After a week in Russia, I headed for Kunming, the capital of the southwest province of Yunnan, China, where my daughter Nora has been teaching English in a rural village near Lincang. With a population of over 6 million, Kunming doesn't scrape into the Top 20 biggest cities in China (topped by Shanghai and Beijing, both over 20 million). I flew into its brand-new golden hub airport on opening day, June 28; the traffic on the well-groomed highway was just as jammed as Moscow. (An entire set of abandoned hotels near the old airport will now go out of business.) I'm glad I was introduced to China via Kunming, because Beijing is so much bigger. Even for a New Yorker/Angeleno, Beijing is overwhelming.
As we hit the street, it became clear that in China, the pedestrian does not have the right of way. You're on your own, which is also true on Beijing's packed subways, which are sleek, clean, air conditioned and clearly marked, but you have to fight your way on and off. (More Chinese is translated into English in Beijing than Russian in Moscow.)
The cities have walkways over the widest boulevards (sometimes shoddily constructed); in Kunming there were more scooters and bikes in their own lane than cars. Entire families as well as towers of goods were piled onto the scooters, with no helmets in sight, although many folks wore their coats backwards to protect their clothing from soot and dirt, and some wore face masks to protect them from the belching bus exhaust. In China, there is no such thing as emission controls. In Beijing we saw separate traffic lights for bikes and pedestrians.
High altitude Kunming was clean and temperate compared to hot and humid Beijing, which had thick putrid smog far worse than anything I saw in LA thirty years ago–much like LA, the smog piles up during the work week, so that Friday is the worst, then cleans up slightly over the less populated weekend.
Taxis are hard to get in both cities–there are no rules. They don't stop if they don't feel like it. In Beijing at congested tourist spots like the Forbidden City or Western-friendly Sanlitun Bar Street, taxi drivers barter with potential passengers for high fares independent of the meter. (Non-Chinese speakers give them a card with the destination.) The pedicabs, some motorized and covered, some not, yell out for passengers, and you have to haggle over the pricier fare. We took them in situations where taxis were unavailable. Taking the subway was fine, but finding your way to your destination afterwards was a challenge, even for my Mandarin-speaking daughter, on whom I was utterly dependent.
Watching Nora bargain at a street market in Kunming (and later at the Silk market in Beijing, which specializes in knock-off fashion designer bags) was a sheer delight. She scoffed, sneered and walked away with the best of them.
Nora lives on a fairly limited village diet, so she was eager to hit the western restaurants–Spanish, Mexican–and after a while I too welcomed the familiarity of Starbucks, which are easy to find (as are MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken).
In Kunming we walked through the lovely university campus to the ancient Yuongtong Buddhist Temple, and grabbed a tram over Lake Dian to climb to Dragon Gate on Xishan Mountain. In China, hiking trails are stacks of steep stairs, and while many restaurant, hotel and city public toilets are tiled and sanitary and offer sit-down toilets along with squatters, the rustic one at the top of that mountain I will not soon forget.
We stayed at the reasonable and functional university Yunda Hotel, equipped with wifi, air conditioning, a mini-fridge and a water cooler that heated water for morning green tea, which we had with cereal and yogurt. Nora advised staying away from raw veggies, unbottled or unboiled water and unpeeled fruit. My first night's street food, a steaming bowl of spicy meat and rice noodles, sent me straight back to the hotel; after that I laid off the MSG and was fine. We stayed away from the wriggling live scorpions on a stick, which some daredevils ate after they were fried.
Nora's college pal Missy stayed at the much cheaper Hump Hostel downtown; while I wouldn't have wanted to share a room with eight travelers, her solo room was perfectly acceptable.
It was unsettling to see many little dogs running around the streets ungroomed and untended, with neither collars nor owners; they are fed scraps by stores and restaurants. At the Kunming market, dogs were for sale as pets (I think), while at the big produce market in more rural Xingping, cooked dog was for sale; Nora admitted to trying it once and not liking the taste.
Piracy is rampant of course, as all the video stores were stocked with the latest DVDs, including entire seasons of TV and cable shows not yet for sale in America. With Facebook and Twitter blocked in China, not only to block the content but so that the Chinese will use internal versions instead, Nora has an outside URL–if I wanted to post on Twitter during the China trip, I had to email things for her to post for me. Chinese Television was like going back to the days of variety shows like Lawrence Welk, Hootenanny and Carol Burnett, with sweet pop songs and broad comedy bits making fun of farmers. It was strange to watch the news and recognize that it was utterly untrustworthy–and yet, how "accurate" is Fox News?
The best meal we ate the entire time was in Beijing, thanks to producer Terence Chang, who took us out to a fancy Peking Duck restaurant, Duck De Chine. The duck melted in your mouth, especially if you took the skin and dipped it in sugar. Decadence. With hindsight, while Nora's Beijing choice, Hotel Kapok, was a well-designed and reasonable hotel near the Forbidden City, we wound up spending most of our time closer to the Sunlitun Bar Street area, home to many stores and restaurants, Beijing's one Apple store, the super-modern Opposite House with its art gallery lobby and CAA's Beijing office, run by Jonah Greenberg, who met us for drinks at Saddle, a popular Mexican restaurant.
Between Kunming and Beijing we enjoyed a vacation interlude in Yangshuo, home to the stunning karst limestone peaks that inspired the 20 Yuen note as well as Miyazaki's "Castle in the Sky" and Cameron's "Avatar." That's also where China auteur Zhang Yimou's post-Olympic visual stunner "Impressions" unfolds over the water, with ghostly lit mountains behind. The best tableau of the night involved hundreds of bamboo rafts and boatmen and streaming red ribbons. For more details on the trip, see my Facebook photos.
Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I probe the relationship between China and Hollywood.