I want to write down my misimpressions while they are still fresh and ridiculous, and before reflection can smooth them out into something reasonable or faintly true.
Kunming was my top travel choice because of its mild winter weather and not having much pollution “for China,” as they say. When I arrived the sky had been smudged over by smog and if I had had to come up with a metaphor for this place when I got off the plane, I would have said that China is a cough, because cough is what I did on and off for my first several hours of wandering around town, not a horrific, torrent-from-the-eyes-and-bloody-sputum cough, but rather a little something stuck in the back of my throat that refused to be hacked, swallowed, or spit away.
I had studied the map of the city before leaving California and committed the city to memory, but like lots of things that get committed, it’s not because they are in tip-top shape, and I promptly forgot everything the minute I arrived. Trouble started at the Dong Feng Square subway station when the exit machine refused to accept my ticket and wouldn’t let me out. I lummoxed from wicket to wicket without success, trying my ticket each time until a machine finally just ate the card but still wouldn’t let me out. It was symbolic. I had navigated the entirety of the trip, unplanned layovers and planned, figured out the trains, but was unable to get out of the damned station.
You know how minor annoyances at home become soul destroying panic attacks when you are ten thousand miles away and untethered to your iSecurityblanket? Yeah, that.
I went over to the ticket office and explained my problem, and the clerk smiled and gave me a new ticket. It was the first smile that had been directed at me, and one of only a handful I’d seen at all. Here’s something to remember, fuckers: The next time you see a foreigner having trouble, smile. They will remember you forever, and go home with tales about the friendly American who smiled at them and helped them out of some completely pedestrian jam.
Walking out of the station, where I was accosted by dozens of motor scooter cabbies, I realized that the dearth of smiles had a reason. China is one hard fucking place. The people look ground down, and the veneer of a first world nation that’s plastered everywhere is belied in the exhausted and harried faces of the people on the street. What’s to smile about when you just worked sixteen hours, ten days in a row?
Kunming itself is a small city of six million, and is charged with the energy of all those people hustling and busting their asses to survive. My plan had been to walk from the station to my hotel a couple of miles away, which began shakily as I stepped around a street beggar with no hands who was doing calligraphy with his stumps.
[Note to self: You think you got problems?]
But things deteriorated quickly and after three hours I was hopefully lost, wandering around on a memory filled with giant potholes, crevasses, and yawning chasms. Each time I asked directions I got either a different explanation or something that I couldn’t understand, or both, and the farther away I got from the center of town, the rougher and more worn things and people looked. They also had zero time for some dumb American mangling their language.
If you’ve ever been lost in Japan you know how kind and helpful people can be to strangers. If you’ve ever been lost in China you will know how you flat fucking do not matter, period. Time is money and you are an expense, and no one is impressed with your shitty attempts at Chinese, either.
At one point I was wandering through a park filled with deaf people signing, at another I was off on a side alley with tiny shops specializing in carved personal seals, then another street filled with shops that framed scrolls and then a cluster of governmental buildings. One corner had three vendors selling sweet potatoes baked on the lid of a steel barrel, and no matter where I went there were police stations everywhere. I would guess that there was a police station every five hundred yards, but don’t think they are there to act as your personal tour guide.
I learned this early on, when I asked a cop a simple question, “Excuse me, where is a nearby public toilet?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Much worse than the pollution, which wasn’t too bad, and the indifference, which was restorative in the way of an ice bath, was the surveillance, which was nasty. You are watched and followed and traced every second in China, all the time. And although it oddly feels safe because there’s a cop every ten feet, it’s the fruition of what George Orwell prophesied so presciently in 1984. Big Bro is flat fuggin’ everywhere, and you’re the star of your own personal surveillance movie.
I will also say this, and experienced China travelers can feel free to correct me, but solo travel if you can’t read Chinese would be hell. Even if you can read it, it’s rough sledding until you get the lay of the land. In my case I gave up at finding my hotel after four hours of stumbling around, and hailed a cab. We drove forever and it cost less than three dollars.
My hotel, the Kunming Gui Hua Hotel, was a fair deal for $150/night, and the steal of a lifetime for its actual cost per night, which was $33. I got a spotless room, a huge bed with a mattress hard enough to smash ice cubes on, fresh linens, a spacious bathroom, and an efficient if not warm-and-fuzzy staff. Early January is the nadir of the travel season, and the weather is somewhere between warm and chilly.
One of the things most exciting to see were the thousands and thousands of rental bicycles. You needed a cell phone and e-pay account to rent one, but they cost about 80 cents every half hour and were ubiquitous. With the weather pleasantly cool, nothing would have been more comfortable than having a city bike to explore on. But untethered etc. etc.
