Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Kunming - Parks and Markets

It was raining when we arrived in Kunming and we couldn’t get a taxi to take us to the hostel for love nor money.  I don’t know why but they just wouldn’t take us – they didn’t even try to rip us off, they just refused!  And we couldn’t find the public bus that was supposed to take us there so we were a bit stuck.  That was until a random bloke came up to us and offered to take us for 40 yuan which is about double what it should be but we were desperate, and £4 is nothing compared to an hour’s walk with a heavy rucksack, and our principles are a little hazy – quite frankly £4 could probably feed his family for a week and it wasn't going to break our budget so we gladly accepted his offer.

Lily pads at Green Lake Park
It was early, about 8.30am, so we had rather a long wait for our room at the Hump Hostel (yep, the Hump!).  After a slight misunderstanding where we thought they had given our room away (mild panic) we were eventually shown to our room after 4 hours.  But it was 4 hours pleasantly spent in the bar area, watching people come and go, eating a fine breakfast, drinking relatively cheap coffee (cheap for China anyway), and watching the BBC World News and all the excitement of the US election.
The hostel had a large bar area, and a large outdoor roof garden partly under cover with various tables and chairs and comfy sofas.  It was going to be a good place to recharge for a few days.

It stopped raining shortly after we arrived in Kunming and when the sun cam out it was pleasantly warm.  This made a really nice change from the chilly desert climate and Chengdu which had been a bit grey and cold.  The rooftop garden was lovely and from what we could see of Kunming (although, granted, another big Chinese city) it seemed to have a little more character, appeared to be a little more laid back, with not nearly as much pollution.
We had planned to go to see the Stone Forest (Shilin) but after investigating the logistics of this which involved taking a taxi to the bus station, a 3 hour bus journey there (and 3 hours back), and entrance fees of about 200 yuan (£20 each) we decided it just wasn’t worth it.  The stone forest is basically a vast area of unusual karst mountains and it is supposed to be teeming with tourists (just like every other bloody place of interest in China).  We had already seen plenty of karst mountains and would be heading over to Hunan and Guangxi province in a few weeks where there are karst mountains galore.  We decided to skip it.  Google it – it’s very impressive, but you can’t do everything in 3 months.  China is a huge country and we’re on a budget!

Tai Chi in Green Lake Park
Instead, we spent our time in Kunming wandering around the town and investigating a couple of Kunming’s parks.  The day after we arrived we walked to the Green Lake Park which is centrally located in the city, about a 20 minute walk from the hostel, and which was lovely but chaotic for reasons that I will go into in a moment.  Firstly, as I believe I have mentioned before, the description “park” in China usually means a body of water surrounded by a lot of concrete, paved pathways, bridges and pagodas.  Whilst it will be depicted in green on a map, there is usually not a blade of grass to be found (and if there is it will have a sign saying “no feet” along with a picture of 2 feet and red line through them).  There will be lots of greenery, in the shape of willow trees, rubber trees, bougainvillea , and in Kunming (oddly) eucalyptus trees.  Parks in China are very formal affairs, nothing like the parks and heaths we have back in the UK (in particular London), green spaces which often give the impression that you are in the country, and which we really love.
Eucalyptus trees were absolutely everywhere in Kunming and some of them were enormous.  Paul believed were native to Australia so we couldn’t work out how there were so many in Kunming of all places.  That was until we discovered that Kunming is apparently twinned with Wagga Wagga (in Australia – as if there was another Wagga Wagga).  Strange but apparently true, according to a notice at the entrance gate (see below), and so it may be that Wagga Wagga is responsible for the copious number of eucalyptus trees in Kunming!  I wonder if they have pagodas in Wagga Wagga?

Normally, in order to visit a park in China you are charged an entrance fee but on this occasion we weren’t fleeced on our way in (or out). Clearly this was an oversight by the Chinese authorities which we are sure will be rectified, but we weren’t about to complain.
We spent a few hours wandering around the park.  As usual, there were lots of people milling about doing stuff.  We encountered people doing Tai Chi, Irish dancing, belly dancing, playing instruments, singing, playing cards and chess, knitting, embroidering, and many other things which I just can’t recall at the moment.  The Chinese just will not be idle.  This seems particularly to be the case with the older generation – they are always doing something.  You never see them just sitting there watching the world go by.  And if they aren’t doing any of the above they will be eating (noodles) and drinking (tea).

