From Beihai, we went to Kunming. We took a bus from Beihai to Nanning, milled around for the day, and took a night train to Kunming. We got second class sleeper tickets, and our beds were next to two other travelers from England. One was a student in Shanghai, and the other was his girlfriend who was just visiting. After chatting for a while, they pulled out some Havarti cheese as part of their dinner which we stared at lustily. The only cheese we had eaten in China were Kraft singles, so just pulling out good cheese for dinner on a train seemed like an incredible luxury to us.
Kunming is a wonderful city. The weather was warmer and sunnier than anywhere we had been, and there was much less air pollution that other large cities. The streets are relatively clean, and the downtown is filled with shiny, new skyscrapers and shops. The food is diverse and delicious. The highlight of Kunming cuisine is the fried bread made by the large Muslim minority in the city. We were so impressed with the city that we contemplated moving there with Marc and Sven for the second semester, but ultimately I decided I didn’t want to leave my job in Harbin because I didn’t know if I could find work after breaking a contract.
There aren’t that many tourist sites in Kunming. There are two tall pagodas in the newly restored old town that have many upward sloping tiers that look unlike those elsewhere in China. We spent an afternoon at a temple watching people venerating the Buddhas in Western clothes and wondered why they were appealing to the Buddhas. Were they seeking enlightenment, solutions to social problems, or a new cell phone? In addition to the Chinese temple, there was a Thai temple in the back of the complex donated by the Thai government.
The most interesting part of Kunming was the Yunnan Museum. There were extensive English captions for all the exhibits, and they revealed the dynamics of cultural judgment within China. Most the exhibits focused on the Dian Kingdom, its culture, and its regional dominance in Southeast Asia and compared these achievements directly to those of the mainstream Chinese. One of the captions said, “This proves that Yunnan Province was not the cultural backwater it was once thought to be.” Clearly the museum was out to address the cultural dismissal of the rest of China. If that was the goal, then it succeeded in persuading me; I was impressed by the art and artifacts we saw there.
Everywhere in China, there are frustrations, and this stop was no exception. We were trying to get to a particular bus stop, got on a bus, and asked the driver if the bus went there. She told us it did, so we got on. After riding the bus for an hour out of the city to a lake and never hearing our stop announced, the route ended. I approached the bus driver and asked her why she had told us that we could get where we were going on this bus when we clearly couldn’t. She had no answer and just told us we could get there by going back into town to where we were going on another bus and making a connection. However, most of the frustrations were caused by the Lonely Planet in this case. Once it led us to a restaurant that no longer existed, and on another occasion our destination was misplaced on our map in the book. We began to become distrustful of the the Lonely Planet especially after it so highly recommended traveling through those minority villages that we found lacking in sights and entertainment and inconvenient in getting to.
We saw some very interesting beggars in Kunming. There were many people out on the street bowed with there face on the pavement and stories in front of them. Their stories said that they needed money for university, their family was sick, and so on. It was like a voluntary welfare system. Also, we saw a man sitting in a basket on the sidewalk who had no body below his ribcage. Surely it was no hoax; he was right there on the sidewalk with nowhere to hide his legs. There are many child beggars in the city; no so much out of necessity but more as a form of child labor. These children are very clean and well dressed and are playing with toys when they aren’t begging. Grace said that she had seen one playing with a toy makeup kit. We were told that they are from minority villages outside the city, and when get money, they take the fruits of their labor back to their mothers who are waiting nearby. Several times when we were walking around, these children approached me and grabbed on to my legs. I told them to go away or forcibly removed them, and nothing came of it. The Chinese generally dropped them a few coins, and the kids would go away satisfied.
One night, we were walking back to our hostel through a busy square, and an older child of about seven approached me and latched on to my leg. The techniques I had used before were unable to get me out of this situation; his grip was too strong to peal him off. I just started walking away with him attached to my leg, but I had to stop when I realized he was just going to hang on there all night if thats what it took. I stopped and told him again to go away and I wouldn’t give him any money. He started to loudly fake crying; the performance was terribly unconvincing, but I didn’t want to draw that much negative attention to myself. I asked him if he was hungry; he said yes. I told him that I would by him food but would give him any money. He took that as an acceptable agreement, and I went to a nearby vendor and bought him a half kilo of candied peanuts. Our hostel had a balcony overlooking the square, so we ran up and looked for what was happening to our peanuts. The child had brought the food to a group of three mothers who were eating the peanuts and distributing them to the children as they saw fit.