I washed up and got ready to go to the hotel restaurant. If there were one area where I thought my expectations would be exceeded no how matter how high I set them, it was going to be dinner, and all I can say is that dinner ended up being a complete failure. The death spiral began in the elevator, where I was going down to the second floor along with the very nice lady who turned out to be my waitress. We started talking but I only understood about one of every four words, two of which were “restaurant” and “dinner.” She also said that my Chinese was very good, a vicious lie and what I would learn over the course of my trip was a predictor of terrible outcomes.
She escorted me into the dining area, which had about twenty 10-tops, and the only patron was I. She was so excited to have me there that rather than seat me she began quizzing me about what I wanted to eat, because when she had asked me if I wanted a menu, I told her I didn’t understand. Somehow I had forgotten what “caidan” meant. Actually, I didn’t “somehow” forget it, I was in a constant state of foreign language brain freeze, which is what happens when someone speaks to you in a foreign language and your whole brain turns into white noise and you stand there like a complete fucking idiot waiting for the picture to resolve into something you understand but it just stays white noise and you just stay standing there like a jellyfish.
So she thought we would have to play a game of 20 Questions, or in my case 200 Questions, in order to figure out what I wanted; I still didn’t get why she wouldn’t just bring me a menu. Finally I tried to say I liked everything, always a risk even at home, much less in a foreign land where they serve Fresh Fish Heads in Honey Hot Pot. Here again I made things worse because somehow she thought I wanted tofu.
“Okay!” she smiled. “You like tofu? Okay!”
“No, no!” I protested, imagining a six-course extravaganza of tofu, but this protest put us back to square one of her trying to figure out what to bring me. After more discussion we learned that Seth likes Sichuan cuisine and he likes really spicy food. She dashed off and I began to wait, wondering what I would get and wondering how much of my mouth, gums, teeth, tongue, lips, esophagus, and butthole were going to be incinerated in the process.
After a bit she appeared with an entirely harmless scoop of white rice and some chicken mixed with a vegetable not spinach and not celery that I’ll call “celerich.” She anxiously waited as I took the first bite. “Too spicy?” she asked.
“It’s fine,” I said, unable to detect any spice at all, zero, nix, null. It was however tasty and would have stacked up well against any Chinese restaurant I had ever been to back home, and since it was obviously a prelude to bigger and better and spicier things, I devoured it and waited. A full day of travel and walking makes you hungry.
A few minutes later she returned. “Are you still hungry?”
“Do you want more rice?”
“No, thanks,” I said, but didn’t know how to say I wanted a couple of more entrees.
She nodded as if she understood. “I’ll bring more.”
She next reappeared with a heaping plate of the celerich, and I grimly ate it, next time determined to ask for a menu, which is when I realized the word for menu was what she had been saying from the outset.
At about this time a large party of what sounded like four hundred arrived, but they were in the adjacent elegant Dragon Room and I remained alone in the Great Hall of Celerich as people laughed and hollered and had the party to end all parties, which obviously took all the time and attention of my waitress. Somewhere between the fiftieth and two thousandth silent repetition of “May I have please have a menu?” I fell asleep at the table, awaking half an hour later to boisterous cheers from the real dinner party and to the twin realizations that no one cared about me and that I would be going to bed fearfully hungry.
I headed for the door, where I was met by a phalanx of four wait staff asking if I were okay.
“I’m fine, just hungry. I want to pay.”
Telling your Chinese dinner host that you are fine but hungry is a cruel insult, like them telling me my Chinese was great when I couldn’t understand the word “menu.”
“We will give you every food you desire,” said one.
“Here is a menu!” said another.
“Chicken or beef?” said a third.
“I’m sorry but I waited half an hour, I’ve been traveling all day, I’m tired and need to lay down but not at the table.”
Just then the distressed manager ran up. “Don’t talk to them!” he said. “They can’t speak English!”
“But I was speaking to them in Chinese.”
“They don’t understand your Chinese, either. What is the problem?”
I could barely understand him, and it occurred to me that if my Chinese were even partially as horrible as his English, then everyone I’d spoken to since arriving had suffered greatly. I told him my story and he only understood “no waitress,” at which he became livid.
“What? No waitress? Where is she!” he commanded, just as she appeared, in great distress.
Now I felt terrible about the prison camp she would be sent to, but not bad enough to eat another platter of celerich, so I signed the check and left. Out like a one-eyed batter at 7:30, I was up like a jack-in-the-box at 4:00, ready for the day. But apparently I was the only one in Kunming so ready, because everything was deathly still outside, and as a peek out the window confirmed, even the good folks across the street at the Liver Disease Center which, judging from the vast quantities of hard liquor on sale everywhere and advertised ceaselessly on television, must have been doing a land office business.
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