Kunming's subway system is (very slowly) opening up. At the moment the lines generally go from "nowhere useful" to "nowhere useful", but we've been promised a shiny, traffic-jam-reducing underground network within a few more years. Mind you, we were made the same promise a couple of years ago, too. This latest sign doesn't bode well. Does the last train really stop 5 minutes before the ticket is sold!?
Our old friends (that's "long-term" old, not "ageing" old) Peter and Judy are back in Kunming, and kindly managed a long trip across the city to join us for dinner this evening. It was lovely to see them again, introduce JD (who wasn't even "a twinkle" when they were last here) and catch up on each others' news.
They came very laden with gifts. I told them it felt like being visited by the three wise men. Except there was only two of them... and they aren't both men.... and their presents were much better than myrrh etc. They are certainly wise, though. I recall they gave Ava and I an hour's "marriage counselling" before we'd actually got married (and yet we still tied the knot!). And what gifts! Books and sweets and biscuits for JD, fashion mags for Ava, a collectable plate for Ma, sweets and cup-a-soups for me, a birthday gift for Ava, a birthday gift for JD, a British newspaper for me, etc etc! Very kind indeed.
Today's BBC China webpage has the heading "China begins land search for plane", with a map showing a possible route right over the top of Kunming! I'm pretty sure I didn't see Malaysian flight MH370 overhead last week, but you never know. And what a strange mystery it is. Of course one has sympathy for the relatives of the missing passengers and crew but, for the rest of us, it's just a very intriguing puzzle. How can something so huge (with all the tracking equipment on board and with satellites up there able to see Osama Bin Laden's rubbish bins) simply... disappear?? If it had sunk without trace to the bottom of the ocean you could understand it. But the story changes every day, and now they are talking about it being stolen!? Well, I'll keep my eyes peeled on the way to work, but...
No sooner had I told the Lattitude volunteers, at their Health and Safety briefing, just what a safe city Kunming is, than news starts filtering though of a gang of masked terrorists bursting into Kunming Train Station this evening and, in an obviously coordinated attack, knifing 29 people to death and injuring 130 others. It came totally out-of-the-blue and seems utterly senseless. Latest news is pointing the finger firmly at "Uighurs" from XinJiang Province, Muslims who claim to be a persecuted minority there. Kunming is a soft target for them and innocent train passengers clearly have no way to protect themselves. The police here shot 4 of the terrorists dead and captured another, but we hear 5 or more are still on the run. There is now an unofficial curfew in the city with businesses (including my school) being "asked" to close down after dark until further notice. All very unnerving.
Kunming hardly ever gets snow. I've only seen a light dusting once in my seven years here. But just see what we woke up to this morning! The temperature dropped fast over the weekend, and my students got very excited to see a flurry of "flakey rain" falling outside the classroom, though it barely qualified as snow. But overnight we've had a proper snowfall.
With our nanny away this week, "health and safety" is somewhat lower on the agenda, so I decided to try and make a snowman for JD. However, the snow started to melt through the afternoon and so it ended up as more of a snow rabbit! JD seems to have caught my cold from last week now (his first illness) so Jiajia and I are having to cope with a grumpy, stuffed-up little baby.
Nanny and I took JD to Green Lake Park yesterday afternoon as the weather was warm and breezy. The park is in the centre of town and an easy bus trip from our flat. It's particularly popular at this time of year as it hosts hundreds of seagulls who fly here annually from Siberia. People visit from all around Yunnan to feed them. JD watched them attentively for 2-3 minutes before deciding it was, afterall, quite a scary thing and threatening to cry! So we walked on to other areas of the park, which was buzzing with life due the fine weather. It really is a top-class place for people-watching and interacting. Let me share a few moments of our time here...
Large areas of Green Lake Park are occupied by singing, dancing and instrumental groups. Some are clearly well-rehearsed and enjoy having an audience [see JD enjoying one, below]. Others are more amateur, inclusive and spontaneous. One of the largest consisted of a tape-player hanging from a tree playing a simple ethnic minority tune, surrounded by 50-60 people in a circle, doing simple dance steps to the rhythm. As gaps appeared in the circle, passers-by would join for a few minutes before moving on. Even JD had a try. It's clearly popular as a social and exercising activity, yet not one of the dancers showed even the slightest smile. Odd.
