Yunnan, China, Travel Tips
“I’m back in China,” writes intrepid Correspondent Paul Terhorst, “this time in south-central Yunnan province, traveling with my friend Ross. We’re taking local buses everywhere. They’re cheap, punctual, and convenient. And the rides offer marvelous scenery both inside and out.
“We’ve seen our fellow passengers on-load drainage pipes, spare tires, pet birds in cages, chickens, gunny sacks full of watermelons, and bundles of what looked like toilet paper, which was surprising, as the rural Chinese don’t use the stuff.
“Between the two of us, Ross and I have visited some 100 countries. In all that travel, neither of us has been to a place where English was almost completely worthless, as it is in this part of rural China.
“No one speaks English…yet dealing with the language problem has turned out to be easy. We walk into a restaurant, find the vegetable rack, point to the veggies we want, and make a gesture of tossing them into the wok.
“Then we open the refrigerator and point to the meat we want. Two dishes. We’re done.
“Upon entering a guesthouse, we make a motion as if to sleep. At the bus station, we pull out our travel guide, look up the Chinese characters of our destination, and show the ticket vendor. If we want to travel the next day, we show her the word for “tomorrow.”
“On the second day here, Ross bought a calculator, which turned out to be an excellent idea. In a shoe store, he points to a pair of shoes and hands the calculator to the shopkeeper. She taps in the price. One time she asked my size and I tapped that in, too–43 (European).
“We’ve used the calculator to find out costs of hotels, cabs, guest houses, and restaurants.
“In almost every instance, the Chinese have reacted to our sign language with enthusiasm. They seem to enjoy the process, and they’re delighted when they figure us out.
“So, as I said, we’ve solved the language problem with sign language, the Lonely Planet guidebook, and Ross’ calculator.
“Our bigger problems have turned out to be finding cold beer and obtaining local currency.
“In most Chinese restaurants, beers sits on the counter at room temperature. We want cold beer, so that’s how we make our restaurant selections.
“First, we open the refrigerator and confirm near-absolute-zero coldness.
“If the beer checks out, that’s where we eat.
“Most Chinese beer has only 3.4% alcohol, quite low by Asian standards. We’ve tried several labels, to me there’s a hint of flowers, even mint, maybe. Delicious.
“Getting local currency has turned out to be a far more serious challenge in south-central Yunnan. Banks are open seven days a week, yet they refused to exchange dollar bills, and ATMs refused to spew forth their treasure. ‘Transaction invalid, check with your card issuer.’
“By the fourth day, we faced a critical situation. We were running out of the yuan I had left over from a previous trip. Ross even changed a US$50 bill on the black market at a terrible rate. Then, late one Sunday afternoon, an ATM–the only one in town–for some reason, magically started pumping out lovely cash.
“If you’re entering China the way we did, from Laos, change at least some money with the black market changers on the Chinese side of the border. They offer good rates.
“I was reluctant to change there, because I figured the changers might be crooks. But, given our later hassles, it’s a worthwhile risk. And you can minimize that risk by changing with someone inside a store, rather than on the street.”