After breakfast we headed out to a huge park in the middle of Kunming and we were really happy because we managed to navigate our own way there as some of the street signs had English translations! Even though we’ve only been here for one night we have noticed hundreds of differences between China and southeast Asia, firstly the temperature is about 10 degrees cooler here; the name Kunming actually translates as 'The city of eternal springtime’ and we can definitely vouch that it has a lovely climate, it is about 26 degrees here rather than 37 like it was in Vietnam. We’ve also noticed that there are hardly any Western travelers here; China is so huge that most of its tourists actually come from within the country itself, accordingly they don’t really rely on Western tourism like the other Asian countries we’ve been to. The upshot of this is that we are considered a real oddity and get stared at all the time (sometimes quite blatantly and a bit rudely). Tom and I have devised a new game to see which one of us gets the longest stare; Tom gets stared at because he is not clean shaven and I get stared at just because I’m a girl, so I’m not sure whose going to win the staring game. We have also noticed that ‘team-bonding’ in shops and businesses is a really big deal; every time you peak into a shop you will see all the staff having team-bonding meetings or chanting mottos together
. We have seen whole teams of staff going for a jog around the square together before a bar or restaurant opens; we’ve even seen staff members get lined up in the middle of the street for a team-meeting and then given a royal-rollicking by their manager in front of everyone, one manager even made his waiters do press-ups in the middle of the road before they opened the bar for evening. It is all very strange. China is also considerable more expensive than southeast Asia; it is going to take us a while to get used to paying £1 for a coffee again. But the weirdest thing about China that I just cannot get used to is the spitting. I knew before we got here that everyone spits in the street but it is more hardcore than I had expected. Because Chinese people are quite paranoid about germs they like to clear the bacteria in their throats by spitting up huge phlegm balls, this is considered quite normally and healthy and most of the time walking down the street means you end up walking straight through the middle of a puddle of spit. It’s quite strange seeing people do it but it’s even more weird when you see a beautiful, sophisticated lady in a designer mini-dress and high heels tottering along and hurling a spitball into the street, or a sweet little old lady hawking back a load of phlegm. I can’t get used to it and every time I see it or even hear the noise I feel really nauseous.
Our arrival at Kunming park was greeted by a dozen or so staring faces and a couple of people even tried to sneakily photograph us without us noticing
! The park was great and it was nice to see that, just like in southeast Asia, people here like to live their lives outside as much as possible. There were groups of people doing tai-chi and aerobics, some people bought along their own little karaoke machines and just sat around having a sing-song to themselves, some choir groups came to the park to practice, some people just sat with their guitars and strummed a tune or two. It was a beautiful first morning in China. We stayed at the park for quite a while before we headed over to a local Buddhist temple, the largest one in Kunming. We were so relieved when we managed to find our own way through the maze of cobbled streets and the temple turned out to be wonderful! We got to see a group of nuns practicing their chanting and we stayed at the temple for most of the afternoon. Afterwards we tried to find a local veggie restaurant recommended by our guidebook but the Chinese characters got the better of us and we couldn’t find it anywhere. As we headed back to the hostel we nipped into a couple of shops and cafes to have a look at some menus and to buy some snacks and by the time we arrived back at our room we had managed to successfully speak Mandarin to five Chinese people! We can only say single words at the moment but it was enough to make ourselves understood and every time someone understood us we were grinning from ear to ear!
The following day it was already time for us to leave Kunming; we were due to get the 11:20pm night-train to a town called Dali
. During our last few days in Vietnam we both caught colds and today we were feeling really poorly so we decided to spend the day at the hostel trying to get better; we had already seen all the sights of Kunming so we thought that in the long-run it was probably best to get some rest. Tom decided to go to the pharmacy to get us some more cold and flu tablets, however he was gone for quite a while and when we returned he had learnt two very valuable lessons: never leave the hostel without the phrasebook and never presume that something as simple as buying cold and flu tablets will be easy! He ended going on a wild-goose chase looking for a pharmacy that actually sold medication and when we finally did find one they didn’t speak a word of English and only stocked Chinese herbal remedies. It turns out that it is near enough impossible to buy Western medication here in China so he came back with a box of herbal pills containing rhubarb and chrysanthemum. We got the hostel staff to give them the once over for us and they said he had bought the right tablets so we started dosing ourselves up on them. I spent most of the day dosing on the sofas; not exactly the exciting start to our time in China which I had hoped for but there wasn’t much I could do about it, I was just so exhausted.