So, ethnic music, traditional Chinese music, musicians practising alone, disco music, warbling soloists, 10 piece bands, buskers - all doing their thing within eyesight and earshot of each other. Like a free musical smorgasbord. Very strange, yet immensely uplifting.
At one point, a young monk ran up and gently touched JD on the forehead, handing over a small plastic amulet. "For luck", he intoned. "For free?" I asked. "For good luck...", he smiled. "And no money?" I pressed. "For your son. For good luck". "Hmm, no thanks", I decided. "Then BAD luck!", he snarled and stomped off. I saw him later with three other "monks" sitting under a tree, having a smoke and counting the proceeds from more naive day-trippers.
Most of the folk in the park seemed to be senior citizens or mothers/grandmothers with babies. (I find myself close to being in both camps!) Half a dozen Chinese ladies with babies held their nerve to make a connection with the "foreigner baby" and exchange coos and boos. The baby in the picture above is just 3 weeks older than JD, complete with 4 teeth. You can sorta see why the Chinese doctors say that JD is not growing fast enough (and no teeth yet, either). But on the positive side, JD always seems to have so much more energy and social skills than the similarly-aged babies he meets; bouncing up and down, waving, smiling, maintaining eye contact. Other kids seem almost zombie-like in comparison.
Later, four students sidled up to us and, in broken English, asked me a few "standard" questions before rather sheepishly asking if they could take a photo with me and JD. No problem. And moments later, one of my own students from Robert's School and his English-speaking mum spotted us and came running over to see the baby. No wonder JD fell asleep towards the end of our visit. And so, bus home, bottle of milk and straight to bed (...for me, while the Nanny looked after JD!).
My Lattitude course is continuing and we're already over the halfway mark. The other evening I took all the volunteers out to visit Kunming's "English Corner", next to Green Lake, where local Chinese, and some foreigners, gather together each week to practise speaking English in an informal setting. The arrival of ten foreign newcomers caused something of a stir and they were instantly descended on by dozens of eager English speakers, keen to practise! Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience though.
Tomorrow, the volunteers do their first Teaching Practice at our school and I look forward with interest to see the results of their studies and lesson preparation.
After 4-5 months of elbow pain and two unsuccessful visits to doctors, I managed to track down an English-speaking physiotherapist in Kunming a couple of days ago. He spent 40 minutes giving me a thorough test and came to the conclusion that the elbow wasn't healing properly because of a shoulder issue that I wasn't aware of. He "demonstrated" this by stretching my left shoulder - somewhat uncomfortable - and then doing the same exercise on my right shoulder - excruciating pain!
In fact, the whole session was really, really painful. At one point, I genuinely felt one of my fingers might be about to break and I was close to tears on occasions - much to Ava's amusement! After we finished, the physio suggested I return home and apply ice-packs to my arm to stop it swelling too much! That did indeed help, though I still felt totally bruised and abused for 24 hours afterwards! I've been told I'll need at least 2-3 further sessions, so in the meantime I'll do all my daily exercises and then grit my teeth as we get nearer the next session.
A couple of days ago I thought I spotted golden arches from the bus as I returned home. I investigated further today and, yes, it's a newly opened branch of MacDonalds, just twenty minutes walk from my house on HongShan DongLu! Were I to walk home from work it would be exactly halfway along the 40 minute route ...so tempting! With my usual heavy bag of books and 150 steps to climb up the hill to my house, I think I'll continue to take the bus most days, but further temptation today came in the form of their opening "Two-for-One" deal. My resolve crumbled and I stuffed myself with four burgers for just 20RMB (£2) ...a very welcome change from rice and noodles!
A funny story surfaced here in Kunming recently. The owner of a noodle shop received a 68,000RMB (£6,800) fine from a Kunming court but decided to pay 10,000RMB (£1000) of it in jiao coins, each one worth a penny! It took the recipients of the fine ages to find a bank willing to count the coins, but eventually one branch agreed to allocate 18 staff to spend the whole day counting them all! So what I want to know is where did the noodle shop owner got hold of 100,000 1 jiao coins in the first place?
Kunming's been underwater for the last day or so. Technically, we are still amidst a four year drought (our tap water is still intermittent) but 12 solid hours of torrential rain, followed by persistent heavy showers, have totally overwhelmed the city's drainage (as usual for this time of year) and left large areas of the city with flooding. I know someone who risked driving into what she thought was shallow water, only to find her car floating, and then sinking. She quickly abandoned it and waded to higher ground.
