Saturday, March 20

Steve: We realized yesterday that our plan for Kunming was probably unrealistic. We had hoped to visit a stone forest that is supposed to be a spectacular sight. However, the forest is two hours from the airport in Kunming, and the flight that we were booked on wasn't scheduled to arrive until 12:30. By the time we'd get out of the airport, have lunch and drive to the forest, it would already be 4:00 - this just didn't seem worth it. We decided instead to spend the afternoon exploring the city of Kunming, which is really just a stopover on our way south to Dali.

Our flight to Kunming was filled with Chinese tour groups, and it seemed that most of the people had never flown before. They spent much of the flight photographing and videotaping each other and the plane. As we made our final approach into Kunming, they were all literally out of their seats, walking the aisles, and leaning across each other to see out the windows. Amazingly, the flight attendants did not ask them to return to their seats until just seconds before the plane landed.

This is consistent with what we've observed in general about the Chinese - very few of them have traveled much even in their own country. As we have met and spoken with various people, we have felt guilty realizing that we have now seen more of China than they have. Much of the issue is cost - it is just too expensive for the typical Chinese person to afford travel, even by train.

Our first challenge in Kunming was in communicating with our guide (who was new to the business and spoke somewhat limited English) that we in fact didn't want to go to the stone forest. He was clearly flustered and tried to convince us to stick with the original plan (we have not found the Chinese to be the most flexible individuals…). Things got tougher when we said that we wanted to go somewhere for lunch. Since there were no tourist restaurants nearby, this meant going to a local place and having our guide assist us with the ordering (no English here at all!). While the ordering process was not easy (we settled on noodles with vegetables, a pork dish, dumplings and rice), our efforts were rewarded with a wonderful meal. Not only was the food great, but the total cost for lunch was $5.00. We continue to find that the local food is always much better than what is served in the tourist restaurants, yet the travel agencies (all government controlled) clearly want to funnel all the tourists to their uninteresting, "set meal" and relatively expensive assembly line places.

After much discussion and negotiation, we worked out a plan with our guide (who by now was really having a bad day!), where we'd explore the center of Kunming, including a local market, a historic area, and a pagoda where retirees hang out and play mahjong. We were also surprised to learn that there's a Wal-Mart here, and arranged to pay a visit on our way to the hotel.

We were also eager to get time outside to walk, since the temperature was a very comfortable 75 degrees. Kunming enjoys great weather year-round, and we were ready for an escape from yesterday's wet and cold air in Xi'an.

Kunming is a mid-size city with a population of 3 million, and is actually a very pleasant place. The streets are lively and very clean, and there are many open areas for walking and relaxing. We started in a very interesting market that seems to sell everything imaginable. The streets were crowded with local residents buying food, products for their homes and pets. Several street vendors actually sell small puppies and kittens - apparently this is illegal, but the law isn't enforced.

We then walked through the main downtown area, which is filled with large malls and young people dressed in Western clothes. The stores contain many international brands, and clearly cater to an upscale crowd.

Next was a walk to what are called the East and West Pagodas. Here we watched as people flew kites and played mahjong while drinking tea.

Finally, we walked through Kunming's Muslim Quarter on our way toward our hotel, stopping to visit our first international Wal-Mart. What an amazing scene! As we walked inside, we felt like we were in a busy train station. This place was absolutely packed with people who filled the aisles and were buying a huge variety of products. There are three floors - one for food (including live fish markets and a wide variety of fresh meats), one for home products and another for apparel. It was fun to watch people shop, see the Chinese "Everyday Low Price" signs and check out the prices. We did manage to snap a couple of photos before our guide pointed out signs (in Chinese) that say photography is prohibited…

After a pleasant afternoon exploring what turned out to be a very enjoyable city, we had a quick dinner and went to bed early - tomorrow's flight to Dali leaves at 7:00AM, meaning that we had to leave the hotel at 5:30 - no fun…



Katie's Kwick Kwacks - Our Impressions of the Chinese Media. Last Friday, there was some breaking news in Taiwan. The day before the presidential election, Taiwan's incumbent and vice president were shot while campaigning in the president's home town. The news was splattered all over CNN and probably many other international news stations as well. The next day, we asked our guide what he thought about the news. He gave us a skeptical look and apparently didn't know what we were talking about. We told him the story, and still he was clueless.

We were later baffled to discover that almost no one in China knew about this incident. It was never on the Chinese news stations, and very few people have CNN on their televisions. The Chinese government was keeping this information hidden from its own citizens. How could this be? When the news was finally reported in the newspaper two days later, it was a tiny paragraph off to the side of a page. It only revealed a sliver of the information to the public. The shooting was a very major event. There has been an ongoing conflict between the two countries over Taiwan remaining independent or becoming united with China. I can't imagine living in a place where the government controls so much of the information I am able to learn about my country.

David's Daily Dump - Government Control Over Tourism. For the past week it has been both frustrating and fun to experience the government controlled tourism industry. The restaurants and day trips seem to be aimed at making the tourists happy and satisfied while not showing them the real deal. Most of the tourists are fine with going to all the tourist destinations and eating at the fake restaurants, but we don't like them at all. We are so used to getting off the beaten track and eating at local restaurants that when we were taken to tourist restaurants and bogus markets we were taken totally by surprise! We immediately began begging guides to bring us to local restaurants and real markets. We have made some progress but somehow cannot avoid the tourist spots…

One of the more annoying parts of our days is the meals. Most of the time we are sent to the so called "friendship restaurants" where there is a set menu since none of the waiters speak English. You always have to walk through a phony shop and avoid the store clerks saying, "sir, please have come a look around." After we make it through the store we sit down and immediately start getting barraged with food designed for tourists like crunchy sweet and sour pork. The food is not very good and the service even worse. We get one small free glass of flat coke and one dollar refills afterwards. Our best Chinese meals so far have been when we went to a local restaurant in Kunming and when our friend (Sarah) took us to her favorite restaurant in Beijing.

Another touristy experience we had was when we toured the old town in Beijing. First we got in one of the many rickshaws lined up on the street where big buses were unloading their passengers who were also climbing into the rickshaws. We then stopped at Mr. Wu's home and chatted with him until the doorbell rang with a huge group of Chinese waiting to be escorted into the courtyard. We knew our time was up and we headed off to the kindergarten. When we got to the school, many children were running around screaming at the top of their lungs. We were then shepherded into a class room as the teacher immediately began to play Christmas songs on the piano. The children stated singing in unison and got up to dance with us. We visited three more classes where we got similar presentations and walked into the courtyard to see a gargantuan group of Germans funneling into a class room while the students started up their song again. We wondered how much time the children actually learned something. Then we went to the gardens, had lunch at a friendship restaurant and had a tea ceremony.

Although it was kind of fun to do all the tourist activities, we constantly thought about how much control the government has over the country. The government discourages people from seeing real life and venturing off the tourist trail. Overall we had a great time laughing at the government's attempt to give the tourists what they wanted to see (real life) while really not showing them anything at all.












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