The roof garden at The Hump Hostel
In all parks in China you will come across various groups of people doing Tai Chi or dancing, for example, an Irish jig to tinny music emanating from an amp hung up in a nearby tree.  Not 10 feet away will be a competing group of people dancing, oh I don’t know, for the sake of argument, let’s say the jive, and they’re accompaniment will be in the form of tinny music emanating from an amp hung up in a nearby tree.  The ensuing noise is not particularly pleasant, and as the two (sometimes three, sometimes more) groups compete for noise space, they turn up the volume.  Not only is it a sight to behold but it is a cacophony that can only be borne for a short period of time before you want to scream for it to stop.
This is all quite usual for China and every time we see it we just shake our heads in wonder, watch for all of 5 minutes, before leaving to seek refuge in a soundproof room somewhere.

We fed the goldfish in one of the many ponds.  You buy a little bag of food for 2 yuan and watch hundreds of fish fight over it.  They come in all shapes, colours and sizes and some of them are so big you wouldn't put your fingers anywhere near the water as they look like they would nibble it right off.  Goldfish are everywhere in China and there is usually a pond in every courtyard, full of fish.  They do like their fish, do the Chinese.
The view across Kunming from the roof garden
at night
On our way back from the park we spent some time exploring a market near the hotel.  There were lots of the usual souvenirs, jade and (allegedly) silver but also more of the less palatable wares for sale.

Furs are widely available on the market stalls in China.  This is not so much of a shock in itself until you realise that Tiddles the tabby is hanging on a hook, next to the Gunther the German Shepherd and Goldie the Golden Retriever.   There are a lot of dog and cat pelts as well as the usual fox furs and smaller animals.  The pet pelts in particular are of course a little unsavoury for us to say the least but we have seen these everywhere in China (and to a lesser Russia and Mongolia) - obviously widely acceptable in these countries, but an uncomfortable sight for many westerners to behold.
Then you are faced with the birds and small animals for sale.  The birds are crammed into small cages – parrots, budgerigars, canaries, along with all manner of wild birds including sparrows and finches.  Animals for sale include hedgehogs (of all things), rabbits, hundreds of baby rodents (hamsters, gerbils and the like – lots of them all crammed into shallow cardboard boxes), chipmunks,squirrels, spiders, lizards, snakes – anything you can think of really.  Then there are the boxes of turtles and terrapins – there are dozens in each box and you can only spend so much time turning them back on their fronts. You have to walk away.  The puppy section of the market warrants a completely separate area in itself and it breaks your heart to see puppies too young to be separated from their mothers for sale on the stalls.  We didn't linger for long. 

Seeing all this which is so far removed from what is acceptable at home is at the very least uncomfortable.  The same can be found in any market in any village, town or city in China.  Personally, we found it upsetting.  It’s things like this, even with all the obvious variations in our cultures and values, which really underline those differences and make you think about everything else, behind the scenes, which you don’t see (or really think about) as a tourist.

We have seen live chickens and ducks crammed into cages for sale (to eat) all around China:  on street corners all over Beijing and other major cities, and in all the markets.  I'm a bit pathetic and don't like the idea watching my dinner being killed and plucked before I take it home but that says more about me and my willingness to ignore the facts of where my food  actually comes from.    Seeing the poultry for sale alive on the streets seems more honest and I hardly think we in the west can complain when our own food will suffer this kind of treatment from birth (or egg) to death in battery farms, but behind closed doors.  Our food is largely presented in palatable packages without faces, so I find it difficult to find fault with the Chinese way it deals with it's food.  For example, in restaurants, beef is portrayed with the picture of a cow.  The Chinese know where their food comes from and that demonstrates a respect for the animal it eats (in my humble opinion).
On our last full day in Kunming we caught a bus to the Dian Chi Lake where there are minority villages and a few parks and a mountain.

The mountains to the south of Kunming reflected
on the still lake near Dian Chi
The bus ride was 1 yuan (10 pence) and took about 40 minutes (that’s what I call value for money!).  We poked our noses into the minority village complex but it looked all a bit fancy dress and souvenir shops so we decided it wasn’t worth the £10 entrance fee.
Instead, we headed off to the park where we were charged a much more reasonable entrance fee of about 20 yuan and spent a couple of hours wandering around the lake.  Again, the weather was lovely and mild, the mountains to the west of the lake formed a scenic view and it was lovely to be away from the city.  We chose not to ride the cable car on this occasion, a sensible decision I think given our track record.