We tried to drive JD to a scheduled vaccination today, but hit traffic at a complete standstill wherever we went. We saw two crashes within 500m of each other. Finally, when we arrived at a road with metre-deep water, we decided to call it a day and drove home.
Amusing photos of the flood have been appearing regularly on Ava's phone from her friends. One showed a canoe patrolling the High Street!
One of my students sent me this photo. He lives in a block of flats, and the "lake" below was formerly known as a car park!
But the one picture that made Ava and I laugh the most, was a photo of a sign being posted up around town by the local government. It tells citizens that the leaders are busy "rescuing people" and that the new sewers installed last year have done an "excellent" job. It goes on to state that sharing any pictures of the flood is now illegal since it "distracts from the image of the local government". Ooops!
P.X. has been making headlines here recently. Thousands of protesters in Kunming have been making their feeling known in recent days. Protests are a rarity here, and they have been picked up by the BBC website, while the issue has attracted 10,000 signatures on the Whitehouse's online petition. Meanwhile my son, Pin Xiu, is oblivious to the fuss. Thankfully, it turns out that the P.X. everybody really hates is "paraxylene", a dangerous chemical due to be produced by a planned new factory in Kunming. Not P.X. my son. Phew. Still not happy about it though...
I spent a fun afternoon recently with my Chinese teacher Leah, and fellow student Gemma [catch her cool blog here]. We were tracking down a small art exhibition we had heard about. We eventually found it - fairly underwhelming - but nearby was a small temple which I want to investigate sometime, and this cool dinosaur model, made from junk.
We've returned to Kunming, largely to escape the racket made by a team of tree fellers chopping down a dozen trees around our Shenzhen flat, and the neighbours drilling walls, presumably as part of a redecoration. The lumberjacks were frighteningly casual about the tree-climbing, chain-sawing and bough-dropping. The main climber has a harness and safety rope, but never bothered to attach it to anything.
We arrived back in Kunming a few days after the new airport experienced chaos when heavy fog descended, with hundreds of flights cancelled (Locals who were interviewed said there is often fog in that area and they told the construction company many times when they were deciding where to build the airport). Kunming is a lot chillier than Shenzhen and, frustratingly, our flat is only getting 20 minutes of running water a day now (and no hot water at all). Ava and I went to see the local neighbourhood leaders today but were told "It's not our fault", "Here's another number to ring", "What can we do?" etc. Naff!
Construction work in Kunming continues at a phenomenal pace. Even long-term residents here say they've never seen anything like it. New airport, new train station, four new bus stations, new satellite suburb for Government workers and University students, new subway, new pavements (to "beautify" the city) and high-rise flats springing up everywhere. No sign of a recession or economic slump here just yet. Mind you, I'm not sure I'll be visiting this particular area [see photo] once completed, though. What do you think?
Kunming's brand new airport opened yesterday. ChangShui is the 4th biggest of China's 500+ airports and expected to compete with Bangkok to become the "hub of S.E. Asia" air travel. Ava had coincidentally booked her latest flight to Shenzhen on the opening day, so we decided to get there early for a look-see. It seemed fairly quiet - a lot of the people we saw milling around seemed there to take photos. But it did look amazing though - like a large golden bird taking off (though Ava didn't like the colour scheme!). And it's certainly huge - five floors high, with two runways and a urban light railway link which opened on the same day. Unfortunately, what used to be a 30 minute journey to the old airport will now become a 90 minute trek, which will make Ava's monthly trips to Shenzhen even more tiring. But when the new underground network is finished (still a couple of years away), it should get easier. Kunming is certainly a happening city!
I drove Jiajia and her mum out to the huge flower market on the outskirts of Kunming yesterday afternoon. Kunming is famous for its flowers and the wholesale market is where the flower bargains are.
We bought two bunches of sunflowers for 60p and five large bunches of begonias for a pound. The main reason for going, however, was to buy half a dozen large vases to replace all the plastic ones in the house and on the balcony. Ava fancies herself as a bit of a gardner these days, inspired by my parents' garden on our visit there a year ago. We have much more limited space but, apart from the odd washing line, the balcony is starting to look quite green and bloom-filled. And me? I just drag the vases here and there.
I saw a helicopter flying overhead yesterday with a huge bucket hanging beneath it. I thought they might be delivering much-needed water to our neighbourhood (six weeks without running water now) but they were actually heading towards a rather nasty forest fire which has been heading towards Kunming from Yuxi, in the south. The drought has left the countryside parched and fires are frequent at this time of year. However, tomorrow I'm due to visit the self-same Yuxi to meet some Lattitude volunteers. Let's hope the fire doesn't change direction!
