April, 2004

The 30-hour train ride brought me to Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province. This is a city of 5.6 million referred to as "the city of eternal spring", with a mild year-round climate that only varies by an average of 10 degrees centigrade.
From the main train station, two bus rides got me to the Camellia Hotel as recommended by Lenny. It's a large hotel with attached youth hostel that offers a good deal: 30 Yuan (US $3.75) a night for a bed in a 6-bed dorm room. I stayed there for a week, until travelers started arriving with hacking coughs. I decided I didn't want to catch their respiratory-whatever-the-heck-it-was, so I moved to the Kunhu Hotel closer to the train station. The staff is a little surly, but I got a private room for 40 Yuan, and there's great bus access.

Somehow I was thinking that a provincial capital in southern China would be a crowded, poor and undeveloped place. To my surprise, Kunming is an absolutely bustling and modern city. Like many places in China, Kunming appears to be one big construction site. The entire historic core of the city has been bulldozed and replaced with glass and steel skyscrapers. The streets are full of modern buses, taxis, private cars, motorbikes and bicycles. The many department stores, shops and restaurants are crowded with shoppers clutching full bags of merchandise. The sidewalks are crowded with well-dressed urbanites hurrying along, mobile phones glued to their ears. The scene reminds me more of New York City than western China.



My first task in town was to meet my prospective employer, Wenmei Kang. She runs a private business named New Universe Translation Corp. There are about 5 regular Chinese staff, mostly translators, plus some part-time foreigners such as me to proofread the translations. Wenmei is an absolute dynamo, and her staff has been very welcoming. I did a few proofreads, and Wenmei is interested to have me help create a website for her business. She invited me to dinner on Saturday night, where the whole family pitched in to make delicious dumplings. I couldn't stop stuffing them into my mouth!

Wenmei at work / Wenmei's mother, father, me, her son Kevin, Wenmei
Kunming Kunming


The sum total of work so far hasn't been enough to keep me very busy, thus leaving me lots of time to wander around town. I've been using a combination of walking, buses and taxis to see the city. My right knee which had been hurting recently in the Philippines has magically eased, leaving me free to walk five or more miles a day (always my preferred way to get to know a new place.) I've been riding buses too, but only when necessary because they're usually so jammed I can barely see where we're going. Taxis are pretty cheap and I've used them a few times. I've been searching for a bicycle to buy, which will hopefully become my primary means of transportation (see discussion below.)
George John, one of the translators at New Universe, took me on a walking tour one day. He walked me hard for about 6 hours straight! There's lots to see in Kunming.



He showed me some of the remaining old architecture (going fast!) in Kunming.

Kunming Kunming


At the Flower and Bird Market, in addition to flowers and birds we saw some colorful tropical fish and fruit.

Kunming Kunming


There seem to be a variety of Chinese cuisines available here, including regional styles representing Yunnan's ethnic minorities. Noodles appear to predominate: boiled, fried, in soup, and mixed variously with beef, pork, lamb, tofu, vegetables and usually a quantity of chili. I's amazing to watch how fast a Chinese can slurp down a full bowl of noodles! There are also McDonalds, KFC, a few Chinese corporate franchises and a smattering of Japanese and Korean restaurants around. I'm happy with the food: a wonderful switch from greasy boring Filipino food (Sorry, Philippines; I have to speak the truth.) My favorite is a plateful of small steamed dumplings packed with different combinations of pork, chicken, and vegetables. At the table you pick 'em up with chopsticks and dip 'em in little bowls of soy sauce, chili and garlic. Yummm!

My Chinese is nonexistent, so it's been challenging with only a tiny fraction of Kunming residents speaking English. I walk into stores and say "Nihao" (Hello / How are you?), they respond with a short phrase, and that's pretty much the end of the conversation. I bought a couple small phrase books and have learned a few simple phrases ("Where's the bathroom" my favorite) but the problem is that I'm not getting the tones right. Consequently pretty much nobody understands what I'm trying to get across. A few times when I really had to go and couldn't make anyone understand "Cesuo," I've had to point at my groin and make a pissing sound. That works, and sign language also gets me a bowl of noodles on the street. I'm looking for a tutor. Other foreigners here say that the written language is a twenty-year project so forget it, but that I should be able to develop a small functional vocabulary within a few months.

