The train pulled into Kunming around midday. We emerged into blazing sunshine, and were immediately aware of the unnecessary weight we were hefting around with us. We weren’t going to be needing the legwarmers, body warmers and thick jumpers for a while! We had lunch in a café next to the station and browsed through our travel guide, before selecting a hostel near to Green Lake Park at which to try our luck. We also had to locate the Vietnamese consulate so we could get our visas organised.
The first taxi we stopped held up his hand to indicate ‘seven’ for the price. He had a bit of a swagger about him, so we decided to verify the price by writing it down. He then took the pen and added a zero to the end. This would have been around £7 for what we could see from the map was not a very long distance, so we declined and continued our search. Every single taxi we hailed refused to take us and we had no idea why! We were getting hot and frustrated, but managed to board a bus that seemed to be heading in the right direction, and got off once we were within walking distance. The hostel was great and luckily they had space for us. There was a lively communal area with a bar, restaurant and pool table, and a patio where you could sit out and enjoy the sun. We had spent a long time off the beaten track and so we enjoyed the opportunity to socialise and meet other travellers. Once we had dumped our bags in our room, we set out in search of the Vietnamese consulate. It was important that we handed our passports in as soon as possible as it would take three days to process the visas and our Chinese visas were due to expire soon. We had heard that the address had changed recently, so asked at the hostel reception and a girl wrote it down or us in Chinese, so we could show it to a taxi driver. That was our first mistake!
Once more, we were out on the streets trying to hail a taxi, and once more, no taxi would take us! I was beginning to feel quite irate, but no driver had the English to explain why. We walked in the general direction and showed the address to passers-by and police officers. After umming and aahing everyone pointed us in different directions! One policeman told us to get on a bus as it was a long walk. We did this, and whilst on the bus I noticed a number amongst the Chinese characters: 507. Surely this was the building number! Feeling like we might be getting somewhere, we got off the bus, believing it to be taking us in the wrong direction. We marched back up the busy main road to the area where 507 should have been. All we could see were two enormous banks, so we showed the address again, after which ensued more discussion and gesturing in various directions. After two hours of fruitless searching, we had to give up, as the consulate would now be closed anyway, so we trudged back up the long road (which I was sick of the sight of by now). Halfway there, we treated ourselves to an ice cream, rested our feet, and let our emotions simmer down a bit.
We asked once more at the hostel, and the girl tried her best to assist, but we ended up more confused. Eventually we found an address on the internet which made more sense to us: the address was number 157, ROOM 507! We had been on the right road but were several blocks out. It was so annoying! Regardless, we still had time, and we decided to make our second attempt the following morning.
I collapsed on the bed for a couple of hours and in the evening we had pizza in the bar. We were joined by two young Chinese girls, Pan and Flora, who spoke excellent English. Pan was in her final years at high school and Flora was an undergraduate. They had started to come to the hostel bar in order to meet foreigners and practise their English. Pan was planning to go to Melbourne University and Flora really wanted to move to Canada after completing her studies. They were both very intelligent and a pleasure to talk to. Pan was petite, self-assured and bubbly, whereas Flora was taller, quieter, took more time to consider her opinions and was a little ditsy. She would often open her eyes wide in disbelief and gasp in ladylike astonishment, blinking like an alarmed gazelle. They offered to give us a tour of the Green Lake Park the following day, and we gratefully accepted.
That night I slept SOOO well. I woke feeling refreshed, full of renewed optimism and confident that we would be able to locate the Vietnamese consulate. It was indeed ridiculously easy once we had an address we could read! We also discovered from the receptionist that the taxi drivers did not have an aversion to our custom, but that each cab was marked according to the areas of the city they could drive in, so all was forgiven. The consulate was tiny and virtually empty; just a small room in a massive multi-storey building, with a couple of desks and a glass fronted counter, behind which sat a jovial Vietnamese man. The procedure was remarkably quick. We each filled in a simple form, handed in our passports and photos, paid the fee and received photocopies and a receipt in return. As each hotel in China requires a passport, we were limited to day trips from Kunming until our passports were returned in three days. Sadly this meant we would not have enough time to visit the incredible Tiger Leaping Gorge, but there were plenty of other interesting places nearby and we consoled ourselves by thinking of all the other marvellous things we had seen and done, and were yet to do.
As we were sick to the back teeth of traipsing up and down the same stretch of road, we took a different route back and stopped outside a temple, where a middle aged blind man was playing a double stringed traditional instrument along to a backing track. It was a little like a small cello and played with a bow. A merry little boy of about four years old was fastened to the leg of his stool by a string around his ankle. We tossed some money into the pot and sat down to sketch. The little boy found us hilarious, and every time we waved or smiled at him, he waved his arms furiously and fell backwards in fits of laughter. His dad couldn’t really tell what was going on and I think he started to get a bit annoyed with his irrepressible son, so we tried to be more sensible so he didn’t get in trouble. The sun was so hot that it made the ink in my brush pen expand, and it leaked blobby splodges all over my page. There had already been quite a crowd around the temple entrance, what with the street side food stalls and vendors of incense, but now the focus was turned on us. One woman grunted at Luke and snatched his book from him; looking very stern, she flicked through it. Her friend complimented him on his drawings, but the woman just grunted once more and gave it back. A little girl who spoke a small amount of English came up to me and I showed her my pictures and explained to her how my pen had exploded and that the ink was wet. She was very sweet and flicked through carefully. She told me she was 11 years old and wrote her name in Chinese in my book along with a little love heart. The grumpy lady then came up to me and grabbed my book too, but the little girl explained to her that the ink was wet and that she should be careful and she was better behaved then! I think she was genuinely interested in our sketches, but just didn’t like to show it in a friendly way!
