This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chapter 15 Kunming: Spring City Stopover.

Kunming 1990

So much for my vow not to fly in China. I gave in because of the huge distances involved and the difficulty in buying tickets. If I had gone by train from Guilin to Kunming it would have taken me at least three days just to buy tickets and another two days on the train. I flew in forty minutes. And survived.

Where Guilin had been all muddy broken roads and hustling crowds, Kunming was bright, sunny, dry and dusty. The 'spring city' people were rustic and laid-back, practicing their ballroom dancing and folk jigs in the main square or having a pavement head massage from one of the many blind people plying their trade as masseurs and fortune tellers. Kunming was a big city with a hick feel to it. The streets were wide and the traffic slow. The air was clean and the people were gawky. And it also had the air of open-ness and economic development about it: the shops were doing a brisk trade in everything from wedding dresses to rare medicines- The pavements were full of Tibetans selling leather jackets, and Miao tribeswomen hawking pieces of silver. There were old women selling peeled pineapples on sticks, and young shoeshine boys with squeezed-out tubes of polish, all fighting for pavement space. And there was a young mother with her infant son and a set of weighing scales, who tried in vain to run away when the police swooped on a patch of illegal street trainers.

I had a day to pass in Kunming before flying down to Xishuanbanna, so I searched out the English-language bookshop. Books were the thing I missed most in China. I had six secondhand paperbacks crammed into my backpack, bought in Auckland because I knew English books were hard to come by in China. The New China Bookshop in Kunming had a few English titles, the same ones they'd had in stock four years ago: old novels about the Liberation and the Cultural Revolution. There were books on Chinese medicine and Tai Chi, and books on Chinese Law, but little in the way of modern fiction. Only glossy tourist guides to Yunnan and propaganda titles like 'Tibetans on Tibet', and pirated editions of Lee lacocca's autobiography. The Chinese did not read for pleasure. The only people I saw with their head in a book were young kids reading comic books of the Chinese legends. People were too busy or too poor, to read.

With a couple of hours to kill before my flight, I sat in a backpacker's cafe opposite my hotel and read the traveller’s notebooks. These tatty volumes were always the same; a litany of complaints about spitting and rip-offs, plus a few hand-drawn maps of the same places of interest. But sometimes, amid the comments on where to get the cheapest tickets or hotels and the crowings of 'off-the-beaten-track' one-upmanship, there were some interesting stories: A Japanese man stabbed by thieves in his Kunming hotel room, a Swede who got beaten up when he refused to pay for a fake student ID card he'd ordered from a Yangshuo cafe, and an American deported to Hong Kong after the police caught him in a Chengdu hotel room with a Chinese woman. 'The most expensive trip to McDonalds I’ve ever had.' he wrote, presumably after re-entering the country. 'What about the woman - what happened to her?', someone else had scrawled, indignantly. The Japanese drew detailed, multi-coloured maps of the best places to visit. Americans on leave from studying in Beijing wrote 'Only six months left. hope I can survive...'. There was nothing about Muli.

Despite a sleek refurbishment, Kunming's airport was still chaotic: the baggage scanners didn't work, the shops were shut and there was no-one to supervise the crush of tour groups pushing through to the departure lounge. I spent twenty minutes in a rough line, elbowing my way through to the barrier only to be sent back because I hadn't paid my airport tax (foreigners double price). There were no English signs to explain this.

Once aboard the 737 to Jinghong, I was nervous. This would be my last flight in China, I promised myself: no more CAAC. I was sat next to a steel executive from Manchuria, down in Kunming for a conference. His trip to Xisuanbanna was a perk, he said, and that was why the area was such a popular place for business conferences: it was the Florida of China. After we took off, it was soon apparent that things were not quite right. The plane groaned up into the darkness at a steep angle, but then as I looked down at the blackness outside of the window, the ground appeared to be getting closer. I looked again and I was right – the few lights below were getting bigger, and I could feel the plane was sinking. Nobody else seemed to be bothered. As I watched in terror as we seemed close to hitting the ground, there was a huge thump and we had landed back on a runway. “Attention passengers, we have had to cancel this flight because of a thunderstorm at Jinghong,” said one of the cabin crew over the intercom.

We made it in to Jinghong on the second attempt. After an hour waiting back on the tarmac at Kunming, we were off again. Each time we took off I gripped the seat arms and wiped my sweaty palms. In my imagination every squeak was a turbofan with metal fatigue, every change of engine pitch a malfunction. The unsmiling hostesses dished out hags of nuts and cartons of juice from catering-size cardboard boxes, while the Chinese passengers took photos of each other sitting solemnly in their seats, thrilled to he travelling by air. Out of the window I watched the tropical storm raging in the distance, a carpet of low cloud lit by moonlight, with lightning flashing within like Satan's circus. And we began the descent into the black humid night of Jinghong.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.