Koolin' It in Kunming

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Where I stayed
Upland International Youth Hostel

Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

January 3, 2012
Yangshuo to Guilin by Bus 
(45 miles / 73km in 2 hours - 2:11p to 4:11p)

Guilin to Kunming on train K693: 5:10PM to 11:18AM 
(786 miles / 1265 kilometers in 18hours)

January 4 – 18th 
昆明; Kūnmíng, China 
 "City of Eternal Spring" at 2000m (6600 ft) altitude 

After our goodbyes to the manager of our hostel, who called us "auntie" and “uncle” from the start, we spent the rainy morning with our new friends in Mimosa Cafe. 1:30 rolled around and we walked in the the rain to the bus station which is really just a dirt lot near the main highway. We were hustled urgently onto the local bus to Guilin as if they had a schedule to keep. The bus departed quickly but proceeded to troll for more passengers the whole way. It took us almost two hours to cover the 45 miles to Guilin! We showed our train tickets to the driver's assistant so he would know to let us off near the train station. He grinned and shook his head. But when our bus drove under the train overpass and let some other passengers off, the assistant didn't signal us so we asked the once more. He had to ask the driver who told us, yes, this is where we are to get out. The assistant helped us with our backpacks plus he gave us an unusually large suitcase. As the only white faces on the bus, he assumed the humongous piece of luggage belonged to us. He had to chase the bus that had started to drive off to reload the suitcase. The assistant wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he was kind and he assisted us to cross the intimidating 6 lanes of traffic to get to the train station entrance.

The train was 15 minutes delayed. We found our car and were dismayed to see grey looking sheets on our bunks. It was apparent they do not get washed regularly. We settled in. And all and all, it was a great ride. The scenery got more terraced and green along the way. In the morning, about 3 and half hours from Kunming, we passed the “Stone Forest” with its unique rock karst formations. This too has been turned into a "Disneyland" of sorts, with huge parking lots, to accommodate the throngs of Chinese tourists now. It was enough of a view for us and we decided it wouldn’t warrant separate tour to visit this forest.

We arrived at the large and efficient Kunming station at 11AM the next day. We seamlessly got in the taxi line and soon were on our way Upland Hostel. We did need to ask the driver to use the meter. Unless you hire a taxi for the day, it is always cheaper if they use the meter. 
The Upland was recommended to us by Kim and Chris, the Dutch gals we met in Yangshuo. It is new and we were thrilled with condition of the place. We instantly decided we would settle in for a while and upgraded to a deluxe room that was larger and had a small table and chair sitting area. 

Upland is a stone’s throw away from Green Lake, Kunming’s original water source, a city park with foot paths, flower beds, stone benches supported by stone frogs, bear, ducks and turtles etc. Bridges criss-cross over its artificial lakes. It is a relaxing oasis in the north end of the big city. It is a place for families to stroll during the day and listen to musicians and watch folk dancers in small groups and vie for the attention of the parks visitors. 

Yunan, China’s Top tea Growing Province
I am totally getting into the tea here. Mia in Shenzhen had given me a wonderful puerh tea for which Yunnan is so famous. This particular tea is cured in mandarine orange peels inside Yunnan caves. Every morning I perform my little ritual and put few leaves in the strainer that fits in top of my Chinese tea thermos, rinse bit of water thru tea in strainer (to cleanse it of dust and impurities they say) then add  water to thermos and steep for 5 minutes. I make 2 thermoses with the same tea. Hey, the experts say "2nd pour & 3rd pour" are the best when they make the tea here. But they use so much more tea in each serving. I'm happy with the way I do it. It tastes so pure and smooth with just a hint of mandarin. The little orange filled with tea has lasted me close to a month. It is unique to Yunnan Province so figured I'd easily be able to pick some up here in the capital, Kunming. But ..no such luck.

We went to tea shop after tea shop. Finally, I asked the girl at front desk for help. She did online search and found a shop, wrote down address for us and we hopped into taxi for the 30 minute ride to outskirts of town. We were let off in wonderful "tea shop district" with hundreds of  shops that sell to public and wholesale. There was no shop # on the flimsy piece of paper we had so we started asking every tea-shop if they had the tea (I had picture of the orange). Finally, a girl in shop took initiative and walked us through the maze of shops to one of her competitors who had a huge shop. Bingo! They had them shrink-wrapped in bundles of 16, two different kinds, 100RMB and 150 RMB ($24). I just got the one I was happy with which was the 100 RMB ($15). I bought two packages of 16 oranges, that took up room in my backpack about the size of a soccer ball. I was tempted to get more but Dave used logic and reason to talk me out of it. Afterward I found an on-line store in the US that sells the same tea for $4 for each orange. My cost was $1 each so they make a nice profit. I am stoked, soo delicious.

