Apparently I’m out of server space on all the servers I have access to from here, so this will be another report without pictures or videos until I can figure out the problem.
The world is a smaller place after you travel on SAS. To us, it isn’t a big deal to travel anywhere in the world, finances notwithstanding. If our friends call each other and decided to meet in Turkey, everyone would go. Sometimes even on the same day.
This sentiment was the underlying motivation for Yas, Jason, and I to forgo a trip to Beijing to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and somewhat randomly choose to go to Kunming Beijing is easy, we thought; we’ll come back someday. After our bonding episode in South Africa, the three of us decided to travel together to Sizchuan, since we heard so many good things about it, and once we arrived in India, the travel agency told us that the tickets that we wanted were no longer available. It took just a couple of minutes us to ask for a map, decide that Kunming was “close enough”, and reserved the tickets. We were going.
The second morning in Hong Kong, the giddiness began. We had no idea what to expect, except what the few words that the Lonely Planet had to tell us. Jason had read everything about the city in the book, and Yas and I had not. Jason had effectively become our trip leader, complete with head counts and dock time. If you ever happen to be on a SAS trip, you would understand why this hilarious. Alas.
There wasn’t much listed in the book, something about a stone forest, surfing Buddhas, and unicorns. Unicorns became the theme of our trip, and we wouldn’t rest until we saw one.
After an eventful couple of hours at the huge Hong Kong terminal (on an artificial island off Lantau), eating dim sum and making videos about what we expected in Kunming, we were on our way to the Yunan province.
The culture shock started immediately. Whereas I could somewhat communicate in every place we had traveled to thus far, there was no sign of English upon arrival. Because of the Chinese characters, we spoke lonely-planetese, calling someone’s attention and pointing to the good book to ask what we wanted. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But the good book would ultimately save us many times in the next few days.
Jason and Yas passed through customs somewhat easily, and, being what must have been the very first Brazilian ever to set foot in Kunming, my process took much longer. I’m not convinced they knew where Brazil was, and given that the receptionist at our hotel asked me that very question, I think that possibility is very high.
But I got through, eventually, and we set out to find a cab that could take us to the hotel. After getting dupped into paying 50 Yuan to get to the hotel (the price was close to 15 Yuan), trying to explain to the appropriate people where Brazil was, and enjoying a quick drink and laughing our arses off, we headed out to a beautiful fall afternoon. You can’t beat the fall in China (well, you can in Japan, but that’s another entry).
Sunday afternoon in Kunming. A lazy Sunday afternoon in Kunming. A comfortably lazy sunny fall afternoon in Kumning, with red leaves dominating the trees. I can keep adding adjectives all day. This was one of the most pleasant afternoons I could remember, watching the bicycles go by, strolling the street markets, and enjoying this clean, surprisingly beautiful city. Somewhat industrial, with 4 million or so people, but you’d never know from that afternoon. We slowly and deliberately made our way to these 1300-year-old pagodas, one of the few “attractions” listed in the Lonely Planet, and found hundreds of old men playing Mah Joon (?), who seemed very excited if somewhat confused by our presence there. Yas found what she thought was a tea house – we’re still unsure. But a cute older woman was extremely excited to see us, letting out what sounded to us like yips, and Yas did the international symbol for “we want tea” (bringing an imaginary cup to your mouth while holding a plate on the other). Apparently, that means “bring me the largest, most delicious meal imaginable”, because that’s what we got. She didn’t even seem to want money for it, but we insisted (by putting the money out), and she eventually showed us a number. We still don’t know if we committed a faux pas or not.
We continued on our stroll, and would run into one thing after the other. We encounter a huge, empty Chinese pagoda, with just the three of us enjoying the premises during sunset. There were Buddhist chants coming from the corner stores, and music coming from rounded flutes that seem to be the local instrument of choice. The city is famous (in China) for its eternal spring, with blossoming flowers all over the place. We’d look up and see that people were flying kites from the tops of buildings; the kites flying so high they were the last objects catching sunlight that day. We decided to randomly enter any small alleys to see what they brought, and soon enough, we found ourselves searching for the source of some music… was it live?
Sure enough, the music was coming from a Karaoke bar, a gay Karaoke bar in China. It wasn’t long ago when homosexuals were deemed insane in China (I think it is still illegal), so this bar was a little surreal. Of course we went in. As much as we wanted to, there was no chance we would sing since English songs or words were nonexistent, but perhaps we could find someone for Jason, who happens to be gay? It wasn’t long before all eyes were on him; this exotic occidental man who strolled in. This would surely be his night.
At some point, I went to the bathroom (one of those typical Asian squat toilets that deserves its own entry someday), when I noticed our smiling waiter had followed me in there. He shows me a piece of paper with the words, “Ar your gay” written on it.
Oh oh. I don’t remember anything in the Lonely Planet about what to say if you get propositioned in the bathroom of a gay karaoke bar in China. I’m sure there were no Chinese characters I could point to to gently let him know that I wasn’t. I shook my head as clearly as I could, and attempted to tell him that my friend was. I think he got it. Well, actually, of course he must have, because nothing happened.
A while later, Jason come back from the bathroom with the same story, except that he said “yes,” and the waiter turned the paper around to the words “I lov your” written on it.
