Friday, April 26, 2013

The City of Eternal Spring

Yunnan Province, The People’s Republic of China

Supremely strange. That is how I characterise this country so far. Eels sit in tanks on the pavement waiting to be eaten. Alongside tanks of huge frogs, carp, freshwater lobsters, ribbon fish, bowls of maggots/leeches and fist-sized clams. None of this is cheap. I ate yarou fan last evening, that is Yunnanese aged ham and goats cheese fried with mushrooms and served on a bed of scallion fried rice. Research told me Yarou was duck. It was late and eight hour train journeys do that to you. By the way when you reserve a hard seat on the train that is exactly what you get. Everyone has to move around after an hour. There are no soft seats only soft sleepers and they are double the price. Still I may try one on the way back. You can ride a train all the way to Tibet from here but I’ll leave that. At immigration the security personnel already confiscated a book I had bought in Bodhgaya, India. By the Dalai Lama. Might have anticipated that.

After quite a bit of intimidation I finally cleared customs one and a half hours after everyone else. Kunming airport. Deserted.

My experience there sounded a little like this.          

Are you a soldier? No.

Have you any other identity card? This is all we have in the UK.

What is this chain for?

What I'm thinking: to single-handed disarm the entire Chinese military force. If you check you'll find it's magnetic too. I intend to use that to crash your financial centres.

What I say: For locking my case to luggage racks in trains.

Ha, ha. Conspiratorial laughter with several other officers.

Go online and show me your return ticket back to the UK. Okay.

The Dalai Lama is banned in China. Tell me what he says. Can't do that. I haven't read it yet.

Why you visit China? Because I’m interested in it.

Where you go after Kunming? Got no clever thoughts anymore. So I say Dali.

Give me your palms. (checks for sweat)

Look into my eyes. I'm thinking. It's 6 am. I've got dysentery from Calcutta. Got crazy paving eyes. Can barely see any more). Can I stand in the Red Corner with 10 Chinese Immigration officers?

There is the fact of course that my passport picture is nearly 10 years old. Taken in winter when I was maybe 6 kg heavier. Pale skin versus this brown berry with different bone structure and no goatee. I had to look twice myself.

But they are having fun. I mean they are.

What I'm thinking.

What they are thinking?

Give me your passport again.

Unpack your handbag. Okay.

Unpack the big case. Okay.

Take everything out.

What you do in England? Er … I’m a teacher.

Ah a book by him. (Dalai Lama). You like him? I haven't read it yet. (Was the cock going to crow 3 times before I'd finished?)

Go with this man and show me your ticket leaving China.

The next flight rolls in.

Now take your passport to immigration.
Compared to the collective desperation at Indian airports one lonely guy tries to hustle me into his taxi. Old hand I bat him away.
After waiting for 2 hours for the airport shuttle bus into Kunming, a beautiful black fantailed bird came inside from the cool morning.
Said 'Welcome to China.'

Flew out.

I take the bus. After one hours sleep and a thorough going over at the airport I arrive by bus in downtown Kunming. 9am.

No one speaks English. There are no signs in English. A part of me threatens to melt. Still time for some exercise. So by hook and crook I walk my suitcase and crushingly heavy handbag the 2km to the 5 star youth hostel on Jinbi Lu. Everything very strange. The roads, the flood of silent scooters everywhere. No one much interested in the roasted coffee bean refugee from India.

China. Unfamiliar but cooler than India thank goodness (40C there). Place super organised. Can see I’m not going to get sick here. The dysentery in Bodhgaya and Calcutta still a residual concern.

Gradually, after hours and days, the level of social control materialises before me. Try to lock your bike to a railing. You can but a traffic operative wants 1 Yuan for it. (10p). Try entering a bus station or railway station. Impossible without a ticket. Try visiting your platform for departure. Impossible until gleaming steel gates are opened and uniformed officials with bull megaphones started barking out orders. Staff on the stairs, more megaphones, staff at each carriage door. With white gloves, severe faces. Staff sweeping the corridor after every stop. Emptying the steel bowl of rubbish in your compartment every two hours.