I wasn't done. At a different store, I bought tiny quantities ($1 worth) of several loose teas I wanted to try out, some as much as 990 RMB ($157 per 250 gram). I only loved one kind...the dried and curled young tips of tea plant, a green tea. The others tasted like earthy fungus and one was real bitter. Perhaps these foul tasting teas are for medicinal remedies. It is fun to try the different varieties.

Tea is extremely important in Chinese culture. The seven necessities of Chinese life include firewood (柴 cai), rice (米 mi), oil (油 you), salt (鹽yan), sauce (醬 jiang), vinegar (醋 chu), tea (茶 cha). It has social and medicinal import. Pouring and presenting the tea is highly ritualized. The ancient tea stocks are highly prized. Chinese can talk about tea like westerners babble on about wine. I just like the taste.

More Koolin' it in Kunming
We see quite a few minority people here, carrying babies in colorful embroidered baby carriers on their backs. The city is big, 10 million people and growing. We have been here before but nothing looks familiar. We had the same feeling in Chengdu that had grown so much since our prior visit. The sky is blue and daytime is crispy cool. Sometime it is too cool for us but considering what January is like in much of the US and Europe - and the northern half of China, we can't complain.

The sky is blue with none of the grey haze that plagues other big Chinese cities. So we are happy to linger here. Kunming has few attractions for tourist and most who come here are staying over en route to more interesting places or taking care of business, like visas for Vietnam or Thailand.

We sampled some of the local specialties like 'over the bridge noodles' and fried goat cheese and slowly worked our way through the menu. Fried goat cheese, delicious but not as flavorful as I imagined, smoked pork and beef is famous here too. We had a tasty tofu soup, very buttery though so despite being tofu, not dietary. Yum! Many of the dishes are to spicy for us but we had no trouble finding delicious choices. Then we found our way over to a little district that caters to foreigners, mostly students, teachers, or NGO workers. We enjoyed The Box (pizza lunch special), Salvador's Coffee (taco night Tuesday) and the French Cafe (baguettes and desserts!).

My bet is Kunming is one of the better places to live, for the foreigner, because of its climate, stores with imported items, and small population of expats. Hey, they have enough to play rugby in the park on Sunday! Charm, the American we met in Beijing, visited the International hospital here and e-mailed us a positive review. (But no, we will still feel better about getting medical check-up in Bangkok.) We bought a 60 day Thai visa here because they only give 15 day visas at the land borders. 
Bad Movies! 
We have cable and a nice flat screen TV in our room and actually watched a bunch of movies. We don't too that very often. The Ten Commandments featuring Charleton Heston and Edward G Robinson was ridiculously bad. And it had Vincent Price in it too! Vincent Price is scary. But the real scary thing was perusing the Medicare.gov website. I have to change over to Medicare insurance in July (oh nooooooooooooooooooo!). 

What the heck is doughnut hole coverage?
We (Dave mainly) spent days digging through the blogs about Medicare and the government's site to make sense of the options. Anyway we are happy to have the time to research. You can't do this "in a hurry". We were a bit surprised to discover that there is 'no' coverage for me while overseas - even in an emergency. Since medical cost are so often much lower than in the US, you would think the government would encourage use of low cost overseas providers for the cost savings. But they don't. Probably because the US medical and big pharma lobbies have too much at stake to let that happen. Dave was frustrated by the Medicare website. Some pages were green letters on a blue background (impossible to read). Some had dead links. And many of the bits of information, that were posted, were for 2009 through 2011 choices. Great! You can use the site to plan for the past! 

I sent emails to a couple of friends to ask for advice. Peter is in the Medigap business and provided great recommendations. Dave logged into Medicare.gov a few days later and could no longer find the really old or really bad pages. And there is now new information relating to 2012 choices and costs. Still, it is not a great site. But at least, now, it is usable. And the down-loadable pdf Guide to Medicare is actually understandable. Dave also got a quote for a medical policy that would cover me while out of the US since I cannot use Medicare outside of the US or it's territories; $983.55 per month!

Fed-Ex China Stinks!
No luck with our Fed-Ex package (shipped December 14th and held up in customs since December 19th). We traded email and made suggestions. But Fed-Ex refuses to go back to customs without an original of the prescription. And matters are made worse with the Spring Festival coming up where most people in China take a week to 15 days off. And those that get stuck at work seem to be in the holiday mood too! We again delayed moving on from Kunming with hopes the package can catch up with us. We waited a full two weeks in Kunming partly to wait for Fed-Ex to do something. Luckily, we have the time and Kunming is a pleasant place. 

Finally, we decided we have been here long enough and asked the girl at the front desk to buy bus tickets for us to Yuanyang and its lovely water filled rice terraces.  

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