One thing that’s really struck me about train travel in China is how friendly everyone is. People who’ve never met before in their lives are instantly chatting away like old friends if they’re sitting next to one another. Our trip from Guilin to Kunming was no exception to this.
We had hard sleeper beds, which means they’re stacked three high, with a pair of stacks making a little cubby-hole off the aisle of the train. To our surprise, our cubby-mates all (save one) spoke good English. There were two young men from Guilin on their way to a public speaking competition (in English), and a mother and daughter from Kunming on their way home from a holiday together (the mother was the one who didn’t really speak English, though we and she did pretty well with sign language and her daughter translated when necessary. And she also spoke a tiny bit of Dai. The Dai are an ethnic minority in China who are descended from Thais. Their language is very similar, so everyone was very entertained when I joined right in as mom was counting from 1 to 10 in Dai.)
We spent the afternoon and evening chatting and sharing the variety of snacks we’d brought along (we had oranges and sunflower seeds, they had pomelos and an odd fruit that was very like a slightly sweet, orange avocado.) We’d brought our typical train dinner of instant noodles, but as it turned out we didn’t really need them. Sarah had mentioned that she was fond of mogu (mushrooms.) When Yiqun and her mother returned from dinner, they surprised us with a container full of yummy mogu and rice!
The famous Luohan of Kunming’s Bamboo Temple
We all settled down for the night and when we woke up there were less than a couple of hours left until our arrival in Kunming. We spent that time conversing with the pair from Kunming and asking for tips on places to visit and to eat. Yiqun told us her mom’s favourite restaurant was a Dai one. She’d gone to the point of writing out directions and drawing a simple map when she said “you know, it’s actually on our way home and pretty much on the way to your hostel. Why don’t you join us for lunch there?”
Sarah with the crew from our cubbyhole on the train. During the day the bottom bunk gets used as a seat by everyone in the cubby, thought there are also a pair of fold down seats out in the aisle so no one’s at all cramped.
Though we were confident in being able to find the place later, we’d enjoyed their company and happily agreed. It took a couple of buses to get there, but it was more than worth it. We left Yiqun in charge of ordering which was at once both a good and a bad idea. She knew all the best things to get, but ordered WAAAAY more food than we could possibly eat. Dai food turned out to be similar to Thai, which was a bit of a relief after the delicious, but often very oily Chinese dishes we’d been eating recently. We had fabulous lemongrass grilled fish, a laap-like chicken salad, beef with soaked and cooked wheat, pineapple sticky rice and two mushroom dishes. One of these was a big plate of stir fried wild mushrooms that were undoubtedly the best I’ve ever tried. They had a nutty, slightly sweet and oaky flavour, and were earthy without being musty. I now can perhaps begin to understand how people get into gunfights over mushroom collecting territories in North America (and China too apparently!)
At the end of dinner we had large amounts of three dishes left, which were all packed away (along with extra rice) for us to have for dinner that night.
We said goodbye to Yiqun and her mom, ensuring them that yes, we’d call if we had any problems at all or if they could help us out in any (additional) way.
Wonderful Bai lunch. I think my favourites were the fish and, of course, the wild mushrooms. Wild mushies abound in Yunnan and are available at a fraction of their cost elsewhere. Which makes me shudder to think what this NZ$17 dish would have run us in, say, Shanghai!
We found our hostel with no trouble and spent the rest of the afternoon making a brief tour of the nearby food market. As pointed out as recently as the last post, I love Asian markets, and this one was even better than most. There was a huge selection of goods, both fresh and prepared. Plus it had BREAD and CHEESE, two things that we’d really started to miss in China. The cheese was a soft, fresh goats cheese (a local specialty) and the bread was a tandoori-style flatbread. Beyond these, the fruits and vegetables were impressive as well. We’d spent a long time in the winter and spring of northern and central China, and it was fun to get somewhere where local fresh fruit was available (watermelons, tiny little cherries, pineapples…)
Various chili pastes and products for sale in the local market
One of the two or three main lanes that made up the market, along with the big covered fresh produce area.
Following our market tour, we headed back to the hostel for a rest and spent the remainder of the evening just lounging about enjoying the brilliant, un-hazy(!) sunshine in the courtyard and on the bougainvillea wreathed balcony.
The next day we set about seeing the sights of Kunming. It doesn’t have a whole lot, especially within the city itself, but we did manage to find some fun (and inexpensive!) stuff to do.
