Sunday, November 25, 2007

Xiao Chiing in the Eternal Spring City

Thanksgiving Weekend Part I

This past weekend my program asked us to find a friend or two and arrange a long weekend for ourselves. If our itinerary proved to be educational (and if we stuck to it) they would refund us 1000 kuai (an incredibly substantial amount of money - sweet). So, I proposed that my friends and I head down to Xishuangbanna, mainly because I really like the Dai restaurant behind East Campus, and because it's tropical and has elephants and pineapples. Our proposed itinerary was something like this:
-Fly to Kunming, hang out till next flight.
-Fly to Jinghong
-Take bus to Damenglong
-Hike from Damenglong to Bulangshang over about 2 or 3 days, finding homes to stay in as we go.
-Take bus from Bulangshang back to Jinghong
(all of the above villages are Dai)
-Fly to Kunming
-Fly to Beijing.

An excellent plan if I do say so myself. However, it's not entirely how things turned out, although that's probably for the better. Here's the real story of my Thanksgiving weekend:

We flew to Kunming on Tuesday night as planned, however we did not book a connecting flight to Jinhong because it was so expensive. (It cost almost as much for the 45 minute flight to Jinhong as it did for our 3 hour flight from Beijing!) Luckily, we had heard that there was an overnight bus to Jinghong from Kunming for about 180 kuai, so we decided to wing it. So we got into Kunming at about 1:30 am, fought with a cab driver, and eventually settled into the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in for 40 kuai a night. The south is wonderfully cheap.
The next morning we woke up and went straight to the bus station. Fabulously, this rumor about an overnight bus was truth and no rumor, so we bought tickets and found ourselves with a whole unexpected day to spend in Kunming (as our bus didn't leave till 8:30. We spent the day eating (or in my case, eating and totally stressing about this bus situation - 12 hours on a bus?!). First we found a place to eat across the bridge noodles - the local Kunming specialty. The noodles were pretty good, but even better was the catfight that broke out over noodle prices while we were there. A huge crowd gathered and the police got involved. There was hair pulling and spitting and slapping and even shoving people out into traffic. I managed to snap a quick picture, but got many many disapproving looks.
We decided it would be cool to check out this temple just outside the city that is supposed to have really crazy statues, so we began our trek northward to the minibus station just as the fight was getting to be a little too intense and it felt like we should move along. On the road we ate all sorts of tropical fruits, and even found STRAWBERRIES. These wonderful berries, as far as I knew up till this point, didn't exist in China. No one I've met in Beijing has ever tasted one, or even heard of them. They were glorious.

We eventually wandered into a street of wedding candy shops, made a pengyou, and bought pounds of different candies that we either ate or handed out to small children along the rest of our journey this weekend.
Kunming was really interesting in that the south part of the city (where we started walking) felt like one of the more third-world-like cities (I realize that's not so PC) that I've been to in China, but the further north we went the more modern things
became. It wasn't quite the same juxtaposition that I found in Shanghai's old sectors, but it was a pretty quick transition from street side markets and run down buildings to impressive skyscrapers and beautifully cultivated lake districts.

After wandering around Kunming for a few more hours, eating several other kinds of specialty xiao chi, and wandering through a church and a mosque, we found ourselves at this obscenely large market. I like to refer to it as the taste testing market, since pretty much every stall allowed you a free (and substantially large) taste test of what they were selling. It was all absolutely delicious and tropical (although some of the stuff was wicked weird - but hey, this is still China). Later we wandered though another market, but this one was clothes and jewelry rather than food. Before we knew it, the sun was going down and it was clearly too late to get to this temple, so we made our new goal the vegetarian restaurant in Kunming that Lonely Planet absolutely raved about. 3 of the 4 of us are vegetarian (and the 4th willing to make the switch for the trip) so I was in good company. That restaurant turned out to be closed, so we got a recommendation from some monks for another veggie place down the block. It turned out to be quite delicious, and Terra's 21st birthday was a success.
Just after dinner we rushed off to the bus station to figure out what this whole overnight bus business was all about. These buses are pretty well designed. From the outside it looks like a regular coach bus, but the inside has been gutted and replaced with three rows of reclined, bunked, seats - the backs are at about 45 degree angles - and they all overlap each other a bit, so your legs are underneath the person in front of you from the shin down. Luckily we had all bottom bunks (I think I would have freaked out if I were on top) and my friends were kind enough to keep me out of the middle row. In general the bus was a lot less claustrophobic than the train, since it was windows all around, but it wasn't the most comfortable sleeping experience of my life. It was cleanish, however (they made you remove your shoes and put them in plastic baggies before boarding), and they made bathroom stops every 2 hours (so the on board bathroom wasn't ever used, I don't think, and thus no smelliness). I did not sleep incredibly well, although my ipod helped, and whenever I woke up I was greeted with a vision of glorious mountains or beautiful lakes. This picture is the view from my bed. I wish I was better able to capture the bus ambiance. The movie, by the way, was one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It was in English and perpetuated the worst Asian stereotypes ever.
We finally pulled into Jinghong at about 6:30 in the morning (after a bit of a rough patch where the highway was under severe construction for about 10 kilometers and reduced to a muddy, rutted road I didn't think our bus would be able to pull through). It was still wicked dark because of the whole all-of-china-is-one-timezone-phenomenon. But more on Jinghong later, when I have more time to write.

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