Things are starting to heat up now baby

Trip Start May 24, 2004
Trip End Jun 2005

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Well, a bit too much on the road again, of late. Word of advice, don't take a 23hr train trip and then 2.5 days later a 36hr train trip. But on the bright side, Kunming rocks! Excellent place to hang-out. Warm. Relaxed. Warm. Heaps of western restaurants. Warm. English menus. Warm. Did I mention it was warm? But a very good place to chill-out a bit - incredibly western for China (more so than Shanghai we reckon), kind of reminds us of Chiang Mai in user-friendliness and backpacking-sense, but maybe that's just the 7months of China talking.

Anyway, back to the train trip. Hopped on in Xi'an and just about straight to bed. It was quite weird to think that the following day we would wake up on a train, and that night go back to sleep on the same one. Great in terms of not getting dumped in a city at a horrendous morning hour, as is usually our fate. So the next day was spent doing what the great majority of the Chinese passengers did - wake up late, have lunch, sleep some more, look bored, sleep some more, have tea, look bored, sleep some more, wake up and then get ready for bed. The scenery in China doesn't change at a great rate - would have been interesting had it been condensed into about 3 hrs. When we woke we were just coming into Sichuan - the province directly below Shaanxi where Xian is. It was very misty and mountainous and green - very gorillas (or Pandas actually - this is where the biggest wild population is) in the mist looking. Quite spectacular of course, but surprised to see no villages. My pre-conceptions of quaint little Chinese villages before I came here have not really materialised (Kunming is the first place we've been that has a population smaller than NZ). Right down to Chengdu, the capital, there were simply big concrete or brick towns. However, south of Chengdu they started materialising, which was a bit of a relief actually. Nice to know they exist somewhere. The countryside at that point had flattened (a bit) so that there was alot of farming - nearly everywhere the hills had been terraced, and every square inch was sown with rich-green crops.

By the next morning we were getting seriously bored. Note to self: no 50hr train trips. We were in Yunnan, our destination province now, and the scenery had changed to look more like the Aussie coastal area near Brisbane - red dirt, low vegetation, hilly, even complete with eucalyptus trees. Still massive farming though - lots of bright yellow fields. Not sure what they were - looked a bit like flowers (Kunming is famous for its flowers - 400,000 bunches exported a day at the peak or something), but thought they would vary the type of flower a bit.

By 11:30am we finally hit Kunming (we hoped! - no platform signs...). Manoeuvered through the packed station with the Lonely Planet's warnings of bag slashers here firmly in mind, and checked into the Camilla Hotel, pretty much THE PLACE for backpackers in Kunming. Lots of tours, tickets, email and other backpacker-friendly things abound. Quite a classy hotel too - bloody nice breakfast room, although we're in the older backpackers bit. Had a relaxed afternoon, recovering and checking out the delights of Kunming, including more than 10 decent western restaurants just on our block - which is pretty much more than the entirety of Beijing and Qingdao combined I reckon. It would seem this is the place to go if you want a pizza in China. Plus have discovered that Kunming has some of the best DVD shops in China. We are in bliss. Ironically, the best one (pedalling its obviously pirated DVD's) is next to the police station, confirming once and for all that China doesn't gives a rats-arse about pirated DVDs in practice. Had the DVD player with us still - sent it home on our last day here.

As I said, Kunming is very western. In some areas, the shops are actually much like you would find in Christchurch - heaps of outdoor shops, western clothes-brand shops, coffee shops, sport shops. Just stuff u don't find elsewhere here very often (or never). Walked through a shop door today to be greeted by those annoying electronic door chimes you get in most western shops, and it spooked the shit out of us. There's a great book store selling Lonely Planets which is also a rarity, and incredibly lucky considering we were just about to head into Laos with nothing. Of course, 99% of the shops are typical Chinese-city stuff.

Lots of other travellers around too. Either doing what we're doing, the reverse, or using Kunming to get to or from Tibet. Was chatting to some guy who had just spent the last week in Jinghong (our next destination) sorting out paperwork for his mate who had a head-on with a bus. Great experience. His main trouble stemmed from the insurance company not helping (ie airlift to Hong Kong) until they had the police report. And the police wouldn't release the report! So even though china has a huge official road-toll, looks like it's nothing like the real one, if they do that sort of thing often. He had to get the British embassy in on it and everything. A BBC (we have BBC here!) news report was saying something about the official chinese death figures for coal mines being 5000, but the estimates from international agencies is about 4x that, so looks like the same thing happens with the road accidents too.

