Thor's Travel Notes


Kunming Cycle

@ Wednesday 2 February 2000

Maybe it was all the exercise the day before, but I was much slower off the mark on this morning. First woke up about 4am with chilled extremities, then tried to go to sleep again as my head kept busy planning all kinds of things, even my new cartoon epic, "Stumpy's Kingdom of the Internet". One of those laneways in memory must have lead to sleep because I didn't wake again until seven.

The room in this Chang Chun so-called hotel was getting me down. Dwelling spots are mood setters. This joint had one of those toilet cisterns you had to wrestle with to stop it flushing forever. The room itself was cold, grubby and featureless. The hotel was without charm; even its staff conveyed no sense of commitment to the place. Yeah, I go for cheapness, spending my own pathetic savings, and have to expect to wind up in dank holes. You get what you pay for, don't you? Well, not necessarily. Well managed accommodation has more to do with staff attitude, and a bit of basic technical competence (keeping the plumbing working) than large budgets. I have encountered some delightful, cheap accommodation, usually where the manager enjoyed what he was doing. Yet in Jakarta a company once paid $200 per night for me to stay in a "luxury" suite with a marble bath: the taps didn't work... As far as the Chang Chun was concerned though, it wasn't even a wannabe, it was a bugger-you outfit. In other words, it was time to move.

I did some push-ups, then rugged like a polar bear went hunting in the back-alleys. Most of the snow had melted by now, but things were still dripping. The man selling the big yeasty muffins was already awake, so I pounced on a couple of those. My real target was milk, a seemingly rare commodity in early morning Kunming. No Seven-Eleven stores here (not yet!). Even at a quarter to eight the town was shuttered. I wiggled my ears at one fellow in a shoebox-sized kiosk. My feeble attempt to pronounce "you mei you nui nai?" could only elicit "ting bu dong" (don't understand you), so I also said "ting bu dong Hanyu". We both laughed, but even with the phrase book I scrabbled through, my luck was out: "mei you!" (don't have). Just down the road though another place did have a small carton claiming to be "nui nai". It tasted a bit off, and kept repeating for hours. Maybe some of China's famed adulterated food.

All my museum visiting plans were slipping away as the morning passed. If it was time to move, it was time to move, and that would swallow a whole chunk of the day. So I crammed everything into a bag once more, gave the floor attendant her little red sticker back, and took a little blue sticker from her. At the reception desk the blue sticker was worth a Y10 deposit that I hadn't realized I'd paid in the first place. Then I trolleyed up the street with all my worldly possessions.

This is where the hip, the rich and the lazy exit in a taxi, but for the lumpen invisibles, the unspeakably unfashionable like me, the trolley and its variants are a godsend. Someone should write an anthology about life with trolleys -- those embarrassing things covered in vinyl called shopping jeeps, beloved of pensioners in cardigans; the muscular no-nonsense models with three wheels on each side that young guys in singlets use to haul drink crates up stairways; the effete little chromed arrangements that they sell in airport shops... There was that sturdy tubular affair with big rubber wheels that I borrowed off an auctioneer in Wellington, New Zealand, thirty years ago, to wheel a second-hand refrigerator home through the center of the city; (the landlady booted me out the next day, since she figured that refrigerators use electricity..). But we digress. The Kunming trolley walk to the Camellia was further than I thought, clattering along over the uneven footpaths, but all things come to an end at last.

The Camellia hotel seems to be quite a complex arrangement. You sense that it is well-integrated into "the system", and probably crawling with underemployed spooks, especially with two consulates in-house, but who cares ...? I got my "small standard room" for Y140, and it turned out to be bigger than the room in the other place. In daylight at least, it looked a better proposition all around. They lied about the heating though -- zilch, nix, zero! The expensive rooms in the main building have air conditioning, but not here in Number 3 Building. Number 3 Building is behind a garden of rocks and bushy plants, and a little concrete pavilion with outdoor tables. I was on the same floor as, and just next to the Lao Consulate. The consulate is announced by a small hallway photo gallery: unexciting photos of Lao-type places. Somewhere behind the door officials nestle into glass boxes, but I didn't see any gents in pinstripe suits or "ethnic" coloured costumes.

