June 13-15, 2009
After just one night and a morning bike-ride in Dali, we took a bus to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming.
The reason we rushed to reach Kunming was that we’d already made plans to stay with another couchsurfer there. This was our fourth couchsurfing experience, but our first one in quite a while; the prior three were in South Africa (October 2008), Kenya (December 2008), and Ethiopia (January 2009). There are a couple of reasons for our long hiatus from couchsurfing. The first is that we traveled in Egypt/Jordan/UAE just after the war in Gaza, so we figured its best if we played it conservatively in those countries and stayed in backpacker hotels (couchsurfers tend to be an open bunch, but you never know). The other reason is that it’s much easier to plan a stay with a fellow couchsurfer around flights (just after landing in a city, or just before departure), but for the last several months we hadn’t had any flights.
But here in Yunnan we decided to give it another go, so we contacted this guy Osama (AKA Sam Sam) and he invited us to stay with him. When we reached Kunming we gave him a call and, funny thing, it turned out he was in Dali for the weekend too! Too bad we didn’t call him before – we could have started hanging out in Dali and we could have traveled to Kunming together. No matter. We made plans to meet in Kunming’s big train station, and a few hours later he was there.
Pnina standing in front of Kunming’s train station:
Sam is originally from Pakistan, but he’s one of many expats working as English teachers in China. We learned a few interesting things about the job. Chinese schools pay the best wages to people who come from English-speaking countries: US, England, Australia, New Zealand. Next up are a whole set of other countries, including former British colonies where English is an important second language (such as India and Pakistan). And absolutely last come Africans (even African Americans!). It’s totally racist, but that’s how it is – salaries correspond to perception. Sam said that he can get a salary of just over $20,000 a year with his background (and his pay may be somewhat higher because he’s fairly proficient in Chinese, something that isn’t technically needed but never hurts).
For the first few years in China Sam worked in Shenzhen, and he obviously misses that place. Shenzhen is more of a party town, and Sam is a party kind of guy. He’s a bachelor, and he loves drinking, smoking, and going out to bars and clubs. For Pnina and I it was difficult to keep up with him. For one thing, by now you probably know that Pnina is not the biggest fan of cigarette smoke. But besides that we just weren’t in the habit of staying up so late. But it was still a good time. I think Sam appreciated having companions for a couple of visits away from his quiet New Asia suburb and into the city.
Pnina and Sam in a fancy grocery store. Sam gets three bottles of bottom-shelf whiskey. Pnina gets one tiny bottle of Baileys. I think that about sums it up 🙂
One of the nights we met up with two of Sam’s friends, Ruben and Shan Shan. Ruben is from Belgium. He dabbled in teaching English in China but now he’s setting up a fulltime photography business (http://studio.lemiengre.info/en/). Shan Shan is originally from Kunming, and she still teaches English today. Ruben and Shan Shan bought their apartment not that long ago, and we found it interesting how the apartment looked great inside while the building looked really run-down on the outside. I guess that’s a common thing in many parts of China – people care more about making the inside of a home look good.
Pnina, Shan Shan, Ruben, and Sam:
Our Rough Guide described Kunming as the most laid-back city in the country, calling it “the Seattle of China”. So of course we were looking forward to checking it out. And was it that good? Um, no, not really. It was an OK town, don’t get us wrong, but it lacked the mountains and the lakes, the cozy neighborhoods, and the clean air. It’s entirely possible that we’re biased :-) But anyhow, as far as cities are concerned, we would pick Chengdu over Kunming, and we would pick cities in other countries over these two. Still, it had some good restaurants and a few interesting sights…
Probably our favorite restaurants in Kunming: Ajisen Ramen.
Cool statue of a guy trimming a bush. Must be tricky for the actual gardener to get around the statue to trim the bush.
Don’t know why, I love this shirt:
We heard that there’s a certain “bird and flower” market in the city, where one can see not just standard flowers and birds, but also endangered species illegally “liberated” from forests in southern Yunnan. We found the market, but it didn’t have any exotic animals, which is both a let-down and a very good thing. Mostly we found cute puppies and colorful fish, which was good enough for us.
Even Pnina had to admit these dogs were very cute:
There were a ton of parrots of all kinds:
And so many aquariums:
We did just one major site-seeing trip while in Kunming: the Shilin Stone Forest. This was actually 60 km away from Kunming so we went there as a day trip. China has a few of these stone forest parks in different locations, and this one was not particularly cheap: 140 yuan. But for us it was the easiest to reach, and it was definitely worth the money. Like in Jiuzhaigou, this park gets a lot of visitors, but they mostly stick to a few high-profile spots. So its easy enough to get away from the crush of tour groups by taking one of the quieter paths, especially in the eastern part of the park.
Pnina standing by some of the first stone pinnacles we saw as we entered the park:
Here, too, a lot of the Chinese tourists paid money to don silly costumes and have their photo taken:
We cross a zig-zag bridge and enter the main “grove” of stone pinnacles:
In some cases the trail between the stone giants was pretty narrow:
And in many places we climbed up and down stairs:
The most touristy place in the park is this little terrace, which is perched on top of one of the stones. It really has a fantastic view so it’s no wonder it gets such a crowd:
This is the crowd looking to get off the stone with the terrace:
We managed to get a decent photo of Pnina up there:
But I had no such luck. There were just too many people around. Eventually I said “screw it” and asked Pnina to photograph me with the three women who stepped in our way last:
The view from above – this place is really awesome:
Back down from the terrace, we stop in a couple more sites highlighted on our map:
There were a few stones that were supposed to look like certain animals. For some you really had to use your imagination. Others were pretty obvious:
And eventually we reached the eastern part of the park, where we hardly saw a soul: