My brief stay in Kunming reiterated for me the benefits of a big but not crazy big city. San Francisco is only 800k population — this is pretty small compared to most “big cities”. It maintains a homey feel while still thriving as a metropolis. One reason why I adore the City by the Bay. Kunming is a big city in Yunnan Province but is nowhere near as chaotic, loud, and polluted as Beijing and Shanghai.
After my first full day of tourism with my host, Alan, during which I hit the big sights, I spent the next two days laying low, writing, working online, and exercising. I did wander around a bit and caught some ethnic minority singing show, pretty cool, and also found myself in the rougher outskirts of Kunming where the living standards were the lowest I’ve seen in China. In these parts you’ll see mushrooms everywhere — mushrooms are a big export of Kunming — but instead of being stored in sanitary conditions, they’re spewed all over the dirty back alleys. There also were endless people frying, stirring, mixing, and generally cooking a variety of food on the street. I wouldn’t touch it for the life of me. I was tempted buy some fruit one guy was selling (watermelon and cantaloupe) but remembered the sage advice of my guidebook which said they douse the fruit with tons of water to keep its veneer exterior. I wish I was invisible so I could take lots of pictures, but unfortunately, this is impossible to do when everyone is looking at you… to pull out a $300 digital camera in the midst of the scene would be awkward. I can stomach some awkwardness — say, being able to hail a cab whenever I want and escape back to the nicer part of the city, while the skinny rickshaw bikers pull unimaginable loads, or the pushing-70 years-old woman who lives based on how many shoes she can shine on the street — but taking pictures seemed too hard.
One street I crossed contained a truly horrible sight — a disabled, homeless man lying in the middle of the street. People walked around him and cars dodged him. People just didn’t give a shit. Can you imagine a guy lying in the street with mangled arms and legs and no one doing a thing?
If I had more energy I would have made the five hour bus trek to Dali, which was my original plan, or the 45 minute flight to Lijang, both beautiful cities that attract most of the Kunming tourists who aren’t golfing. Alas, I preferred the small neighborhood of my hotel, two solid workouts (though no ping pong, despite an earnest second try), internet, and my iPod.
Nearing the one-month mark, most weary travelers can relate to the sense of accomplishment each day brings. It takes so much energy to simply live each day and complete the small tasks, especially when you’re solo and on a modest budget, that any extra perk — an interesting cultural experience, a funny conversation with a local, a solid two hour workout — is worth celebrating. A large task, like a five hour bus ride, can crush you.
Written on Bangkok to Mumbai flight, Thai Air