Life In Kunming, China

Inside Life In Kunming, China

Vicki and I are living in Kunming, China, for two months. We want to get a good feel for the city. Maybe Kunming will become a new base for us in Southeast Asia.

With the new 10-year China visas, Americans can stay in China for up to two months each visit.

We live in the center of Kunming and spend our days exploring parks, markets, restaurants, malls, supermarkets, and far-flung neighborhoods. We walk, take buses, and ride the new metro.

Parks make a perfect spot for people-watching. In parks, locals play cards, exercise, feed fish, and play badminton. Woodwinds and strings accompany opera singers and their loud vibratos. Children practice on scooters while their moms dance. Old people drink tea and smoke.

In one of the larger parks in Kunming, five or six men fly kites with maybe a dozen onlookers.

These human-sized high-tech kites are made of space-age materials. Flyers reel in their kites with devices that look like a cross between big fishing reels and small bike wheels, maybe a foot in diameter. The reels hold a couple of miles of strong nylon line and have ball bearings along with levers, clamps, and supports to make flying easy.

I take the kite flyers as a metaphor for China. Apply high-tech to traditional hobbies. Play in a group, at appointed times. Stick to the rules, help each other out, and enjoy the process rather than the result.

In a huge outdoor market a few miles from downtown Kunming, vendors sell live fish and live chickens, although they’ll prepare them for cooking if asked. Others sell fruit and vegetables, some unrecognizable, especially the medicinal plants. In another section of the market one can buy dresses, baby clothes, cellphones and accessories, shoes, and fabric. Food stalls sell donuts, dumplings, noodles, and ham. In the midst of it all we saw a dentist working on a patient’s teeth. Both dentist and patient seemed calm and unhurried, ignoring the chaos all around.

If we need a dentist we’ll go to one of the many modern dental clinics in our downtown neighborhood.

Our favorite restaurant serves up two dozen or so different dishes from a steam table. Vicki and I just point—meat here, vegetables there. They serve it up, always with rice and warm vegetable broth on the side. We’re not allowed to skip the watered-down broth. If we don’t pick up a bowl, one of the helpful staff rushes over to our table with bowls in hand.

With so much time here we’ve found several favorite restaurants and food stalls. Our problem is naming them. These places have Chinese names, Chinese addresses, I suppose, but Vicki and I must come up with our own code. We have the Alley Cafeteria, referred to above, across from Alley Soup and around the corner from Alley Cafeteria Two. We have Spicy Soup KFC, a soup stall below a Kentucky Fried Chicken. We have Helen Dumplings, a dumpling place around the corner from where our friend Helen took us last year. We have Food Court, Taiwan Food Court, and The Hump, in a youth hostel with the same name. We even have O’Reilly’s Pub; the name says it all.

For supermarkets we have a giant New Supermarket, recently opened next door, and a ritzy Parkson’s across the plaza. Metro, a short subway ride away, has the best selection of imported goods. We even have Carrefour and Walmart, always crowded and frenetic, our least favorites.

Kunming’s streets come alive every day with locals rushing around, young lovers talking on cellphones, and families with young children everywhere. We saw a toddler fall, pick himself up, dust off, and get going again without so much as a glance at Grandma. Why look over there? She only helps out in a pinch.

We read about Tiger Moms, who pressure their children to succeed. We read about competition. Yet around town we see so many people having so much fun.

We see police everywhere, but, at least on the streets, they seem to rule with a light touch. We especially appreciate the traffic police doing their job. Chinese pay little attention to traffic rules. We’ve seen way too many accidents during our visit. I read somewhere that Chinese traffic accidents approach 10 times the norm.

Kunming has special traffic lanes set aside for motorcycles and bicycles. Still, sidewalks are viewed as just another lane of traffic, in many ways preferred to roads. After all, sidewalks accommodate two-way traffic. Pedestrians come so far down the food chain that we (Vicki and I and others) can safely be ignored. I’m used to it; jumping out of the way of a motorcycle on sidewalks or crosswalks has become routine.

Sidewalks, besides accommodating motorcycle and heavy pedestrian traffic, also allow for parking, motorcycle repair, pop-up shops, and food-cart vendors. Vicki’s favorite cart serves up fried potatoes tossed with pungent spices.

Everywhere Kunming bursts with activity. Merchants buy and sell, builders tear down and rebuild. A recent study of cities ranked Kunming the world’s sixth most growing economy. Boomtown.

We find Kunming’s altitude (1,900 meters, or 6,234 feet, above sea level), restricted Internet, and lack of English speakers to be the major drawbacks.

On the other hand, I have lots of opportunity to practice my limited Mandarin. Connecting to the Internet with a VPN gives us access to blocked Internet sites, including Live and Invest Overseas. Adjusting to the altitude is just a matter of time.

Kunming: so far, so good. We like it here.

Paul Terhorst

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