China Part 1: Kunming

Having woken up after our nap and gotten ready before opening time, we were the first people to queue up at the border crossing, but as all signs were in Vietnamese, once the staff got settled in and ready to go, we were told we were on the wrong queue and had to therefore go to the back of a longer one that had formed two meters to the right. In front of us was another tourist, so we started chatting to him. He was from Israel, and was returning to China to study martial arts in Dali. As he was also going to Kunming straight after crossing, we decided to team up. We were stamped out of Vietnam and crossed the small bridge that separates the countries without further delays. On the Chinese side, a few friendly clerks helped us get our stuff in order and showed genuine interest and curiosity seeing our passports and the amount of countries we had visited – or at least they were great actors. Our Israeli friend was not as lucky, and was taken into a small room for interrogation – which was the last we saw of him…

Now, the border opened at 8am, and the first possible train we could catch left for Kunming at 9.22AM (the second left after 4pm). The train station is brand new and did not appear on any map, and as much as we had tried to find information on its location and how to get there, we were already prepared to catch a taxi. Once I cleared immigrations I stop two gorgeous Asian girls that had been queuing with us to see if they were also planning to follow the same route. It turned out they were from Vietnam, but as it was their first time over the border they had made them queue with us. While I was chatting to Li and Thuy, Tim left to try and change some money so we could pay the taxi and the train ticket. Defeated, he returned 15 minutes later, as money changers/banks had not yet opened their doors. The clock was ticking, and we were starting to think we would miss the train. Heaven sent, the girls offered to lend us the money and allow us to return it once we made it to Kunming. That arranged, we hurried into a taxi and raced to the station. Buying the tickets was another chore, but our saviours could speak enough Chinese to make it easier on all. The train attendants delayed the train enough for us to board, but we were still running with all our luggage and causing a bit of a commotion and lots of laughter.

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The train ride was quite pleasant, specially with the amazing company provided by Li and Thuy. A seven year old Chinese boy came to practice his English with us, and asked us a million questions we found very cute. Some were a bit weird and hard to understand (he had a funny accent): Example “What is your favourite shape?” and others made us giggle like “What is your favourite body part?” I also used the time to have a well deserved nap after a long uncomfortable night.

About 8 hours later we arrived at Kunming. The size of the train station was bedazzling and our first cultural shock. We promptly tried to find a bank to change money or an ATM that would spit some Yuan, but we failed at both. Eventually the girls took us out for a bite to eat and we agreed to give them some VDN that we were still carrying – including all our small change. We are still not sure how, but they managed to order fried dumplings (not even sold by the little train side stall but ‘borrowed’ from another) and a nice bread that we happily devoured. By then it was time for both of us to get on our way, though saying goodbye to our new friends was tough.

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Of course a few minutes after we departed we went into a bank and were able to withdraw money straight away. Walking towards our hotel was strange, as the huge city was almost deserted – most Chinese people vacate the cities to visit their families in their home towns for the Spring Festival festivity. One of the first things we noticed was that about 99% of motorbikes were fully electric, and therefore cruised around completely silently. The second was the ‘oven mitts’ they were wearing, though we  later realized these contraptions attach to the handle bars providing warmth to the driver and have nothing to do with ovens… At one point we crossed what we thought was a big mall, but it was a Chinese traditional medicine centre. All in all, we learned a lot on that first walk around.

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Finding the hotel was another mission, as we had booked it on “Bookings.com” but it was not a real hotel. Imagine someone rented a 19th floor, partitioned it and rented rooms out- that would be our “Inn”. We eventually made it there, but the owner was not around and we did not have any way to contact him. With hand signs and lots of body language we communicated this to some people that tried to help us, and while Tim waited with our packs, they took me to someone’s shop, gave me hot water to drink, cigarettes, and tried to talk to me – without speaking a word of English. I was quite amused and expressed what I could without words, and eventually the ‘hotel’ guy turned up and let us in. The bed was fine, though the apartment was FREEZING cold and the bathroom quite disgusting – what you get for booking the cheapest shit hole in town! When it got dark the cold and wind made it icy, so we piled up all available blankets and our sleeping bags and turned in for the night.

The next day we decided to start by walking back to the train station to secure tickets to our next destination: Dali. Before leaving I checked the schedules on chinatravelguide.com and wrote it all down on a piece of paper – Chinese characters included. I asked the ‘hotel’ guy to read my Chinese and was proud to know he could read it perfectly fine. At the station we just handed the paper in and got all our tickets without a glitch. Relieved to have them in hand, we scouted the nearby eateries. The previous day we had already seen a bunch of different dishes on offer, so we compared them all and chose our favourite. For 10 Yuan you got to pick three flavours and all the rice you could eat! That day we discovered magic CHINESE SAUCE, a combination of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and mystery straight from heaven. Whatever it is you are eating, it enhances it tremendously. We were greatly surprised to find such quality vegetarian food as we thought China would prove a challenge!

We followed the river back, and Tim was too tired to explore, so he gave me the camera and returned to the hotel. I spent the next few hours getting lost in Kunming. I found cool temples, amazing architecture, and lots of pedestrian streets.

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It was very unique to be able to walk on small ‘tourist’ streets and be dully ignored by merchants. Unlike other Asian countries we visited, internal tourism is so plentiful they could not care less about white people. No one asked for a selfie, no one touted me, and I was free to do what I pleased and take all the photos I wanted. It was a new feeling that I thoroughly enjoyed!

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When I returned I had a coffee and set out again with Tim. We spent the next hour at a nearby supermarket, delighted by all the exotic products and crazy things for sale. We were also introduced to the ‘reject bin’, where supermarkets put vegies and fruit that are getting old at discounted prices. From then on, this offers decided what kind of soup we would eat that night…

The following morning we woke up early enough to explore a bit more of Kunming before we had to check out of our room. We headed towards a few parks, but were surprised with the results. One was a temple + monk residency without much greenery, another completely fenced off and inaccessible, and the other one had a mini amusement park for kids. The foreign exchange place marked on maps.me was long closed so we were still stuck with Vietnamese currency…

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After checking out we did not want to walk too far from our packs as our train was not leaving until around 9pm. With that in mind we entered an electronics store and spent ages assessing curved screen TVs and trying all the different couches set up in front of them. For two people that don’t like shopping and rarely watch TV, it was an interesting choice, but we had a great time escaping from the outside chill and pretending to be able to afford this huge monitors…

Eventually we made it back to the station, had another round of station food at the previously mentioned small restaurants and set out to wait for our train. We sat around the station and got the guitar out, and soon we had a small audience surrounding us. After a while a girl that spoke some English came along, and she translated our onlookers ideas. The prevalent one was for us to learn some songs in Chinese and make our show much better…

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