This guy didn't seem to understand a single word I said.


About those Chinese
Chinese people certainly look and act differently than those irascible Filipinos. Few people on the street will make eye contact, although I notice lots of curious sideways glances. I read somewhere that it's considered rude to make direct eye contact. But I usually just look everybody right in the eye and belt out a smiling "Nihao!" Some break their blank expression to smile and respond with "Nihao" or "hello", but most don't respond at all. It's only a cultural difference, I tell myself.

Activities to date
Last week I stayed busy searching for three things:
Apartment. I looked at about six apartments. All were in large older walk-up buildings, and each had two bedrooms, a bathroom with indoor plumbing, a small kitchen and sitting room. Some had small collections of grubby furniture. Monthly rents ranged from 400 to 800 Yuan per month ($50 to $100.) Cheap for a first-world foreigner but expensive for Chinese (National per-capita income was $918 US in 2001.)
Bicycle. There are many bicycle shops, even on the main boulevards. New one-speed bikes go for as little as $25 US. I have my eye on a ten-speed "mountain bike" which costs $30 US. I'll probably buy it in a few weeks.
Mobile phone. As I learned well in the Philippines, a mobile phone is extremely helpful living in a foreign city without a landline (there must be some reason they're so popular.) Kunming appears to have more mobile phone shops than noodle stands, which I find stunning in a Chinese city. Interestingly, the lowest-cost phones aren't even kept on display. Instead, stores are pushing, and people seem to be buying, the expensive models. Chinese appear to crave cellphones with all the bells and whistles (games, e-mail, cameras, GPS, etc.) Prices range upwards from 850 Yuan ($110). Expensive considering the per-capita income of $918. I have this vision of a Yunnan peasant trading in his only water buffalo for a shiny new mobile phone which he uses to notify his neighbor that he's ready to come plow his rice field; then he remembers he just traded the buffalo for the phone.
Anyway, I found a Motorola for 625 Yuan, bottom end of the market. I didn't buy it yet.

My two cents worth
As I said above, there is ample evidence of urban prosperity here in Kunming. Yet I've also seen large numbers of old people, and young mothers with babies strapped to their backs, digging through garbage cans. (In the USA, by far the world's richest nation, we have the spectacle of many thousands of retirees working at McDonalds. They are trained to ask their obese customers "May I supersize those fries?", in order to pay their heating bills; but that's a completely different story.)
It seems to me this country has traded in its iron rice bowl for a plastic mobile phone. Class divisions have re-appeared: there is now a relatively small urban elite and masses of urban and rural poor, with no safety net (and according to People's Daily, China is experiencing a widening rural-urban per-capita income gap.) This place is all about money. Following centuries of inner turmoil and outside interference, I can't fault the Chinese for wanting to finally grab for wealth and world power. China clearly has the means and tenacity to accumulate great wealth, but it's also obvious that this will be done on the backs of the poor. And can the earth survive a billion Chinese automobiles?
While the last vestiges of Chinese socialism fade away, the central government retains fierce political control. Social dissatisfaction is channeled into the struggle for money. But as always in capitalist societies, the new wealth will be distributed inequitably, and the state will serve the interests of those who have it. Autocracy and capitalism seem like a marriage made in heaven. What has China learned from a thousand years of turmoil and fifty years of building socialism?


What's Next?
Three days ago I woke up and admitted that things are moving slowly for me here in Kunming. I haven't found a good place to live, there's not much work for me to do yet at the office (although Wenmei thinks that proofreading/website development may pick up in a few weeks)), and I haven't found a bicycle or mobile phone yet.
So, I've decided to go to Vietnam for a few weeks. It's a 30-hour bus ride to Hanoi. I hope to spend a few days there, then take the train to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon.) The Internet says Hanoi has been averaging 75 degrees F, and Ho Chi Minh City 96 degrees F (36 Deg C) during the daytime, so I think a short visit down south will satisfy me for a first visit; and send me scurrying back to the comfortable coolness of Kunming. I hope when I return here that I can resolve the housing situation and get busy at work.

Next: Chris Goes to Vietnam

Main page of Chris Goes to China