This time the scene is cream walls, a grey curtain rail, two single beds, lots of places to put things. Also a brand new TV set that picks up satellite television, including CNN. Hmm, looking at CNN, if this is where the American President and Saddam Hussein get their picture of the human world, heaven help us all.. There's also German, French, and NHK (Japan) who throw in a bit of English programming for luck. Beijing's CCN4, which you will find from Wuhan to Urumchi, and which is the voice of the political masters, is nowhere to be had. Maybe Yunnan can get away with a little more independence than Central China.

Once established, I went hunting for the Yunnan Transport Company, which the Lonely Planet Guide said was just across the road. Damned if I could see it. Back to the hotel for directions. It was just inside the gate of the stadium, they said; so I went in the gate, and found a place with a couple of minibuses parked outside. I entered, and a couple of scraggy characters with their feet on the desks kind of waved at me. It wasn't a come hither wave; it was a piss off wave. What now? I walked outside, looked around. No, this had to be it. On the second intrusion, one of the customer-unfriendly persons jerked his cigarette in the direction of what seemed to be a back office. In the "back office" were three ladies at desks, behind a window facing abruptly onto the main street, where people were queuing up. My hello gave them a big surprise, but together we worked out fairly quickly what the long nose wanted.

There were half a dozen buses going each day to Dali, but it was made quite clear that on the morrow I could only go at 2.30pm, not 8.30am, which meant that I was going to get to Dali well after dark. What a pain. Hunting for cheap hotels after dark is a losing game. Worse, the lady not only charged me a heap more than the Lonely Planet guide said, but Y20 more than the bus company's own information card said. Was that for personal service? It's called scalping, and I guess that I was paying for somebody's celebration of the Chinese New Year. As the sucker's realpolitik says, take it or leave it ... So with my little scrap of overpriced ticket, at 2.30 pm the next day I would be off to Dali.

By now it was about lunch time. I didn't want to go to the Camellia Hotel restaurant again, so I walked a block or two and found a little place near the corner of Dongfeng Lu and Baitu Lu. Mama Fu's No.2, it was called. Custom was slow on that day. They gave me a menu in English which looked as if it had been manufactured for the text-book backpacker : banana pancakes, etc. Cliché or not, I settled for some diced chicken with peanuts & rice. Forgot to order a side salad, but splurged on something optimistically advertised as apple pie and ice-cream. That last was a mistake. The Chinese idea of Western cuisine is almost always a travesty, but the apple pie a la microwave didn't cost much. All in around Y26, which in Australian money comes to about $5.20.

Next door a sign over the doorway said "Internet". The sting was Y15 per hour, and when I asked again, Y10 for half an hour. This is all about supply and demand, not just a profit margin. In other Chinese cities like Xian or Wuhan, it can get down to Y3 to Y5 an hour. Also, the Internet by definition is not part of the traditional economy. You can stay alive on market vegetables for a song, but things like computers belong to an international marketplace, and are retailed for prices that don't vary hugely between San Francisco, Sydney and any Chinese city. It seemed worth Y10 to tell someone in the wide blue yonder that I was alive and kicking; probably cheaper anyway than passing on this momentous information through the ancestor spirits in some temple. Others have more faith in telepathy than electronics. The joss stick seller stalls still make a tidy profit in these modern times..

The Camellia Hotel reputedly had bicycles for hire. Sure enough, the gatekeeper, with nothing else to do, had a stack of machines in a shed. Well, a machine is a functional object. His jumble of metallic junk hardly qualified. There were a handful of more or less roadworthy vehicles, but they belonged to staff and weren't for hire. I tried to pick apart the remaining wreckage. In the right frame of mind you might have even felt nostalgia for some of these old bikes, a sort of rear vision view of a failed evolutionary path.

Take the weighty, clunking Hero brand machines from Shanghai. These things carried the first phase of Communist China's glorious industrial reconstruction on their backs. What a one ton pickup truck is to the workaday Western world, the Hero bicycle has been to the narrow roads and paths of China. About the same load often too. Yes, and they still sell them in department stores; any colour you like, as long as it is black. The big stand that swings under the back wheel of a Hero is stolid enough to make an instant hawker's stall, and the brakes don't have cables but steel rods meant to last forever.