First thing was a walk out to the Yunnan Provincial Museum. The feature exhibition was a collection of paintings by the incredibly prolific Li Zijian. All of the hundred or so canvases were realist portraits (or at least featured people.) If you were going to criticize them you’d probably say that they leaned a bit to far to the sentimental side, but we enjoyed them.
To illustrate how prolific Mr. Li was: there was a whole section of the exhibition dedicated to just the paintings featuring water buffalo
Upstairs were displays of traditional Yunnanese folk arts. Given that there are 28 different recognized ethnic groups in the province you can imagine how diverse such a collection could be. All sorts of weaving, ceramics and tribal costumes were on display. Ever since visiting northern Thailand and Laos (just across the border from Yunnan) I’d always loved these costumes, though given how quickly many groups have adopted synthetic dyes and fluoro colours, one wonders how “traditional” they can really be.
The top floor was an archaeological exhibit featuring pieces from the 2500 year old Dian kingdom. In an interesting parallel to the Nanyue king, whose tomb we’d visited in Guangzhou, the Dian kingdom was set up by an imperial general who was sent down to subdue the natives, only to end up creating his own semi-independent state in the process.
The Yunnan Provincial Museum
Following the museum we took a stroll to the entrance of Green Lake Park where we enjoyed our picnic lunch of the aforementioned bread and cheese. There were two types of bread, one filled with honey, the other with a savoury spice mix (it definitely included salt, some cumin and I think sage, but beyond that its contents were a mystery.) The cheese was light and tasty, and only a little bit goaty, and went great with both types of bread.
Sarah looking very happy with our bread, cheese and pineapples in front of the Green Lake
Following lunch we headed into the park for a look around. I’m not certain if it was just because it was a Friday afternoon, but the place was a veritable hive of activity. Everywhere we went there were people dancing, singing, forming musical ensembles… And it wasn’t just organized types at it either. At almost all of these spectators were welcomed… nay, encouraged to join in. People clapped or sang along with the music, while others just joined the dance groups twirling their bodies and arms in time with the amplified pop music coming from the group leaders’ speakers. It was such fun that we spent a good hour just flitting from one group to the next checking out what was going on at each one in turn.
These dancers were probably the most fun of all the artists at work in the park. When dancing alone (without the awesome guy in the inexplicable military uniform) the women had long sleeves that they’d swirl and swoop through the air like rhythmic gymnasts doing “Ribbon”
The size of some of the groups was impressive. In addition to the musicians, the leader passed out sheet music to all those in the gathered crowd who wanted to sing along
Mini aquaria stocked with goldfish or baby turtles for sale at a stand in Green Lake Park
We finished the day with a visit to the trendy Wenhua Xiang street in search of… gasp… a beer! And we weren’t disappointed either. There were a series of cafes and restaurants that offered delights ranging from Rochefort 10 to Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout. It was heaven! The prices were pretty reasonable by NZ or Canadian bar/restaurant standards. But given that a single bottle of fancy imnported stuff cost the equivalent of about 10 Chinese beers I restrained myself to a single bottle, opting in the end for a Brooklyn Brewery India Pale Ale. True, it reminded me a bit too much of a 100% green bullet hopped ESB I made a few years back, but then it was supposed to be an English style IPA. And it was only the second good beer I’d had since Shanghai 2.5 months earlier, so I oughtn’t to complain
Me in Salvador’s Cafe with my IPA
Day three in Kunming saw us head a bit further afield, out to the Bamboo Temple to the west of the city. It took a couple of bus rides to get there, but was more than worthwhile. There seemed to be pretty much no one around when we arrived and walked between two massive cedar trees and into the central courtyard. Sunny, quiet, peaceful… It really was something of a relief, as it was just what most of our time in China hadn’t been (including visits to other Buddhist temples!)
Added to the generally pleasant atmosphere were the absolutely delightful Luohan. These were 500 life sized ceramic statues that were located around the edges of the main courtyard, in two special halls just either side of the main entrance, and most especially in the main hall of the temple. No two of the Luohan were alike, but every one was wonderfully expressive. Most of them were fairly simple representations of 19th century Chinese men (no women present here…) with perhaps slightly exaggerated facial expressions or features. But some, especially those in the main hall took the exaggerations a step further, and included such wonders as eyebrows that drooped down to ground level, figures riding atop giant crabs and shrimp, and one whose arm reached upwards, index finger extended, perhaps 5m to the ceiling!
