Kunming to Jinghong, and China Miscellany

Several days ago I flew from freezing, rainy Zhongdian to Kunming. Kunming is a big, fairly Western city (the last I will be visiting before Laos), and I had an errand list a mile long for my stopover there; however, I arrived exhausted and cranky, and managed to do nothing but stomp around the city acting like a jerk to all the vendors. The only fun thing I wanted to do in Kunming was visit the memorial museum to the Flying Tigers: Kunming was the end of the Burma road, which my grandfather drove in WWII. Turns out, however, that the Flying Tigers memorial is in Hunan somewhere (an older lady from New Mexico told me it’s terrific), so no dice on that.

Early next morning, I boarded a bus to Jinghong. It was meant to be 9 hours, and we were sailing along pretty good until we hit the ’22 km to Jinghong’ sign, at which point the roads totally fell apart and we entered some sort of time warp. It was another two hours before we pulled into town. Also, it poured the whole way (it rained in Kunming, too). Apparently, Yunnan is getting record amounts of rain this year. They’re having flooding and all sorts of problems. I did get to see a rainbow over some glistening terraced rice fields. It was the type of rainbow that is usually only a cartoon representation of a rainbow: a perfect semi-circle stretched across the sky, with each band in the spectrum distinct and visible. Of course, it was pissing down again another mile down the road.

Jinghong is really nice. It’s a small, laid-back city in the Xishuangbanna Region of China – the little bit hanging down by Laos and Vietnam. After being in the Tibetan mountains just two days before, it was a shock to be surrounded by palm trees and oppressed by tropical heat. I’ve been hanging out with a group of three Americans also going to Laos (actually, they were in the crowd at the guesthouse at the end of Tiger Leaping Gorge). They’re a lot of fun; on our first night in Jinghong, we ate for hours and then started a conga line in a Chinese night club full of preteens.

My Chinese visa was up tomorrow, and today I crossed over into Laos. Before I begin blogging about Laos, however, I have some final thoughts on China I would like to share:

Shopping: I know I’ve complained quite a bit about shopping in China, and it is one of my least-favorite things about this country. First of all, under Mao, it was official policy to charge foreigners five times the local price for everything, and this persists. Granted, the money is nothing on an American scale, but when you’re traveling a good while in another economy, you adjust to it, and it gets really old having to fight with everyone over every, tiny little bottle of water or packet of tissues. Also, just in general, the Chinese love to shop. There’s so much crap for sale everywhere, it’s worse than America. On the riverboat to Yangshuo, some guy in a boat rowed up to the window selling little marble dogs on necklaces, and everyone went wild – they were so pleased to be offered a purchasing opportunity after two full hours on the river without one. The girl next to me bought two identical dogs and sat there playing with them the rest of the way.

Communications: I think everyone should spend a bit of time in a culture where they don’t speak the language. It has completely changed my perspective. You really have to keep your temper. So often, I find myself getting furious at someone who seems to be obtusely refusing to understand what I’m saying, even though it couldn’t be clearer. For example, one time I wanted to buy some pickled apples from this girl, so I pointed to the apples, whereupon she dissolved into giggles and kept looking at her coworker, and just generally freaking out about it. While she was going through all these convulsions, some Chinese person came up, pointed at the same apples and was promptly sold a bag. All the while, the girl kept rolling her eyes and shrugging at me; finally, she gingerly held one apple out to me, as if I were the village idiot. About 98% of the time, people are really good at figuring out what you want from them; they’ll focus up and usually they’ll keep trying to communicate long after I’ve given up. But that other 2% of the time, they pretty much decide ahead of time that they won’t be able to understand anything you say, and even if you point at Chinese characters spelling it out, they refuse to comprehend them. The other problem is that people get really, really worried about making sure you understand them. I have never been able to get someone to just bring me whatever in a restaurant – they’re really afraid you won’t like it, and if they can’t talk to you, they get really tense. Adam had an interesting strategy for dealing with these situations. He carries around a little laminated picture of David Hasselhoff in his wallet (there’s a reason, but it doesn’t matter), and when a vendor’s freaking out about making the Westerners happy, he slips it out and points at it. They lighten up.