All good stuff but you want to lie down in the park. Forget it. All grass areas fenced off. You can only lie down at home by the looks of it.

The visit to the park was the best day in the last five months. People dancing: man, woman, boy, girl, no self-consciousness, no tourists apart from me.

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Two women in Yunnan costume awaiting their turn to dance.

People sweeping every inch of the city. People picking up individual grains of gravel, every wrapper swiped, put out of site. Kunming. Growing at a rate faster than Beijing. So Mark told me, a Yorkshireman living in Kunming who has married into a Chinese family and has a daughter.
Nie ha. Xiexie. Duoxie. Chaofan. Tangmian. Hello. Thankyou. Many thanks. Let’s eat. Soup noodles. You had better get some words or Chinese and learn to copy out some words in Mandarin otherwise literally you will not get any food much. Or reserve a train ticket. Or get from A to B. The effort pays off. You find yourself in the strangest of places. Everyone knows that if you have made it somewhere, The Dian Chi, (lake) Xi Shan (mountain) even the Jin Shi Tea Market in North Kunming, everyone knows that you have made some significant efforts to get there. Rented a bike, cycled 6km up Beijing Lu (the spring days here are like an English summer day, sans precipitation) and started hunting for tea and tea tables. Over 200 outlets, retail and wholesale. Just me there nosing around. Of course being here alone can get rather overwhelming since mostly it really is just you and 1.3 billion Chinese none of whom speak English. Why should they? Of course some do but they are incredibly shy about it, unlike the Indians. One or two Chinese have been quiet and then approached me quietly to speak English. Very sweet. And here’s the thing.
The people here are very sweet and kind and extraordinarily punctilious. Painstaking. Blueberry sellers. Sitting in the gutters. Making beautiful mountains of their product. With chopsticks. One berry at a time.
Everything is done yesterday. If you ask for something they don’t just do it. They run do it running. As long as you are understood things are done instantly. Less ego is involved than in India. They do their duty and I have got no ‘attitude’ from anybody here.
Having to adjust to pointing, embarrassing pronunciation of Mandarin, flourishing bits of paper with copied out ideograms such as 西南官which means Southwestern Mandarin. Usually street names, food, station names etc. Had a difficult conversation on the train with a beautiful old woman using the Lonely Planet glossary. Her name was Su from Changchen, a city way north. In Manchuria near the borders with Russia and North Korea.
I have just finished reading  高粱  Red Sorghum by Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Mo Yan means 'don't speak.' He writes his novels with a Chinese writing brush.
In Sorghum the antagonists are the Japanese and their invasion of China via Manchuria in the 1930s. I have hundreds of Chinese TV channels here. Two historical dramas I watched were set in just this very period. I get a sense that the Chinese identify with this period as central to Chinese unity and their development towards a leftist political position under Mao Zedong and away from the capitalist ideology of Chang Kai-shek. And yet after all the years of the Cultural Revolution capitalism is large on China’s landscape. In Kunming at least you can find McDonalds and KFC and chinese clones like Dico's. Big ones too. Carrefour, the French supermarket has multiple branches and Walmart has a presence too. Affluent Chinese drive, Mercedes, BMWs and Voltzwagens but they drive just as many Chevrolets, Chryslers, and Buicks. SUVs mainly.  
People dancing on a saturday afternoon in Green Lake Park, Kunming.

Chinese Global Power

Is China a colonial power? A question raised periodically. Take the Chinese expansion into Africa.

The origin of China’s fascination with Africa is easy to see. Between the Sahara and the Kalahari deserts lie many of the raw materials desired by its industries. China recently overtook America as the world’s largest net importer of oil. Almost 80% of Chinese imports from Africa are mineral products. China is Africa’s top business partner, with trade exceeding $166 billion. But it is not all minerals. Exports to Africa are a mixed bag (see chart). Machinery makes up 29%.
The size of China’s direct investment in Africa is harder to measure than trade. Last summer China’s commerce minister, Chen Deming, said the number “exceeded $14.7 billion, up 60% from 2009”. Around the same time the Chinese ambassador to South Africa, Tian Xuejun, said: “China’s investment in Africa of various kinds exceeds $40 billion.” Apparently, the first figure is for African investments reported to the government. The second includes estimates of Chinese funds flowing in from tax shelters around the world.

