Wednesday, August 31, 2011
I had unfounded expectations for Kunming. the book painted a picture of a lovely small Chinese city, modern yes, but small. A population listed as a mere 1.2 million, sitting on the North shore of one of China's most famous lakes, the West side a towering cliff of rocky hills. All I saw when I arrived was freeway interchanges, twisting around and around into infinity. Where was Kunming?
The Brazilian woman I met in the rice fields and I exited the bus to the normal barrage of touts and taxi drivers, pouncing on us ignorant travelers; for many, Kunming is the first stop in China after Vietnam and Laos.
"Hello, I can help you, I speak a little English." said a tiny, nerdy guy with thick rimmed glasses.
"That's ok, we're just gonna catch a city buy into to town." I said mechanically.
"Oh no, there are no city buses here; you're far from the city." said the skinning man, as a city bus drove off behind him.
"Then what is that?." I said, pointing to the bus.
"Oh, these buses only go the villages. You have to take a taxi." The next line was no surprise. "I can take you town for only 100 quai!"
"Hell no!" I said with a big smile. Any sign of anger and you lose the battle.
"Ok, ok, 70." I kept walking away from him. "60!" Still walking. "50!"
"I am taking a city bus!"
"These only go to villages."
I stopped walking and turned to him. "So, what you are telling me, is that the thousands of people who arrive here every day, at this busy bus hub for Kunming, are either villagers or they take taxis."
"Liar." I walked away.
"I no lie! I can take you, only 50 quai."
"If I take a taxi, it will be with a meter."
"No, nobody has meters in Kunming."
"No meters on the taxis?"
The man was standing next to a taxi; I could clearly see the meter through the window. I pointed, "That taxi has a meter."
"Ok, they have meters, but they will all rip you off."
At that moment, the Brazilian had returned from sensibly asking the police for directions to the city buses. "He said we catch them over there."
"Don't take the bus! They only go to villages!!" the little man's glasses almost fogged up as he yelled.
"Since we are not taking a taxi and if we do, we'd never take yours, since you've been lying to us and you won't leave us alone. So please sir, could you kindly go find another tourist to swindle." I explained.
"Ok, I understand. but I want to help you. I will come and help you find bus."
"Thank you sir, but we've both been to China before, we know how to get by fine ourselves."
"I wish you a safe journey, just take bus 30."
We went to the bus hub and there we found a clear map of bus system for Kunming. It was only in Chinese.
"Can you read Chinese?" The man had followed us.
"Oh, then map is no help for you."
"I have a bilingual map here, I just have to compare it to the bus system on this map." After that, I did my best to ignore him. The buses listed in the Lonely Planet were of course wrong, but the map was clear enough.
"Bus 30! Bus 30!" the man yelled like a tiny Pomeranian looking for attention.
Bus 30, according to the map went though the country and villages, just as the man said, but the 95 went straight to town.
"Let's take the 95." I suggested to the Brazilian.
"Oh, 95 is good too!" The man exclaimed.
So we stood in line to catch our bus.
"The bus is 3 quai each, so six quai total." the man explained to us, despite our attempts to start a conversation not involving him. When the bus arrived, the fare was clearly printed as only 1 yuan.
"You pay six!" he yelled.
"It only costs one each; it's clearly printed."
"Ok, now I tell you, I am not just a taxi driver, I am also security for this bus station." He pulled out his wallet which had a plastic fake American police badge, everything in English, nary a Chinese symbol to be found. "You two are in big trouble, come with me."
We boarded the bus despite his threats and only paid one each even though the man was yelling to the driver to charge us triple price. Finally he gave up.
"Goodbye friends! I wish you the best of luck!"
What a fucking wanker.
We took the bus into the town center and caught a real taxi to our hostel from there. Once we passed the maze of overpasses and interchanges, the city was a massive expanse of skyscrapers and flashing LCD signs. Not a single building looked older than two years. It was obvious that this city had more than 1.2 million; it was closer to seven. This was the quaint capital of one of China's most remote provinces?
I tentatively planned three days in Kunming, but I cut that down to one. Shilin, the magnificent stone forest, 100km to the south is the most popular draw, but I boycotted it due to its oppressively high $40 entrance fee. I wondered how Chinese family of three could afford it, having to spend a month's wage. Instead, I ventured to the West Hills, the craggy "mountain" to Kunming's South, along the lake. The main attraction is the Dragon's Gate, halfway to the top, a doorway carved into the side of a cliff overlooking Kunming and the lake. The hike was very neat, passing through little caves and cliff-side grottoes. I did not enjoy waiting for the super slow Germans who came with me, but they were quite nice. The view was a bit depressing: a polluted lake, an endless polluted city, but the mountain itself was nice. this was all I needed to see. Expats do tell me that it is a terrible place to visit, but a great place to live. Good news for my friend Mila who will move there in August.