“I think it’s time to go,” Jason said. We took off.
We were about a block down when two of the guys from the karaoke bar come running and screaming after us. They look desperate, terrified, and we have no idea what’s going on. I thought they were mad at us for some reason.
After a couple of minutes, we realize that they want to see our pictures, and the reason was very obvious – they didn’t want to be recognized and possibly incriminated from a picture that we had taken. We showed them every picture we had, and once they saw that there was no one identifiable except for ourselves, they calmed out, gave us a friendly smile, and were on their way.
Other than clues like that, there was little evidence of the Communist government running the mainland – a soldier here, some populist art there, some Communist flags – otherwise, we saw plenty of capitalism, western companies, mosques, churches, and temples. I’m curious if this is different from not-that-long ago.
“What else could possibly happen?” we asked ourselves. By following our rule of going down little alleys, we heard techno music that lead us to lights in a park. We had come across a late night roller-skating rink. When was the last time you used the four-wheeled rollerskates, much less with a bunch of adolescents late at night in China? There was no rhyme or reason to the way they skated. Some people went clockwise, others went counterclockwise. Both Jason and Yas went down on collisions, and I myself caused someone to go down hard. I’m not that big, but I happen to be bigger than most people we encountered.
A few bruises later, we returned the skates to find another excited cute Chinese woman (one of many we would find), and followed her to see where she would take us. And, to my excitement, she took us straight to another karaoke place, this time with private rooms and songs in English. Of course we sang the night away. Could we have done anything else?
It was the perfect ending to the perfect day. We knew we had come to the right place.
The next morning we woke up early to get the shuttle from the hotel to the Shilin Rock Forest, another one of the “attractions” near Kunming. The shuttle, however, was full, and somehow we discovered that there are buses that go in that direction. We hop on the taxi, and our miscommunication in lonely-planetese took us straight to the train station, where we eventually found an attendant who spoke English… after many unsuccessful attempts at communicating in Chinese. She said the train wouldn’t arrive in Shilin until after 2pm, so she directed us to the nearby bus station.
As we walked through the crowds, we run into our third over-excited cute Chinese woman yelping “SHILIN SHILIN SHILIN SHILIN SHILIN”, and in following protocol, we followed her through parking lots and hotels and back alleys until she took us to a car with what we assumed was her nephew. We negotiated a private ride to Shilin at about the same price as the hotel shuttle – pretty good deal.
The two-hour+ drive through the Chinese countryside was beautiful, going through luscious canyons, hanging terraces, and houses covered in corn. I can’t quite explain it. There was also plenty of evidence of massive public works projects (seems like there are a lot of highways coming into the area… lots of questions about the environmental consequences of those works, but I digress).
Our driver was the most overtly-cautious driver I’ve met in a long time, and perhaps the nice car he was driving had something to do with it. If there was something on the road, he would honk. If there was something off the road, he would honk. If there was a chance that someone a mile away from the road would somehow go crazy and run onto the road and into our car, he would honk. Really, I swear he was honking at trees sometimes. And I don’t think it was ever necessary. Good times.
We arrive at the beautiful Shilin Rock Forest. The name couldn’t be more appropriate. Huge free-standing rock formations that you can walk between and climb at will. Just know we were very excited about spending the day there.
We ate some spicy South Chinese food before finding our driver having a party in our car (we think there were 13 people in there somehow…) and driving back. We even saw the obligatory motorcycle accident, but the guy looked like he would be alright.
We finished the night walking around Kunming, coming welcoming tea house where we finally saw how tea should be served. This was a work of art. As part of a tea tasting, this woman would brew and re-brew, washing the cups in tea before serving us the perfect cup of tea. And it was delicious – let’s just say some people will be getting tea as my gift from the trip.
That was perfect day #2.
We woke up early the next morning and had to make our way to the third “attraction” in Kunming, the mountain temple with the surfing Buddhas and the unicorn. The trip wouldn’t be complete without seeing them.
If you’re ever in China, please wake up early and walk around someday. One of the most peaceful moments this entire voyage was watching hundreds of people do Tai Chi or lining up their motorcycles and bicycles as badminton nets. Please don’t miss seeing that if you’re ever in China.
We were the first people in the misty mountain temple, greeting the monks as they woke up and offered to join them for breakfast. We declined… we wanted to see the unicorn and the surfing Buddhas, and they were nowhere in sight.
And, as Jason wrote, as we were standing in front of the incense pyre, a monk opened a golden door to the main part of the pagoda, and everything was revealed. The hundreds of surfing Buddhas, and the unicorn, as beautiful as our imagination would allow. Yas, Jason, and I looked at each other, and the trip was complete. We could go home now.
We staying in Kunming a few more hours, enjoying museums and the Not-So-Great Wall of China. As I read back at what I just wrote, I still don’t think I capture our giddiness, the same kind of giddiness I get when driving to the cabin in Tahoe, or making a Ranch video. It was a great time, one we still look fondly at. We spent the night in Hong Kong “street bar hopping”, thinking back on the last 48 hours, some of the best on the trip. If I had a chance to redo every country by going to a random city, I might take it. I finally understand why they call this the "Voyage of Discovery".