First thing Monday we popped into the Laos consulate next door and applied for our visa. Decidedly unfriendly bloke, not the best of advertisements for the country. Not the cheapest visas either. After that early start we headed out to the flower and bird market, which is great to catch. Surprisingly few flowers, considering the average street-offerings here in Kunming. Mostly trees and shrubs in the vegetation area actually. We wandered into a proper flower market the previous day and were astounded by the volumes. Very convenient for me considering the date - day before valentines day. Where else can one buy 20, good-quality, long stemmed roses for $NZ1, and still get ripped off? Anyway, back to the flower and bird market, it did have a few pets, of most descriptions. Including beetles (why???) - masses of them, 1000's in a bucket - and scorpions. But mostly just the usual sometimes-handy junk. For a change, however, there was a relatively good variety, much like the Beijing markets, instead of 100's of stalls selling exactly the same thing.

After that, we headed to the Provincial museum for a not too bad showing of bronze-drums, porcelain and buddhist statues (more interesting than it sounds, honest). Mostly because it was a fairly concise little exhibition. And cheap. Then headed off to the university to try to find a decent lunch, but misjudged the distance and ended up just heading into the first decent place we found out of shear hunger. Not too bad though, and was our first outside lunching experience for way too long. I love warmth! Eventually got to the university - not touristy (although the walk was interesting), but a good place to go for cheap chinese or western cafes. Plus heaps of westerners of course.

The next day we planned to take a train to Shilin Forest - a stone forest which is pretty spectacular in theory. In actuality, hoardes of tourists (like us...) ruin any sense of awe apparently, so we tried to take the train to beat the tour buses. Didn't work too well in that there was no train. Maybe its a summer-time only thing, maybe its just a figment of the LP's imagination. We looked at getting a lift from the station, but no-one was prepared to charge only a 1-way fare, and we didn't rate our chances of finding the proper mini-bus to get home. Decided to call it quits, and maybe stay the night out there when we return to Kunming post-Vietnam.

Instead, we headed over to the Bamboo Temple. Bit of a wait waiting for the minibus to fill up, and were a bit worried that our morning would consist of reading books in the bus. Anyway, the other Chinese passengers got a bit antsy I think, so the driver reluctantly left partially full. The Bamboo temple, 800years old, but heavily renovated in the 1800's, is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, in my opinion, is the fact that there is absolutely no bamboo to be found anywhere. Not growing. Not as building material. Not as novelty souvenirs. Another reason is that it has freaky, mid-action sculptures of hundreds of people decorating two rooms. Got the monk who commissioned them nearly fired (cause they looked so weird). Kind of worrying when you walk into the room and have them looking down on you from all sides. Finally, in the main temple are surfing buddhas. Obviously, Buddha is way too cool to surf in the normal way, so instead of waves the buddhas are surfing such things as turtles and sharks. They cover the walls on both sides of the temple, and it looks great. Kind of weird for a meditation environment though.

Seeing as we were in the area, we headed across the road into some park. Nothing special, nice walk in the woods. The usual random Chinese park features, such as 5ft high scultpures of squirrels. The hill above was absolutely covered with grave tombs, which looked kind of cool (apart from the high-tension wires passing through), but it looked like a bit of a hike to get over too, and we were lazy.

Back to town in not bad time - benefits of getting up early for the absent train i guess, so wandered through the Muslim area for lunch (looked like a bomb-zone with all of the contruction demolition going on - felt like we really were in the middle east). Found a decent place eventually - good place for cheap food and interesting scenery as it turns out. Then down to xisi and dongsi ta (east and west pagodas). Lonely planet got them mixed up, so we were wandering around a crappy pagoda wondering what the hoo-hah was about, and then checked out the supposedly crappy one anyway, which turned out to be a nice spot. Old Chinese people smoking and playing mahjong, nice park and a pretty spectacular, old looking (I'm really liking that about this place) pagoda. You can buy these cylinders for smoking cigarettes here - work sort of like bongs I think, but are usually about 2ft long and 2inchs wide. Alot of the old guys use them, but no idea why. Maybe takes some of the acridness out of the smoke. Looks very cool though. More western food for dinner (fantastic apple pie!!).