Economists say China isn't a colonial power. They say periodically African nations expel undesirable Chinese businessmen from their borders.
On the other hand what do economists know? Historically deaf they seem to sit back and watch devastating worldwide cycles of boom and bust. Or is that just banks and traders?

Kunming from Xi Shan mountain on a hot spring day.
Kunming at 3.3 million population is only the 29th largest city. China has 160 cities with a population of over 1 million people. Guangzhou has an prefecture count of 44 million people.

The low-rise area in the foreground reminds me of the boulevards of California. I cycled along it. The property there is all condominiums. The roads here are super clean, well policed, beautifully planted, tasteful. No one however wears helmets on their motorbikes and schoolchildren ride mopeds. No one wants to get a tan in China. Some mopeds have large parasols fitted. No hosepipe bans here by the looks of it. Every plant and shrub has a woman with a fat hosepipe gushing water standing next to it.

A local man posing by bougainvillea.

Xisi Alley.
And so China. A closed book. An opening book? Not sure?

Try walking down Xisi Alley in central south Kunming at night. There are some Communist Party buildings there. Outside a plastic and concrete booth the sign,
‘The Guard is Inviolable.’
Probably the only sign I’ve seen in English. Two women standing outside gave me such a long stare I didn’t know what to do with myself. My experience at the airport came back to me rather uncomfortably.
Xisi alley is a cul-de-sac with only government buildings, security personnel, raising and falling striped barriers. I had to turn back. I wanted to rejoin with the rest of Kunming. So back I went. The two women were still there so I tried not to look. The wall they stood next to must have been 15 feet high. From behind it came chanting. Fervid and a little frightening. Late at night. Under floodlights I could see. Just a little bit of. Hidden China.
$8.358 trillion (nominal by Expenditure approach: 2nd; 2012)
$8.227 trillion (nominal by Production approach:
2nd; 2012)[1]
$12.38 trillion (PPP: 2nd; 2012)[2]
GDP growth
7.8% (2012)[3]
GDP per capita
$6,094 (nominal: 84th; 2012)[2]
$8,382 (PPP: 90th; 2011)[2]
GDP by sector
agriculture: 9.7%, industry: 46.6%, services: 43.7%% (2012 est.) CIA - The World Factbook
2.5% (December 2012)[4]
poverty line
less than $1.25 / 13.1% (2008)
less than $2 / 29.8% (2008)
Labour force
795.5 million (1st; 2010)
Labour force
by occupation
agriculture: 36.7%, industry: 28.7%, services: 34.6% (2008 est.)
4.1% (Q4 2012)[6]
Average gross salary
$457 monthly (2010)[7]
Main industries
World leader in gross value of industrial output; mining and ore processing, iron, steel, aluminum, and other metals, coal; machine building; armaments; textiles and apparel; petroleum; cement; chemicals; fertilizers; consumer products, including footwear, toys, and electronics; food processing; transportation equipment, including automobiles, rail cars and locomotives, ships, and aircraft; telecommunications equipment, commercial space launch vehicles, satellites

On the move. Dian Chi Lu, south Kunming.

German Karl and Englishman Robert Karl visit Shilin’s Karst limestone stone forest 100 km south of Kunming.
Karl has the stomach of a lion. The roast duck here comes with the head on. Karl saved it until last when he took great pleasure in stripping it clean. The duck head. Particularly around the beak and the eyesockets. Still delicate from acute food poisoning picked up in Bihar state India I got squeamish. Looked away.

If you like travel and tea visit GuerillaZ's sister site Singing Bird tea at:

Cheerio for now

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