After a day lounging about at the hostel we headed off to the train station at about 10:30pm. During the two previous evenings there had been plenty of taxis outside the main town square so we had bargained on grabbing one of these to the train station, however what we hadn’t banked on was the fact that we were traveling at 10:30 on a Friday night…just as every person in Kunming had decided to go out for the night and use all the taxis. We tried for ages but we just couldn’t get a taxi and we were starting to panic we were going to miss our train; finally we ended up finding one and luckily he drove like a nutcase to get us to the train station in time
. Our hostel had been good enough to book our train tickets for us but we were quite anxious about getting our first Chinese train; silly things that you take for granted at home can cause you major headaches when you’re traveling like how to figure out which platform to go to, which cabin are you meant to be in, what if someone if lying in your bed, where do you put your luggage, how do you know when to get off, what if you end up getting lost. Sometimes you might just wonder about these things and sometimes these types of questions can make you so anxious you feel like you’re about to be sick… so you can probably imagine how we felt to be taking our first train journey in a country that doesn’t speak a word of English and where all the signs and timetables are completely indecipherable to you. The fact we were both feeling poorly actually helped us because we were both too tired to be overly worried. But thankfully it all turned out well in the end. Even though the information board was all in Chinese characters the actual numbers were in Roman script so we could piece it all together from the information of our ticket and figured out we needed to be on platform 3. The train station was huge and (thankfully) it was really quiet at this time of night. Because of the huge size of China and the importance of their rail system, the train station was organized brilliantly and each platform had a huge waiting room. We had to go through security scanners and were ushered to our train in absolute peace and comfort; the whole station was more like an airport. We managed to find our carriage easily enough; on Chinese night-trains there are two bed options, either a hard sleeper bed or a soft sleeper. Not only are we cheap-skates but as I can sleep anywhere we opted for the cheaper hard sleepers, which are laid out in open-air cabins of 6 bunk beds per cabin with 3 bunks stacked on top of each other. We had bought a bottom and middle bunk bed and ended up being in the first cabin… which sounds great but was pretty rubbish because we were next to the toilet and smoking area. The bunks are really squashed together and we were practically face-to-face with the couple in the bunks next to us. It actually turned out to be a really memorable night because we had a crack at talking to them in Mandarin! They couldn’t understand a word of English and couldn’t understand us when we tried to speak in Mandarin either, so we ended up passing our phrasebook back and to across the bunks and pointing out the words we wanted to say. It was such a great experience and they shared a bag of fruit with us as the night wore on (the fruit was kind of a like furry sour cherries). Pretty soon all the lights were switched off and we settled down for a night of broken sleep on our way to Dali.
We have only planned to stay in Kunming for two nights, so we were up early on our first morning to make a start with our sightseeing. As we were eating breakfast on the balcony we recognized a familiar face sitting at one of the other tables nearby… you could have knocked us over with a feather when we realized that our friend Carol was staying here in Kunming at the same hostel as us! We worked with Carol for a month at the children's charity in Thailand and although we have stayed in touch since we last saw each other we had no idea she was in Kunming at the same time as us, never mind staying at the same hostel! Tom went over to surprise her and I only wish I could have had our camera ready to photograph her expression when she saw him pull up a chair next to her. Since we last saw her Carol has traveled all through Nepal, so we had plenty to talk about over breakfast together. Meeting up with an old friend is normally a great experience anyway, but trust me it feels ten times better when you are so far from your home and family