Alas, even these attempts at the indestructible were not proof against total neglect. Few of the bikes in that shed had working brakes, and almost all had flat tyres. Why would a gate keeper, dignified by a permanent job, stoop to looking after bicycles... When I made motions asking about a pump for the tyres his response was a quick and unequivocal "mei you". Ah, that phrase, "mei you" ("no have"), it's a kind of national signature tune. He wanted Y400 deposit, although these wrecks would be lucky to fetch Y25 on the second-hand market. But I did want a bike, and the gent in the greatcoat would not have comprehended my contempt, even if I had a babel fish for translation. I had been in China long enough to know that around the next corner, somewhere on a kerb, would be another poor fellow of lower rank who would happily repair and pump up a tyre for one or two yuan. I paid the deposit. Then a suspicion nibbled at the corner of my eye, I swung back the door and found a pump behind it. Safe with his money, the gatekeeper feigned surprise.

On that first glimpse of Kunming coming from the airport, the snow covered streets had been almost deserted. Now, perhaps encouraged by a little extra warmth, throngs of bicycle riders had appeared, all hurrying home to prepare for the Lunar New Year. I wobbled into the river of wheels with my knees in the air, for the seat was too low. Once mobile, it was fairly quick to track down Dongfeng Lu, past the late unlamented Chung Shen Hotel, quite a long way past, then around to the right where I had given up the ghost the evening before. The hill started to climb. I stood on the pedals. No gears with this monster.

Eventually the way took me up past a Technical University of some kind, which looked more like a rust-belt factory. Then came a sort of ring road, which I allowed the bike to follow for a bit before swinging back on a narrow radial lane towards the city center. At the lane's end was a fruit shop, with apples by the cartload, big SALE signs, but still double the Wuhan price, or at least what I wheedle out of the back street East Gate market. I should've been a loan shark or hawker -- all this obsession with prices.. Still, two apples a day is my secret formula for joining the immortals. Just hope they don't spray them with dioxin -- the apples I mean.

From the apple place it was possible to lock onto another ring road, leading past the gates of what was clearly Kunming University. I didn't go in, but giving it a quick "kan yi kan", it was possible to see a crowded cluster of multistory buildings with almost no open campus space; (why? ... in a province as spacious as Yunnan). Lots of money was being spent downtown, but there was no external evidence that any of it was dripping down to the university.

Up a nearby backstreet was the promise of more immediate gratification for a popcorn junky like me. A slightly goofy looking young guy stood over a popcorn saucepan. These devices have two semicircular steel lids that hinge in the center over a largish pot. The operator drops in some unpopped corn, maybe a bit of sugar and a dash of oil, then shakes it over an open burner until his fine judgement tells him that the poppers have all popped. The Kunming popcorn man needed a course in advanced marketing. He hadn't standardized his product. For all the bags of various accidental sizes he asked an ambitious five yuan. Doubtless one of the fabled foreign spendthrifts didn't drop by every day. The real going price is one yuan (an expert speaks here), so I offered him that and was happily given a packet slightly smaller than the largest one; by no means five times as small though.

One direction on a ringroad to nowhere special is really as good as any other direction. Why suffer? I took the downhill option, and wheeled past some shuttered shops that might have been Kunming's answer to Wuhan's Luoyu Lu computer strip, with none of the vibrancy. Presently there was an elaborate cloverleaf flyover to sort through. Not much traffic on it luckily. Choices, choices... I followed it around until the bike was pointing north. This new road followed a range of low scrubby foothills, on and on and on, an exposition of classic strip development, Chinese style. The careful planning of central Kunming had been left far behind, and we were back with those generic open garage shopfronts and functional two story buildings faced with small, ugly, white tiles. They dot the whole of China, often decorated with streaks of rust from old water pipes. I could see these things disappearing into the distance, and wondered how far to follow them.

Around the 5km mark I was on the point of giving up, when at last there was a T-junction, with a link road running down to the river plain below. Here we were on the very margins of the city, and it was a good spot to get a feel for the true geography of the metropolis. From the inside human settlements have a way of overwhelming natural landforms : you can live for years in a suburb with never once reflecting that down in the spot where you buy your bread every day, there may once have been a shady valley with a stream running through it....

