Renmin Lu for several blocks, but didn't find anything special. Just more of a big city. Eventually a right turn took me back down to Dongfeng Donglu. My project was a half-hearted search for the famed Camellia Hotel. It had to be around here somewhere. The Camellia when I did find it was set well back from the road , and looked rather flashier than I expected. Some sixth sense intuited that the state security apparatus had designated the place as a suitable holding pen for foreigners. The spooks would have other things to keep an eye on here too. I walked in past some big signs announcing the Consulate General of Laos, and the Consulate General of Myanmar. Now there's a nice mix of villains. It was opportunity to do a bit of spying myself, so I ambled around, poking my nose into a couple of in-house boutiques selling curios and chocolate bars.

Upstairs I found a restaurant with a menu in English. It wasn't a very exciting menu, but it was at least recognizable food. Traveling alone in China it is quite difficult to keep a balanced diet. As it turned out, the Camellia's steamed fish was very nice, except for all the small bones (a curse of inland river fish). Tasty slices of ginger on top too. All the vegetables were fried of course. Your average Chinese cook murders vegetables. The beans I asked for metamorphosed into fried green peas, as hard and tasteless as shotgun pellets. Something called "sweet tomato" resolved into slices of tomato smothered in sugar. A couple of tiny chunks of mantou, steamed bread, rounded the meal off. The cost: Y28, or about six Australian dollars. Not too bad I suppose.

The Camellia's reception desk sign advertised "small" single rooms with a bathroom for Y140, so I asked the bemused clerk behind the counter if their rooms were warm. Yes, he said. Receptionists are trained to say yes; it pleases the customers. Perhaps I could book in for one night, then set out the next day for Dali. I had an idea there was a luxury bus to Dali from somewhere near this hotel. Over the years I've become less tolerant of bone-shaking leviathans, and knee-capping minibuses; (in 1972, on my first great trip through Asia, I thought such vehicles were part of the romance. They made a good story. Now I usually see them as rip-off exploitation of both local people and visitors by common crooks).

It was still a fair walk home, especially with time out for a detour into the Sakura Department Store (obviously Japanese). There seemed to be quite a few department stores in this town, mostly selling the same kind of junk you see in Wuhan. As a pampered, jaded Australian I'm probably over-critical about retail shopping. Many of my students write in awe and delight of the cornucopia available in big Chinese cities, after the spartan opportunities offered by small provincial towns. Still, if I were running one of these stores, I'd comb the immensity of China to find products DIFFERENT from my competitor's offerings.

I did pick up a fake "Swiss" pocket knife. My real Swiss mini-knife slipped through a hole in a trouser pocket in Nanjing, so I've been looking for one ever since. The real McCoy (or is it a better class of fake?) costs Y120 in China, this one Y8. Exactly the same design, but the execution is not so precise. The little scissors will need a bit of blacksmithing ... for they are the most useful tool of all.

By the time I finally got home my shoes were covered in mud, and oh, I felt weary. The sky had changed though. By 2pm in the afternoon, almost home, the world had started to warm up a bit, and the surroundings were looking more cheerful. Kunming is certainly no host to a mighty river like the Changjiang. However my route did cross a small river with built-up banks of stone like a stormwater channel, traversing the city center. This waterway is abutted by recent and extravagant city skyscrapers of marble and glass. For some reason they reminded me of the Osaka I saw eighteen years ago (good grief! Is it that long ago..).

Just to the east of this river is another large square decorated with lots of flower pots and a couple of floral sculptures. The snowy bridal peacock that I had photographed in the early morning now stood exposed in a rainbow sheath of floral feathers, although a bit frost bitten. At the back of this square, behind a high steel fence, was a very wide building of about three stories, and hosting an enormous advertisement for a cigarette company, like a red banner right across its brow.