Big trip over to Xishan on Wednesday. Xishan is a pretty major tourist attraction here, got a few temples on the way up, a cable-car of course (there are 3 hills in the entirity of China that don't have cable-cars up them), and a miniature (or minute as they put it occasionally) stone forest, so we thought it would be a nice place for a wander. Bummed around at the hotel for a bit, so after a looong public bus ride, we didn't get there until after lunch. Quick stop at a noodle hut (2RMB) and we headed up. Most of the walk up was on the road, but it wasn't bad considering. First up were two temple - Huating Si and Taihua Si. Really liked them, very relaxed places. Both were fairly old, but had major renovations in the last 50 years. Both had also taken a leaf out of the Bamboo Temple, and had the same freaky sculptures in the main temples. But overall, even considering the renovation, they looked good. Huating was the bigger one with ponds and stuff, whereas Taihua had more vegetation, and some cool, ivy covered temples and stupas out back. Most authentic looking thing I've seen in China for a while.

Huating Temple

Taihua Temple

Happily, between the two temples you could take the "Ancient Forest Trail", which didn't look very ancient, but was nice to get away from the road. Then we hit the Dragons Gate entrance, the main feature of the mountain. Being hardy travellers (actually, travellers in desparate need of getting back into shape) we opted to continue walking the final bit, rather than the cable car. The root was lined for the full 2km with stalls. Dragon's Gate is awesome though. Basically, its a series of temples/shrines carved out of the side of the cliff. You enter at the bottom, and must climb a good 100m vertically by the time you exit at the top. Absolutely amazing dedication (and grip) of the monks who built it. Not fantastic buildings (although pretty good, none-the-less), but location, location, location. Plus really good english signage. You walk up stairways precariously adhered to the cliff-side, carved out of the side, or tunnelled through. Some serious vertigo happening occassionally.

Took a slightly different route home, passing through the 'minute' stone forest - not much to write home about, but was quite peaceful away from the crowds. The hour was late, and we were slack, so we took the minibus at the Dragons Gate entrance directly back to Kunming, rather than walk.

Final day just odd-jobs. 7:30pm sleeper bus to Jinghong (12 hrs). First time on one of those, so should be interesting (by interesting, I mean horribly uncomfortable). Expect heaps of smoking (Chinese cigarettes are particularily acrid by the way), hoiking and hooting. And not much sleeping. We sent some stuff back home (although they wouldn't send my pornographic bones dammit) and have also left the sleeping bags and China lonely planet (aka The Brick) at the hotel. They gave us some hassles there, alternatively telling us that the bags would be chucked after 1 month, or that it would cost 2RMB per day, or that we couldn't do it. The problem was that all their signage and their reception staff said otherwise, but the lady assured me there was a magical set of new rules that we had to follow. Needless to say we didn't relent.

Also picked up some $US, as the Laos Kip doubles as cheap wallpaper. Of course, being China, that was also an effort. Can't get US$ on credit-card. I have to go out to the cash-machine. Get RMB, and then exchange it. Of course, 1) they don't exchange RMB for $US on Thursdays. 2) You can only get 1500 - 2000RMB out of a machine per day in China (about jack-shit). The system exists here simply to use up trees on paperwork I think. However, got my 2000RMB and exchanged it for $US235 with the money-changers hanging around the door. Not sure how good the deal was, a couple of dollars short of what the bank would have, but was an interesting experience anyway. And they have a go - started at $200!! I mean, if there is one thing a foreigner will know, it's the correct exchange rate.

Had some pancakes for lunch. Picked up the laos lonely planet from the shop (phew..). Very good time to go to Laos - Jan 2005 edition LP! So no more wandering around, looking at building sites where our hotel should be. And about 1/4 the size of the China version. Marianne picked up a travellers-tales book on China by train (by Paul Theroux), so should be good for a comparison. Still hunting around for malaria pills, but we have enough for at least the next month, so no urgency yet.
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