We saw no other westerners in the park although we are becoming skilled at spotting “stealth westerners” – undercover western tourists of Chinese origin which can be difficult to pick out sometimes unless you know the signs.  The biggest giveaway is usually the fact that they speak English and but sadly we have noticed a trend that they bang on about how everything is better is their new country, complaint about service, facilities and cost. 

This is actually an appalling generalisation (and I admit, not accurate at all) and so I apologise unreservedly but I cannot help but remember the Chinese Americans we have overheard in restaurants saying that nothing in China is anywhere near as good/cheap/tasty/scenic/impressive as it is in the States!  This can also explain why many western tourists of Chinese origin complain that they receive less than satisfactory service and clearly the majority are unfairly stigmatised by the arrogance of the few. 
We had been in China for just over a month now and were settling in to the way of things (although at the risk of repeating myself the main criticism we have is the lack of cheese which would greatly improve our experience of the country – the unfettered sale and skinning of wild animals and pets aside).

The food is generally really tasty, very spicy, and lots of it.  Cigarettes are cheap which is a double edged sword - at 5 yuan a pack you really don't care how much you smoke!  Beer is generally cheap although in some bars you can pay double what you pay in the hostels.  Hostels clearly know what travellers want (although travellers don’t drink as much as they used to!).
Chinese people are generally a joy to be around.  They are curious, friendly, they love their country and they are interested in what you think of their country.  They will go out of their way to help you, whether they are capable of helping you or not, which can cause problems.  For example, when you ask for directions and they don't know, they would rather guess the answer than admit they can’t help.  You can end up being sent in all different directions by several people, all trying their hardest to help you but not having a clue where it is you want to be.  You can end up walking around in circles becoming increasingly frustrated that no-one will admit they haven't got a clue where your hostel/the bus station/the train station is!  We have learned to look for the signs, and the slightest hesitation will lead us to believe that they really haven't got a clue.

All western tourists are a curiosity to a point and you become accustomed to being blatantly stared at.  Obviously Paul, with his height and tattoos, attracts a lot of attention and is the subject of hundreds of photographs no doubt posted on Weibo (China's Facebook).  Often people will just come up to us and chat away in Mandarin (or whatever their native language is).  They really don't seem to care that we haven’t got a clue what they are going on about, they are just happy to chat. 

Kunming twinned with...Wagga Wagga!
Sometimes, if there is something they really want to get across to us and it is apparent that we are just not getting what they are saying, they will find a pen and paper and write it down and point furiously at it.  Unfortunately, and rather hilariously, they have simply written down what they are saying in Chinese characters which is about as much use to us as a chocolate teapot! 

There are of course some parts of the Chinese culture with which we are uncomfortable at best, but what right have we to inflict our views and our morals?  We are visitors to this country and have to embrace it as a whole, even if we do not accept certain parts of the culture (or indeed the politics which is a whole other subject) as being savoury.  It is often a topic for discussion in the hostel bar with our fellow travellers and by and large most people view their experiences and reactions rather objectively alongside the realisation that they are visitors in a country with a culture fairly alien to their own. 

China is a beautiful country.  Yes, there is lots of industry and the landscape is scarred in places with  extensive evidence of almost unrestrained excavation by man of fuel and minerals, but there is also mile upon mile of farming, and the mountains and desert are vast and impressive.  The pollution is appalling in the big cities and industrial areas and it is amazing how tangible it is – you can see it, smell it and taste it:  it is much worse that we envisaged.  However, as an optimist I am hoping that there may be truth in something that Oliver the Swiss guy we met in Chengdu said.  He felt that because China has seen an extraordinary industrial, commercial and economic revolution take place over 10 years, unprecedented in the modern world, if it were to decide one day to clean up its environmental act, then given its current track record, it could do it in a much shorter time span than we could ever imagine.  We shall see Oliver is right and indeed whether the environment ever reaches the top of the agenda.

Our next stop after Kunming was to head slightly north to Lijiang, one of the pearls in Yunnan province.  We booked a hostel ahead and after 3 relaxing days in Kunming set off on the day train, hoping to enjoy some of the legendary Yunnan scenery.



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