Dodging the puddles, I approached it cautiously. Even now, the proper function of that building remains vague to me, but if I had to hazard a guess I'd say that it is (or was) some kind of people's "culture palace". From the interior somewhere came a tenor voice, high and thin. I entered a cavernous atrium which had doors leading off to unspoken places. Stairs on each wing led to upper regions, source of the voice, and there was a courtyard out the back. In the middle of the atrium floor, Italians would have embedded a famous mural in the marble, and Americans would have a catwalk for fashion shows to wow the supermarket customers. Well, the People's Paradise had a small circle of grubby glass display counters, stuffed with a lucky-dip jumble of leftovers from a haberdashery store and a railway refreshment stall. They had apparently given up employing anyone to sell the rubbish, because the place was empty. It was another of those iconic reminders of socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics. I hope somebody's culture was being massaged here in surprising ways, but the message if there was one had nothing to offer me...

Back in the hotel I sat down for a while. Pounding kilometers of pavements does that to you, but it's indecent to sit around in the middle of the day, isn't it. So I roused my weary bones again with some vague idea of heading northwest, where the map said there was a university adjacent to a large park. First I took a long short cut up the narrow street that runs parallel to this section of Dongfeng Donglu, behind the hotel. That street seems to be a Muslim quarter. Food apart, you can deck yourself out here with brightly patterned skull caps, trimmed with gilt and tiny mirrors, a prayer mat, or various trinkets in brass.

One small shop had a glass cabinet containing large muffin-like flat buns, maybe eight or nine inches across. They had obviously been baked, not fried , so I bought a couple. It was nice, yeasty baked bread with a thin crust, Y1 each. Baking or grilling is rare in China, where the idea of prosperous living is to saturate everything in animal fat or hydrogenated cooking oil; (and all the diseases which follow therefrom are becoming an epidemic; e.g.. 20% of Beijing's population now has hypertension. But try to tell a Chinese person that they need lessons in healthy cooking... ha). I knew from experience that with the muffins, like anything good you happen to stumble upon in this country, they were unlikely to be widely replicated, and the shop itself might disappear at any time when the cook decided to drive a taxi instead... Anyway, those muffins were more than a meal. For the next hour I munched them in stages for slow energy.

At the end of the Muslim street is a museum, which I had plans for investigating later. I clumped over one of those spindly steel foot bridges which keep kamikaze pedestrians from the traffic, and headed north, I thought, up a deserted street. Off to the left at one point there seemed to be a covered market, but although I wanted fruit, this wasn't the time to lug a kilo of apples along on a walking expedition. The road climbed up out of one valley, then suddenly tipped steeply into a narrow laneway. Should I turn back?

Well, what was to lose ... I slithered down the unpromising laneway, and at its end was astonished to come upon some rather trendy little cafes. Here was obviously a fashionable corner of town, almost un-Chinese in its individuality. Several of the cafes had hip English names, gingham cotton check curtains, lightly varnished wooden chairs ... This entrée led quickly to a more conventional resort area. What I had thought to be a park from the map was dominated by a largish ornamental lake, and like almost every recreation area in the country, had a high fence of steel bars to keep out the indigent masses.

Things were closing down for the day, at least in the park, but there were shoals of browsers to nose around the boutiques. If anyone reading this wants to open a shop in China, the trick is to rent yourself a crowd for half a day. Make sure they are dressed well and all have mobile phones. Next day they will come back for free, just to be in the crowd, then they will call their friends on mobiles to come and make the crowd bigger. Voila! You become an overnight millionaire.

Me, I didn't have a mobile, so I kept walking, coming to a bigger road, and turned north again up a new hill. But it was getting late, so I decided to turn tail, following the bigger road in the opposite direction, back to the intersection with Dongfeng Lu. Well, that was the theory. It shouldn't have been far. Cities though rarely work in neat rectangular blocks. In fact I was making a huge dogleg away from my hotel, into more unfamiliar territory, in strangely deserted streets. Well, the long distance walker always gets home at last, even with warped navigation. Just in time for the CCN4 TV news in this case. What a goal ... fancy missing a Beijing news broadcast ... Shortly my legs began to tingle with the cold as night settled in.


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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.

"Kunming by Shanks-Pony"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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