The entrance to the Bamboo Temple
The facial expressions on these two are just wonderful, eh? They look like they’d make fine illustrations for the Divine Comedy. (Visitors actually weren’t supposed to take photos of the Luohan, but they didn’t do a very good job of publicising the fact, so I’d already snapped a couple by the time I saw the first sign.)
It got busier while we were at the temple, and a few sprinkles of rain appeared, seemingly from nowhere, out of the sunny sky. But the Bamboo Temple remained a very nice place to visit, and probably our favourite temple we’d yet seen in China.
We took the bus back down into town, but instead of carrying on back to the transfer point we got off early and went for a bit of an explore. This was a double edged sword. It allowed us to see quite a bit more of Kunming. And Sarah did some shopping at stores we happened upon while wandering around. But we also got thoroughly lost for the first time in our trip. There had been one time in Tianjin where we’d had no idea how to get home. But at least we knew exactly where we were. This time we had neither. And as so often seemed to happen in China, landmarks were of no use. “I’ve seen that shop before,” is not particularly helpful when (unbeknownst to you) it’s part of a chain with eight locations in Kunming. We continued wandering around, asking people for directions to any of the streets that were on our map and we suspected might be nearby. In the end we found one, and also found that we’d walked a couple of km past our hostel. So it was with pleasure that we at last greeted the musical instrument shops that filled the neighbourhood around it.
Children playing on public exercise equipment (this wasn’t technically when we were lost. This was actually right around the corner from our hostel)
Sarah’s purchases from during our wander. Pig face socks and a pig pencil sharpener, which led her to observe that it was “a piggy-wiggy kind of day.”
We also popped into a Carrefour (the supermarket chain) during our wanders. There we saw this entire shelf of shampoos and lotions that claimed to prevent or reverse hair loss
With a long hot afternoon of marching and frustration behind us, we felt we deserved a good meal and a drink. We got one and a half of the two. I’m sad to say that despite all its good points, the kitchen was not a high point of the Cloudland youth hostel (even when preparing simple fried rice.) Dessert was another matter entirely. That morning we’d bought a few small pineapples from the market (they were small, but at $2 for 4, already peeled and ready to eat, you couldn’t go wrong.) That evening we consumed the leftovers and bought another lot (with a bonus one thrown in since they were small and it was near closing time) which meant that over the course of the day we’d destroyed the inside of our mouths by consuming an astonishing nine pineapples.
Our other purchase from the local market, some baiju (Chinese rice spirit) was surprisingly good. We’d gone to purchase one 500ml bottle (as small as they came, since the baiju was sold in old plastic soft drink and water bottles.) But when we discovered that the prices on the big ceramic jars were per LITRE (they ranged from NZ$0.80 to NZ$3.20 for 45 to 57%ABV spirits of differing quality) we decided to have some fun and try a few different varieties. As we sampled them with dinner we wondered at how cheap the stuff was, and observed that if spirits were available in NZ at such prices half of the country would probably cease to function until people got used to it.
The stallholder dishing out the baiju. These types of shops were all over China and we’d long known (simply bvy smelling them) what they sold, but hadn’t bought anything from one until now
As it turned out, even with help from a Canadian and Belgian we chatted and played pool with throughout the evening, we only finished one bottle, having only the tiniest samples of the other two. All three had an odd, but not unpleasant flavour of ever so slightly charred grain. They varied in their residual sweetness, smoothness and the degree that they kept a fruity undertone.
One of them (the fancy, $3.20/L one) we held on to for a rainy day. The second, cheaper, one we poured out a bit of and replaced the vacated space in the bottle with slices of fresh mango from the local market.
Despite having finished only one bottle of baiju, it was a good thing our train the next morning left fairly late. It was an even better thing that we left ourselves plenty of time to get to the station. We got up and made our way to the bus stop, getting on the same bus we’d taken to our hostel on arriving. But of course on arriving we’d taken a roundabout route and weren’t exactly sure where we were going. So it transpired that we got on the bus headed the wrong direction, rode it all the way to the end of the line, back past the hostel and to the OTHER end of the line where the station was located.
We made our train with 15 minutes to spare.
Kunming was yet another in a string of fairly pleasant Chinese cities. To illustrate: this is what passes for graffiti there.
Sarah with two friend buffs (regular readers will notice a theme developing here.)
Me and the owner of the bread stall in the market. The dough was slapped onto the metal plate you see in front of me which was then rotated 180 degrees so that the bread was stuck upside down to the plate inside the oven
Tags: Bamboo Temple, China, Kunming, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Yunnan