Autobots, roll out.

Trip Start Aug 24, 2007
Trip End Jul 04, 2008

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Friday, January 4, 2008

When I have to go back into the real world, or rather, join the real world, I'm really going to miss my four-day weekends.  Especially when my four-day weekends magically turn into surprise six-day weekends.  Because of the New Year, Erin and I found ourselves with suddenly very extended weekends and only one option - getting out of Kaifeng.  So we quickly booked ourselves some cheap flights and before we knew it, we were in Kunming and on the other side of the country.
As we stepped off the plane, the native Kunmingren blew air out of their tight-lipped mouths and plucked up their coats to protect their necks from the weather.   Erin and I started stripping our clothes off and relishing the warmth of the night air.  It was 50 degrees out and we just entered mental Spring Break land.  Once we got into our couchsurfing host's awesome apartment, we removed the thermal underwear that's been on us since the temperatures plummeted and Fake Spring Break officially began.
    "I don't feel like I'm wearing any pants," Erin said about the sudden lack of thermals.  "This is kind of awkward feeling."
Kunming is like most other large Chinese cities I've been in so far.  Most of the old traditional housing has given way to sprawling apartment complexes and construction sports the latest lackluster design.  More refined streets house upscale shopping centers, Western stores like an Apple dealer (registered and certified, a rarity in China) are found on a frequent basis, and the city even has a Wal-Mart and a Metro - a large European big box store that sold Belgian beer.  This kid was happy about that.   But despite the similarities, I didn't hate Kunming like I hate Zhengzhou.   Everywhere in the city there was a sense of color and a sense of life that doesn't quite exist in Zhengzhou.  Flowers were still blooming, palm trees whispered the location of the high tropics, and houses were painted in pinks, yellows and oranges.  The city still had a sense of itself, a sense of existence that prevents it from being a waste-of-space city like Zhengzhou. 
But my trip to Kunming was the highest concentration of non-Chinese activities I've indulged in since I've arrived in China.  Erin and I wandered around the city with Byron, a fellow Beloiter who up-and-moved to the other side of the world post-graduation and his fellow laowai posse.  We gave in to some excesses that are not possible in the 'Feng like drinking real beer (yes, I had a Belgian Leffe and it was just as great as I remember) and eating different ethnic food (Indian! Korean! Brazilian!) and even attempting to order an American breakfast.  Except the restaurant's version of hash browns was really potato curry and that made me sad, even though I knew it was silly to get my hopes up about a real American diner-esque breakfast.
The best part about Kunming though is its location.  It's sandwiched between two foothills of the mountains and geological dips that characterize most of Yunnan.  We spent a couple of days hiking up Xi Shan (the Western Hills) and exploring the hiking routes used by locals and Byron.  A very puzzled Chinese man (dressed in a suit and dress shoes of course) asked us in impeccable English why we were hiking up this route and how we found out about it.  He was thoroughly impressed when he found out Byron goes biking there on a weekly basis.  Xi Shan was amazing though.  The red clay dirt of the hills, the smog-free air of Kunming (that in itself was enough to make me fall in love with the city) and the vegetation that was still in bloom was enough to make me want to stay in the hills for a long time.  And we were rewarded with great views overlooking Kunming and Dian Chi, the lake that is now used for dumping industrial waste instead of swimming.  The lake now features several mysterious "white lines of no goodness" as Byron calls them but are really several polluted currents snaking their way through the lake to complete pollution.
Erin and I trekked up to the Bamboo Temple, a Buddhist temple that is mysteriously devoid of any bamboo.  And for the first time in my Chinese life, Erin and I were at a tourist destination that was completely devoid of people.  We sat around in the Temple's courtyard ringed with red flowers, stray dogs, and the setting sun over the hills with the sounds of the monks' chants all to ourselves. That fact alone was enough to make me breathless.  The chanting was also incredibly hypnotic and beautiful.  It was some of the best chanting I've ever heard and also that Erin has ever heard which actually carries more weight than my judgment since Erin's major was East Asian Religions with a focus on Buddhism.  You can check out the video which doesn't show much because I took it just so I could capture some of the sounds of the chanting and I was taking it in a camera restriction zone. 
The highlight of the trip however was the magic of surprise and delight caused by Laura, our great CS host.  We were just talking about random things with her and she all of sudden dropped the OP bomb - "Did you know that there's a statue of Optimus Prime in Kunming?" she asked all nonchalantly.  Clearly seeing the looks of surprise, amazement and awe on our faces, Laura proceeded to tell us that after Reform and Opening, one of the first American exports to China was Transformers.  Everyone watched it - kids, young people, old people, it didn't matter.  The show became a fascination in the country and so a guy decided to immortalize his love for the export by constructing a seven-story tall statue of Optimus Prime in his car lot.  So after getting directions late one night, Byron, Sam, Erin and myself went on a pilgrimage to see Optimus...and it was amazing.  The statue is aptly located in what Byron's friend Jay calls "an autobot nest" of several car dealerships and the current scene of one of Kunming's biggest construction projects that will give it a raised highway similar to Seattle's aqueduct. Nestled up to Optimus' right foot is a tiny dilapidated shack that two men sit in every night, sleepily watching over the construction project to make sure that nobody comes to pilfer the metal or any of the construction equipment.  So, Optimus stands tall and dirtied by the red clay dirt kicked up by time, construction and wind in an eternal state of flicking off the Jeep and Mitsubishi dealership kiddie corner to him.  Optimus is so large that his feet are used as garages and can store a car in each foot and is tall enough that you can see him from a distance when circling around the ring road in the distance.  We decided there was no other option but to ring in the New Year with Optimus. So we did what any normal group of people would do - we grabbed some weak Chinese beer and had a dance party on Optimus.  2008 is going to be a great year.
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Comments on

Thank you
This solidifies my former notions that Yunnan is perhaps the next province I want to live in in China.


And - you Beloitians are everywhere. It's slightly creepy.

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