Kunming: Sister City of Wagga Wagga

24 May

Contraband and the Road to Kunming:

The easiest way to get into China from Sapa in the North of Vietnam is to cross the Vietnam / China Border at Lao Cai / Hekou. This popular border crossing proved relatively hassle-free. The only problem we encountered here was the near confiscation of our copy of of LP China by Chinese Border Guards.

The travel guide itself warned us of the risk of confiscation and advised covering the book with contact to avoid attracting the the attention of customs officials. Unfortunately this ploy didn’t work.

When I was informed by a Border Guard that I was not permitted to carry the travel guide into China because of its comments about Taiwan (effectively recognising its independence), I asked if I could remove the offending pages and hold on to the rest of the book. The Guard didn’t agree to my suggestion, but did give me permission to remove the chapters that I required.

I decided to interpret this as liberally as possible to my advantage. As you may know we had planned to be in China for six weeks, and intended to visit a number of Provinces in this time. So I proceeded to tear out each of the chapters that corresponded to the Provinces I wanted to visit (of course all the time thinking how sad it was to destroy a perfectly good book).

After I had removed roughly a third of the travel guide’s pages, another official watching the process sighed and asked me ‘How many Provinces are you actually planning to visit in China?’ After I rattled off the rehearsed list the Guard sighed again and said ‘I can tell this book is very important to you so you can take it with you. Just promise me that you will get rid of it before you leave the Country. Welcome to China’.

With this positive news I packed away what was left my LP China and quickly headed off to find an ATM and the bus station.

We later met other travellers who had also lost their copies of LP China at the Lao Cai / Hekou Border. Interestingly other travel guides which are also critical of the One China Policy are allowed into the Country.

Travellers using LP China will have to think of smarter ways to smuggle the book into Country. We met a German guy who replaced the recognised cover of LP China with the cover of the LP South East Asia on a Shoe-String – a clever tactic that tricked customs officers. I do think that LP should seriously consider removing the sections deemed offensive by the Chinese Government in future editions of its China guide, as there is no use having a travel guide that you can’t use in country. Also those travelers who choose to choose to carry the book into the China are putting themselves into potentially dangerous situations by bringing illegal material into China.

The Express Bus to Kunming left minutes after we arrived at the Hekou long-distance bus station. Tickets cost about $20 AUD each. The journey took roughly eight hours, including toilet stops and a lunch break. For most of the journey the scenery was impressive – driving along a smooth new road (we’d seen little of these in the preceding 6 weeks) we passed green hills dotted with farmland and the occasional coal power plant pumping ugly smoke into the atmosphere.

In Kunming

We spent three full days in the city of Kunming; the capital of China’s Yunnan Province located in the South West of this vast Country.

Kunming is a small city by Chinese standards with a population of just over 1 million people. Without the crazy crowds and the heavy air pollution that plague other Chinese cities, Kunming is a pleasant and easy place for tourists to navigate. The public bus system makes it easy to explore the city without getting tired, though strolling through new boulevards and old back streets is a lovely way to spend a day or two.

Green Lake Park was a highlight of Kunming; a handsome and serene space in the middle of a growing city. It boasted a number of lakes, and walking paths shadded with tall trees, and a number of pagodas. It was nice to see how well utilised the Park is by the community. Wandering around at 9am we witnessed groups of men and women partaking in tai chi, aerobics, dancing lessons, and singing in choirs. We were also lucky to see musicians also practised their instruments.

It was also here that we discovered a plaque that informed us Kunming is the sister city of Wagga Wagga in Australia. We are not sure why anyone would want to have a sister-city relationship with Wagga Wagga, and wondered if visiting Chinese officials were shown around Sydney by their Australian counterparts and mislead about the actual nature of their new sibling city.

Since most of the clothes we buy in Australia are made in China, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chinese fashion is more or less consistent with the latest western trends. Kunming is home to numerous legitlmate clothing boutiques – including Adidas, Espirit and Calvin Klein. These definitely didn’t exist in Laos or Cambodia. If I wasn’t limited by my I-want-to-spend-a-year-travelling budget, and had more spare room in my backpack (and a greater ability to carry it), I would certainly be shopping here.

The bar / clubbig scene in Kunming is apparently sizable. We went out for a drink near our hostel one night and were very suprised to be offered free drinks for being white. That’s right – a man approached us outside the blockbuster-themed bar displaying a text message on his phone that read ‘our foreign friends are welcome to a free beer for gracing us with your presence’. Of course we obliged.

Food Glorious Southern Chinese Food

A delicious duck noodle soup eaten at a bus station on route to Kunming was the first meal we enjoyed in China. It was a good sign of the great food to come. Twice now we have stumbled across small local dumpling houses and feasted on plates of freshly steamed dumplings costing between 4 and 8 yuan each (less than AUD $1.50).

Yunnan’s large muslim population has influenced the region’s cuisine. Keen to try some local specialties we headed to Kunming’s Muslim Quarter. Sadly much of yhe old buildings that stood here have been torn down and replaced with homogenous glass sky-scrapers; hotels, shopping malls, apartments and commercial spaces. Nonetheless we found what we wanted in a small muslim family restaurant. Without any common language and a limited dictionary, we ordered by pointing at the meals being consumed by other patrons. Here we shared a rich mutton and tomato stew, and a plate of preserved meat that tasted similar to deli-bought slices of roast beef, served with a dark bean and sweet sesame dipping sauce. The later was a little different, and not a dish that I would have independently chosen. However a man at the table I was ordering from (I know, sounds odd but it works) told me (in body language of course) that this was a must-have dish.

At another restaurant we visited with Maddie, our new friend from Melbourne, we tasted another Yunnan specialty ‘rubji’ (CHECK) fried goats cheese that was similar to Haloumi; mushrooms served cold with fresh small red chilies, and a rich chicken and dried-chili dish that was amazing but I have no idea what it is called and so may never have the chance to eat again. All this food plus two long-necks cost 70 yuan, or about $12 AUD.

I am a big fan of Vietnamese food, with its generally simple tastes and fresh ingredients. But I love the rich and complex flavours of Southern Chinese cuisine. Hopefully I will walk off the excess of calories I will surely enjoy over the next few weeks.

One Response to “Kunming: Sister City of Wagga Wagga”

  1. Mum June 1, 2010 at 5:12 am #

    Not sure about the plastic roast beef, black bean and sweet sesam dipping sauce!
    If you want to buy some things you can always send them home, even via seafreight would do. You don’t need them in a hurry.
    Keep up the good stories,
    Love Mum

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