We made a plan to meet Flora at our hostel after lunch. She sent us an endearingly formal message saying that we would meet ‘Miss Pan’ later at the park. When Flora arrived, she had armful of library books – parallel texts (English on one page, Mandarin on the opposite) of Charles Darwin’s ‘On Natural Selection’ and Sherlock Holmes. I felt somewhat ashamed that I had attempted neither of these myself, despite them being in my native language! We stashed the books in our room and meandered our way to the park, chatting away as we went.
The park consisted of a large lake, split into four by picturesque bridges. We passed a lively group of men and women dancing around a speaker, some of whom were in traditional dress. Flora explained that they were from a Tibetan minority. They moved gracefully around in a circle, elegantly waving their arms, stepping forwards and backwards and crossing their feet in time to the music. Once again, we attempted to join in, but could never quite keep step.
A little way along, we came across a beautiful statue of an old man, gazing round with a rapturous expression at the seagulls that covered his body. In the winter of 1985, a small group of red-beaked seagulls stopped here on their migration from Siberia. The people of Kunming were enchanted by these pretty white birds, and none more so than Wu Qinghen. Despite being an elderly and poor man, he spent around half his pension money on food for them and would walk miles to the park every day to see them there. The birds clearly realised what side their bread was buttered on and returned year after year with their young to spend the winter in the sunshine before returning to Siberia in the spring to breed. Wu died, but his love for the birds lives on in the spirit of the Kunming citizens who flock to the lake every winter to welcome their friends back, who now number in their thousands. He is known now as the ‘Father of Seagulls’. I wonder what his previous story was, that he should have found such solace and joy in the birds here.
Shortly after, we were joined by Pan and had a peep into some minority culture stalls. I had a delicious cup of walnut ginger tea and browsed the selection of needlework, textiles and handmade paper. Of course, China is massive and whilst Han Chinese form the vast majority, there are 55 ethnic minorities dispersed around the provinces, each with their own traditions, beliefs and ways of living. Of these, 25 can be found in Yunnan alone. As we wandered, we had a thought-provoking conversation about politics; the girls were very switched on and refreshingly open-minded.
We left the park and went for ‘over the bridge noodles’ at a local restaurant. This is a traditional rice noodle dish from Yunnan province. The legend goes that a woman wanted to cook a special dish for her husband who was studying for his Imperial exams on a small island. She experimented with recipes and would cross the bridge each day to deliver dinner to her beloved. His favourite was a noddle soup and she found that it was at its best when the boiling broth was kept separate from the other ingredients until shortly before the dish was eaten. Another slightly less poetic explanation for the name is that the ingredients ‘cross the bridge’ into your bowl as you add them to the broth.
After dinner, we crossed the road to look at a teahouse. The shelves were stacked with discs of compressed tea, and there was a glass cabinet filled with tea sets and ornaments. On the traditional tea tray, there were some stone animals, which were a little smaller than a chicken egg. They had funny faces and pleasing curves. Pan explained to me that these were ‘tea pets’. They are kept on the tray and you pour the dregs of any tea you don’t drink over them to feed them. Over the years, with daily use, the pet changes from a dull stone colour to become quite shiny. I loved the idea, and purchased a plump little baby dragon, grey in colour and studded with colourful raised dots. If I feed it until I am 90, it should eventually have a pleasant sheen.
Back at the hostel bar, we met two American girls who were teaching English in a rural area of China and were travelling around on holiday for a few weeks. They were Yale University graduates and had been in China for 8 months and were already quite proficient in Mandarin – I was very impressed! They told us about the children at their school and how hard they had to work in comparison to the US. The school day starts at 8am, but many arrive earlier to clear the classroom and prepare for the day. They don’t leave until 9 or 10pm at night! It seems crazy, but they have to study hard as it is so competitive. In China, everything rides on the high school test score, particularly if your parents cannot pay to send you to a university overseas. If they don’t get excellent grades, they are unable to attend a good college and then their future prospects are poor. Well paid jobs are hard to come by and it can be difficult to obtain loans to set up a business as people will not believe you are capable if you didn’t do well in school. With such a large population, you have to be an exceptional student to shine. It is very hard to get a second chance as there is always someone else eager to take your place.
We also talked about Mandarin, the most widely spoken language of China. It is a tonal language, so the meaning of a sound is altered by the pitch at which it is spoken. This goes a long way to explain why we were so often misunderstood when we attempted Mandarin. To illustrate the comedic potential of this, the Americans told us that if you mispronounce the tones in the sentence, ‘can you help me?’ it can sound like, ‘can you kiss me?’ Mandarin has four tones: high, rising, falling-rising and falling. If you think that sounds tricky, Vietnamese has six and Cantonese nine! Add to this that the writing system is not phonetic, and you have one fiendishly difficult language to master. There are around 3000 characters that are used regularly, and you simply have to learn these by heart. Sometimes a character may have more than one meaning, which you must infer by the context in which it is placed. Chinese characters are still used for other languages as well, for instance in some of Japanese and all of Cantonese. They are simply symbols, so you just say the word the character represents in the language in question. If a symbolic script was used in Europe, ‘*’ would be read aloud as ‘star’ in English, ‘étoile’ in French and ‘Stern’ in German. Of course, learning the intricacies of 3000 characters is incredibly time consuming. Vietnam had spent 1000 years under Chinese rule and until fairly recently, had traditionally used Chinese script. However, in the 20th century, the country officially adopted a previously little used phonetic script, which was based on the Roman alphabet, possibly in order to improve literacy. As for the Chinese, Pinyin is the way of representing Mandarin phonetically using the Roman alphabet. This enables people to write in Chinese characters on computers – the Pinyin format is typed in and the computer translates it.
The next day we planned to go on an excursion to Shilin, the region’s famous karst stone forest. We were both looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing the bizarre landscape.