Wandering Kunming

< travels >

8/17 Later 4-5pm, same day, a cafe

Eating fried, not toasted, toast. Hmmm....

The owners are not actually natives. They are originally from Singapore. Not sure what brought them here, but we did converse a while.

It is raining heavily again. You know - pouring cats and dogs. Another pair of pants will be wet for a couple weeks. My shoes, I fear will be wet until I reach the desert.

The toast is weird. More western food, I know. My fault. But I did want spring rolls - only they were out.

Just been walking and walking today. Actually, it is not that bad of a town. Sort of like Hanoi in a way, only with more cars and no scooters, the same amount of bikes and maybe a fewer number of parks. There are lots of tree lined streets, and broad boulevards. The bikes are confined to the edges of the street (unlike Hanoi). There is much more construction though, and they are throwing up new skyscrapers and more "modern" buildings. Hanoi is still a few years behind in that regard.

There was a big banner hung up across the street with the number of dead and injured in street accidents last month. Reminding Kunming citizens to be careful.

I have to remind myself that this is Mainland China: look at that family, that girl is probably their one and only child; that old man or woman has possibly gone through what happened in the movie "Living." And here they are in front of me, part of my much more pedestrian life.

I kind of have to remember that here and in Vietnam, I see only a surface of what's going on: the shops, the businesses, the struggle for money; not the background from where this has arisen from - I've only seen glimpses of that in movies, books and what people have told me. And then, I meet people like the family in Catba or the hotel proprietor in Hekou: they may never leave their town or country, either because of politics or money. And money, isn't that in the end the same thing? Politics only have power because of money and economics.

I have to admit that I'm a bit squeamish about China - using squat toilets, no privacy, the fight for tickets, train rides, all the horror stories I've heard about traveling in China. I feel I've been spoiled by my stay in Taiwan and Vietnam.

Aug 18, 8pm or so, Kunhu hotel in Kunming.

A not so interesting day. Just walked mainly.

I got up slowly in the morning, a bit lethargic. Went over to the post office to mail a few things. But I was expecting a letter from a friend at the poste restante, and there was nothing there. It was a bit depressing. When I was in Vietnam it was easier to meet people both foreign and local.

But here its a big country, big city. The fact that pedestrians don't have the right of way annoys the hell out of me.

I sat for a while, today, in a cafe, watching the street. I saw not one, but three arguments. All gathered a crowd. Two actually happened at the same time as each other. One was this guy who got out of his taxi, but only had a large bill that the driver couldn't break. Not sure what the passenger was arguing, but the driver went off with a very steamy look. Nearby, a guy was pissed off that another man had rode past and the thing at the back of his bike had brushed the guys jacket and got it dirty.

The third one I didn't figure out: a guy getting out of a taxi, opening the door on a bicyclist or something. Each one the combatants seemed to appeal to the crowds for support. It was odd.

There are tons of women taxi drivers as well, more than I've seen in any other place. Strange.

There are little bulletin boards with news and announcements all over the city. Some of them had little crowds gathered around; reading about all the crimes: a couple criminals who had been caught; a murderer with the pictures of his victims and the skeletons of the dead; a counterfeiter with all his cash displayed in front of him on a table.

There are movie houses all over the place, many of them have Westerns - 6 or 7 years old, not very good ones either. Not even John Wayne or Clint Eastwood ones - the kind of ones that William Shatner would play Indians in. That and lots of martial arts and gangster movies from Hong Kong. Some of the movie houses seem to be little more than what I went to when I was in Hekou.

I spent a long time looking for a pagoda and ended up doing a huge loop before finding it. I have this silly notion that I can find things by looking at a map only once when I first set out. It works sometimes. But not today.

Anyway, it was interesting at least, that side of town is very new on the edges, booming one could say, with lots of new apartment buildings and new shops. Half the bicycles people ride are now mountain bikes.

The pagoda was not so exciting, one couldn't get up into it, and it sat a bit forlorn, on a residential street, unattended. Neat shape though, 12 or so "floors," square in shape, the whole building tapered, fattest in the middle. Little Buddhas watch from windows on all four sides. The pagoda itself and buildings around it seem old though, lots of rotted paper peeling off the sides: lunar new year's ornaments from years gone past; fierce gods fading to a dirty white.