Food and Its Effects: Speaking of food, it’s really good here, and really cheap, and it usually likes me back, but not always. Of course, I am not as careful as many travelers; I’ll eat anything. Last night, I had a chicken foot on a stick from a streetside barbeque (gristly). I can’t resist anything weird. I prefer the Chinese restaurants to the Western ones, as the food is much better and cheaper, but the Chinese don’t do ambience. They eat crouched over low tables in hot, noisy kitchens, and they down the food and go. Western restaurants are more set up for having a beer and reading your novel, so sometimes you pay for the peace. Speaking of beer, it really only comes in giant, 640-mL bottles here.

Toilets: Food leads to toilets, and if given the choice, I’ll use a squat any time. Squats are great, because nothing touches any part of the bathroom except the bottoms of your shoes. Granted, they are usually pretty disgusting; however, troughs are much worse – long trenches with little half walls for privacy and no doors. Everyone lines up and lets loose. The Chinese often smoke while they go. Also, you can’t flush toilet paper in China, no matter what type of toilet it is. It goes in the bin. I would think China would want to remedy this unfortunate situation immediately – a thriving economy’s great and all, but you’ll never get respect if your poopy tp’s just lying there in plain sight.

Spitting: One thing China really is trying to remedy (via public service announcements) before the Olympics is the nationwide spitting problem. It’s worse than you can imagine. Everyone – men, women, old folks, babies – has an absolute compulsion to hack up a giant loogie about as often as Westerners need to blink. You really never get used to it. The guy in the bus seat behind you, the little girl at the next table, the lady you’re trying to buy a hat from: HWRAAAABRAAAGCCCCCCC-phtoooo. I mean, what’s IN there?! Gerbils?

Responsible Tourism: Traveling through China (and I imagine other countries that don’t see a mass amount of Westerners) you quickly realize that as you behave, so the entire West will be judged. So I really do try to keep my temper and be friendly and polite, no matter what. I’m not always successful.

Children: I have revised my previous opinions as to children. I love them now. Whereas adults always think you should give them money or sleep with them, children never want anything from you, except to look at your hair and your sandals and maybe have some of the cake that you’re eating. And then if they say hello and you say it back, and you’re willing to repeat that exchange ad infinitum, they’ll think you’re the coolest person on God’s green earth. Speaking of children, babies and toddlers in China wear crotchless pants, and when they need to go (either way) someone just hoists them over a nearby bush or ditch.

Animals: There are a lot of young animals in China. There are no old animals. There are also very few birds.

Expense: I changed over $1,100 US in China. That’s for one month, and I spent a bit less than that because I carried about $100 with me into Laos. Another person could have done this trip for a lot less: I did not bargain for the entire first two weeks, and I slept in single rooms rather than dorms. But then, I didn’t buy beer for the first two weeks either. I did buy a good deal of bus tickets, a train ticket, two visas and a plane ticket. And a bunch of other stuff too. So, China is expensive for Asia, but compared to the US, it’s very cheap.

Backpacking: I am quite likely the first backpacker ever to feel she brought too little with her. I brought a very light pack and I’m sorry for it. I’ve needed a lot of stuff that I did not bring, and I haven’t wanted to spend my traveling time searching and haggling for it. I would rather have bought it in the US and brought it with me. Other travelers hate their giant packs. No matter how bulky your bag, however, the worst, most exhausting traveling companion is your own mortal body. Our bodies are super high maintenance. They have to eat up to three times a day, they need a lot of water, then they need to pee, then they’re too hot, then too cold, then too wet, then they shut down for eight hours, then they start to stink and need to be bathed, then they’re sick or burnt, then they need to crap, but they can’t crap just anywhere…it never ends. I’m ready to divorce my body and carry on without it.

(Click here for more pictures of Kunming and Jinghong.)

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