Kunming is on a plateau, which is also a wide river plain, between ranges of mountains, although the visible mountain crests only seem to rise a few hundred meters above the city's elevation... The road from the T-junction seemed new. It fell east in a swoop from the foothills down to low marshy ground through which the road embankment itself created a kind of drainage dike. Just south of the dike were serried rows of new apartment blocks, all empty or partly built. To the north of the road was low, marshy land that seemed to continue for a great distance. On the hills, traces of snow were still visible, a rather nice effect. But take away the city comforts and it was obvious that for your average yak herder this had been a dry, cold, bleak and probably windy place. In fact, a sharp wind was increasing the sense of desolation. No wonder the people have chapped, ruddy faces.

I turned up my collar, parked the bike by the marsh, and ate popcorn looking soulfully into the distance. The wind kept trying to suck bits of popcorn out of the light plastic bag, whipping and shivering it from my fingers. I leaned against the thin trunk of a young leafless tree, a hopeless shelter, but somehow it gave strength to have two living things standing together. When your mind replays the video of old memories, some moments come like picture postcards, floating free and bright on a grey current of forgetfulness. This was one of the memorial postcards. Who collects these images, arranges and displays them, remains a mystery. I can only say that my particular set of remembered moments live between my footprint and the sky, only rarely peopled with other beings.

Half a kilometer further on a bridge crossed a very small river, which formed the boundary of renewed urban life. This was across the valley, with the ground rising once again, and the road turned south, heading back to the city through more battalions of new apartment blocks. The business of stacking millions of people into concrete boxes can probably never be charming, but to be fair some attempt was being made to prettify the boxes a bit with pastel and plaster. There were bay windows, flashes of pink and brown, slight variations in design. It has been a long time since the huddled masses of China's cities have seen real wide open spaces; (in Australia I noticed that overseas Asian students actually feared open space). The narrow spaces between the row upon row of ten story buildings would be lucky to ever be warmed by a ray of sunshine. There must be millions of boys like my Sunday student, Wang, who can't find anywhere to kick a football.

As I came back into the Camellia, a new gatekeeper, a chubby little man in an army greatcoat, was having a great time wrestling his friend to the ground. I arrived simultaneously with a huge, gangling European. His raw scrubbed features also told tales of a harsh climate, and he was about my age, but with a rather different agenda. In his wake trailed a continental European lady-acquaintance of uncertain vintage. He was asking her in German-accented English what she planned to do tomorrow. Looking properly aristocratic, with hollow dieted cheeks, the lady, let us suppose a divorcee, flickered her eyelids in that maybe-maybe-not way that women of class pretension have.

The tall gent could make no impression at all on the gatekeeper. He didn't have the wit to show the bit of paper which would get his monstrous deposit back, so I chipped in with a snippet of brief advice. Besides, I wanted my own money back. My intervention, a word of Chinese, a stamped bit of paper, pleased the little man who promptly coughed up my Y400. So for the three and a half hour cycling tour it had cost Y6, or about Australian $1.20. I could almost forgive the clapped out bicycle.

Riding like a circus chimpanzee with your knees in the air does extract a price. It felt distinctly odd to walk upright again, and my kneecaps were making strange complaints. Instinct should have said, "that's enough for one day", but then it crossed my mind to wonder what there would be to read for the next week. The Xinhua Plaza place had displayed a set of that peculiarly eclectic collection of works in English which is made available to the Chinese public : Jack London stories, Madam Bovary, Little Women etc. Contemporary English prose is almost unheard of, although a remarkable amount of stuff seems to be available translated into Chinese. The availability of Chinese translations of, for example, Bill Gates and George Soros (now there's a true Marxian pair), and a thousand others, makes me suspect that the dearth of exciting English language books has more to do with the moribund state of Chinese foreign language publishing houses than any kind of reasoned censorship. Or maybe copyright is unenforceable on Chinese translations.

Anyway, it had to be English for me, so I set out doggedly on foot once more, a twenty minute slog to the Xinhua Plaza .... and the bloody place had closed down for the New Year. A small bookshop up the road was my last hope. No luck -- not a hint of English anywhere.

I really was weary by the time I got back. Maybe this exhaustion is healthy, I don't know... Then a lady ding-donged on the door with a photocopied blurb to put in the room folder. It said "Camellia Music - Romantic Times - 80% discount for you!" Yawn. Should I go to be romanced and clipped? Nah.. Maybe the atmospherics were affecting my mood. The cold was beginning to close in again. What would tomorrow bring?


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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 Cycle"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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