There was a second one close by, and this one was in more of a compound - one had to walk down a long alley to get to it. But it was the same thing pretty much, the shape slightly different.

More interesting, was the fact that in the buildings surrounding the pagoda there were dozens of old men and women playing mahjongg and chess, drinking tea from their jars. I was disappointed that there were no Go games though.

It rained when I was there and I waited it out, but it never quite stopped and so I left. It spat the rest of the day.

I walked more and went finally to a Muslim restaurant thinking (in some bizarre way) of Arabic food - good pita bread, hummous and lamb. Alas, all it was, or seemed to be, was Chinese food. I seemed to still have this fixation with bread - maybe I ate too much in Vietnam.

It was annoying too, because they only brought my rice when I was nearly finished with my meal. "Is this too much?" she asked. "No! It's too late," I replied.

I strolled home as it still rained and the day's light faded away. I think I witnessed an illicit transfer under an umbrella: fireworks or something, a hefty package in any case. They noticed me - a shock I guess to have a foreigner appear there, and they strode off rapidly.

That part of the city had many old parts left, lots of trees. Buildings new and old are a bit dilapidated, but the overall effect is much nicer than the modern sections which are all grey and exposed. Makes the sun, when it appears, look very harsh.

I often have seen temples or old buildings with makeshift stores built in front of them, as if they are hiding.

At lunch (going back a bit), I listened to a guy talk to a couple about how he was ripped off, all his money, his passport. He went on about how the police should do something about the situation in Northern Yunnan, and then went on about paying tourist prices, how they "the China people" didn't deserve our money. They have bad living conditions, bad service, and on and on.

It struck me as the central paradox of the backpacker: nothing is good enough or cheap enough; but that things should remain "primitive." As if our few dollars, which wouldn't buy jack in our own countries, are supposed to give us the status of gods. We know the money we have is more than a local laborer could probably ever hope to make, yet still believe we should get the same price. We are poor students we say, expecting people who in their life will probably never be able to travel to our countries.

I feel sorry for that guy, for the fact that he got ripped off, but by the very fact that he continued travelling - i.e. got more $ from somewhere - just goes to prove my point. He was going on about the worth of tourist dollars, as if backpackers had a significant influence or added significantly to the income of all the locals. Sure, it probably does have in influence in some places (ex. Sapa). But if somebody realized they could make a bit more money by charging us more, I can't blame 'em. Especially, as you see the same thing happen in tourist traps all over the world. And then we expect to be waited on hand and foot for our measly dollars and bad tempers.

Been reading Kim Stanely Robinson's Red Mars, and thinking about governments, and possible ways of changing things. How's this for a proposal - government by private enterprise, incorporate parties and putting government into competition. Parallel governments all trying to make the people happy with the least possible tax or problems.

Say the Republicans could be running one department, the Dems another. Some departments could be run in parallel: welfare say; others would have to be a choice by public referendum: Foreign Affairs, the military; the police, etc... The Judiciary would have to be separate or a mixed body; neutral in some way or another in order to oversee the framework constitution and disputes.

The Legislature could be pretty much the same as it is, but non partisan, or maybe that congresspeople couldn't be part of one of the incorporated parties (which don't have to be limited to two)

Sounds rather Republican I guess doesn't it?

Thought of a story but it has slipped out of my brain - maybe it will come back. All I remember is a sudden smile. I notice I spend half of my time thinking about how to write things down, or how I will describe something in a letter; everything composed before it is put to pen. Odd habit.

And odd dreams too: 3 Warships commanded by Capt Jean Luc Picard are sucked into a giant spacecraft and plopped down into water, warned by a huge voice that there are 7 Japanese craft in the area. Jets are zooming around of both friend and foe.

But soon the ocean is a floor and me and my brother are pushing around model ships. There is an Asian kid playing with us. A plane flies by and I ready a missile. The Asian kid objects, but I explain its workings and my brother approves. I get up and throw the missile at the plane. I pantomime an explosion but the plane keeps flying in circles and finally lands after a bout of frenzied acrobatics. Nice flying! I say to my brother, impressed. Another Asian kid gets out, even though it is still a model.


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