The roofs of Lijiang, under snow-capped peaks.
May 6-24Yunnan & Guanxi, Part I
My arrival in Kunming on quiet, spaciously wide and tree-lined avenues, was such a peaceful and striking contrast from the overcrowded streets of Hanoi and Hong Kong. At times I felt you could almost hear a pin drop. I was so used to the constant beeping of motorbikes, that the lack of noise made me wonder, even in a busy intersection, whether I really was in the capital of Yunnan. Yet the quiet and sense of calm that seemed to pervade was peaceful and pleasant, as compared to the eerie silence of Beijing. There were virtually no motorbikes here, instead mostly cars and bicycles. And at busy intersections, clumps of bicycles would drift forward with the faintest of squeaks, almost silently.
City traffic was ordered and disciplined. There were countdown timers on traffic lights at major intersections (no more wondering when the light would change). Police on raised platforms enforced strict adherence to traffic lights, and they pointed to transgressors (even pedestrians) to get back behind their lines. In contrast to Vietnam’s “uni”-lane, there were at least two lanes on each side of the street, one for the cars and one for the bikes. I didn’t really even notice this in Beijing. (As a note, on returning to Saigon, they also have countdown timers on some traffic lights, and during rush hour volunteer traffic guards hold up red pennants to enforce the traffic lights. But needless to say, Vietnam traffic was not a model of order, in contrast with traffic in the center of Kunming.)
What made Kunming especially significant for me was that my dad had grown up here for a few years when he was a boy. During the war, Japan had overrun China from Beijing and Shanghai all the way down to Hong Kong. I remember the stories he would tell me about raising ducks, making trouble with his brother and friends, and meeting American volunteer Flying Tiger pilots. Although the old city had long since been replaced with modern shining office buildings and hotels, every time I heard the children from the elementary school behind my hotel, I imagined Dad running out among the other children in little blue and white uniforms.
Kunming wasn’t unusually beautiful; even Ciuju Lake and Yunnan University were pretty, but for me no NYC Central Park or Princeton. But there was such a pleasant and peaceful, yet practical, feel to the city, that it made me feel as if the people here might have found that careful balance of work and life. Plus, wherever you looked, there were couples everywhere! Especially in the parks and around the university. I wondered if this, rather than Dalat (in Vietnam), really qualified as a honeymoon capital.
Yet although the city center was pleasant and ordered, there was an edge to the city. Driving past the ring roads that circled Kunming, the poorer and older dusty neighborhoods there reminded me of the more traditional and humble conditions of most of the Chinese people, and the transition that most of China is still working through. Still, in contrast, on a hill just above one such area near the airport were new and beautiful houses, that could have been from some of the more modest and nicer parts of Palos Verdes outside L.A.
Tourism was big in Kunming, but as I was to find out in much of Yunnan, most of the tourists were mainland or overseas Chinese. So even though this was the capital of Yunnan, other than areas close to the university, it was hard to find someone who spoke English. Even in my hotel, I often found my Chinese/English dictionary in my hands, and as I started to pick up more and more words, after only a few days in Kunming, the hurly-burly of Vietnam seemed a distant past.
Memorable sights and moments: my sore butt from a few days on a hard bicycle seat! Chicken de-feathering machines on side street markets (looks like a big open-ended blender, with rubber fingers lining the walls). Steamed dumplings and roast pork-filled buns everywhere. Side street fried rice eateries where you would point and choose your ingredients from neatly arranged ingredients. Mongolian hotpot (Mongolian/Chinese style shabu shabu). Chinese police trainees exercising to Euro-pop group Aqua (whose most notable hit was “Barbie”). Theme from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats blaring over loudspeakers in a residential quad. Eminem’s CDs everywhere in music seller booths (while groups back home in the US are clamoring for the CDs to be banned). And at night: bare, concrete block, fluorescent-lit rooms interspersing stretches of darkness and crammed with teenagers playing internet video games. Plus quite a few barber shops (although they didn’t always look like they were giving hair cuts). And the sober and simple monument to the Flying Tiger “over the hump” flyers, in a quiet mountain garden, just below a summit full of small tombstones.
Compared to the train from Hue to Hanoi, the train from Kunming to Dali was luxurious. The cars were spotless, the staff wore crisp uniforms, and fresh watermelon was served as we left the station. The train was also so quiet. In Vietnam, some members of our group couldn’t sleep from the clackety-clack. But like the Kunming streets, this train was almost silent.
Arriving in Dali under the darkness of early morning and a light drizzle, we were greeted by a throng of guides dressed in traditional Bai minority dress. Dali was pleasant and laid-back – tourist- and backpacker-oriented, but not really overrun. Anyway, again, most of the tourists were mainland or overseas Chinese, so the limited numbers of Westerners didn’t overpower the scenery. Besides, it only took short trips out of town to see the daily life of the “real” Chinese in the fields, markets and villages.
In and around Dali, women seemed to do most of the work. In the mornings, when they weren’t busy planting or harvesting in the fields, women from the surrounding villages would crisscross the town in search of tourists for scenic trips or boat rides to their villages. Women also seemed to do much of the market selling and household work. What did the men do? Besides sleeping, seasonal ploughing, and boat piloting, we were trying to figure that out! Maybe that’s why some of the minority peoples in Yunnan had matriarchal traditions. In some of the Naxi settlements around Lugu Lake, there was still a tradition of inheritance on the women’s side. Husbands were “shared” and all property and children belonged to the women.
One Asian-American girl I met, who was doing research on the Bai women, would often protest to me that the traditional dress and hats they used weren’t “real” at all, but just purchased in local tourist shops in town – sort of like going to an American Indian reservation and seeing the people dressed in “Indian” outfits purchased at the local Kmart. I didn’t mind. After all, I was a tourist, and I was trying to make no pretenses. But after that, I couldn’t help but think of her comment and smile whenever I saw the Bai girls in their traditional costumes. (Look: I laughed just now thinking about it!)
The noodles in town would be my favorite food in Yunnan and Guanxi: thin wheat noodles in a hearty broth with chili sauce and ground beef. At the Sunshine Café on “Foreigner Street”, Dong Wei made great noodles and spoke excellent English. The music was great too. We had arrived in the rainy season, and it did rain pretty hard every day, but rain or shine one could very easily while away the day on the couch in the back, under the skylights, eating noodles. It was also here that my Australian buddy and I first met David, the dancing Frenchman, who would go from town to town teaching classical and not-so-classical dance steps. One cynical foreigner said to me, “Maybe he should learn the steps before he tries to teach them,” but we all had such a great time, thanks to David. Maybe we just had a lucky few days, but with new friends, good music, great noodles, and dance lessons at night, Dali was almost too comfortable to leave.
In contrast to Dali’s laid back feel, Lijiang, some hours north and higher into the mountains, was more like Chinese Disneyland. The tiled roofs and tight layout of the old town, with its small canals, were quaint and pretty. However, there were so many more tour groups here. At any time one could see not less than a few groups with colorful matching hats and tour leaders armed with megaphones. What really made the difference apparent, however, was the larger scale of the town. There were so many shops, and all the shops in town seemed to sell the same things, exclusively oriented for the tourists. They reinforced a sense of inauthenticity. On the other hand, all that “development” also brought a pretty good fast-food fried-chicken chain restaurant, tucked away in a previously traditional facade on the main old town street. Every now and then I just needed a Western-styled food fix. And, after watching a grainy, dated Japanese movie subtitled in Chinese and English with two other people in an empty Lijiang movie house, I was finally able to satiate a craving to see a movie in a real theater. I was ready to move on.
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