Petty crime is alive and well in Kunming. Two days ago, as I was boarding a busy bus, a guy behind me started pushing me and when I turned round I saw him carrying a large flat bag and realised it was a screen to feel into my pockets. A quick "Hey!" from me and he turned and scampered away - he was certainly not queuing to board the bus!
Then yesterday, an expensive camera was stolen from my school. An office was left unattended for a couple of minutes and, when the secretary returned, the camera had been stolen from an unlocked drawer. With hundreds of parents milling around, not to mention students and staff, it's hard to know where to start looking.
And then today, as I waited for my bus, I thought I recognised a "certain lad carrying a large flat bag". I watched him for a few minutes to be sure, as he joined the back of a queue for the bus, furtively looking at people's bags and pockets as he did so. As the last passengers got on the bus he quickly stepped back, not boarding the bus after all. It WAS him. I started pointing at him and shouting, "Xiǎo tōu (thief)! He's a thief! Watch out. THIEF!!" He gave me a snarl, but quickly walked away. A few seconds later, another guy asked me in Chinese, "Was he a thief?". I was about to say yes, when I noticed he was carrying an identical bag and then realised he'd been talking to the first guy a few minutes before. "You're a thief too," I shouted, "He's a thief too everybody. Watch out! ANOTHER THIEF!!". At this point he did a runner too. The odd thing was that none of the hundred or so Chinese standing around did anything. Odd, that is, until I was later told that the pickpockets usually carry blades to slice the bottom of bags (...or, indeed, heroic busybodies). I'll think twice next time.
Is it possible for two people to see two top films at the cinema, one on an IMAX screen, for a total cost of £2.50? Well the last time I was in a Chinese cinema was three years ago but one of Ava's friends gave us some free (soon-to-expire) tickets to the Kunming IMAX complex, so we took yesterday afternoon off and headed downtown to see "War Horse" and "Mission Impossible 4". "War Horse" is a Spielberg production based on a very popular play (which I've seen in the UK) which was, in turn, based on a novel. We both loved the film and must have got some dust in our eyes towards the end. "MI: Ghost Protocol" was fun - all-action, fast-moving if plot-free, with some great stunts. And the £2.50? That was the parking fee. Worth it though to see two blockbusters.
Ava and I were chatting to a car salesman the other day and picking up glossy brochures. We have no intention of buying a new car but their salesroom car park is very close to the second-hand furniture market and we wanted somewhere free to park! Also nearby is this huge "Transformers" landmark. It actually points towards our home, and we wondered if he was admonishing us for blagging our parking space - "Lesson learned, Optimus Prime!"
At the end of November last year I blogged about a deer and a ram who had fallen in love in a Kunming Zoo.
Well apparently they are getting married today (it being Valentine's Day). Over five hundred people are paying $10 each to go and watch, and the animals will be dressed up in wedding clothes for the occasion! Cue the corny puns, I fear...
"Doe you pramise to stay together, no ifs no butts....?" "I wool" ....etc
A dozen teenage volunteers arrived in Kunming yesterday doing a "gap year" 6 months with the charity, Lattitude. My job is to train them to be English teachers in 8 days. They're a lively and positive bunch and, as usual, I'm really enjoying training them. This time we are based at a smaller downtown branch of my school as it's been newly renovated and is 2 minutes walk from their hotel. It also has a shower, which is a blessing as we're now 6 days without running water at home. Our neighbourhood actually appeared on the local news today to illustrate how bad the drought here is (not that the rest of Kunming seems to be affected at all).
I'm a regular reader of, (and sometimes contributor to) the website GoKunming which is the main online source of information for foreigners in Kunming. This week, amongst the news and local reports, there was a lovely piece of prose by Colin Flahive, which lyrically summed up his experiences and memories of life there. Having spent many years in rural China myself, it really struck a chord. He kindly agreed to let me repost it here:
Ode to the Countryside
Where meals pull families back together each evening and there's always extra just in case someone else happens by. Where your back is always sore from sitting on hard little chairs while cracking open handfuls of sunflower seeds and sipping on endless cups of strong tea. Where a pig somehow feeds an entire family for a year with sausage and salted pork and where even yak butter tea can be refreshing. Where every cigarette you refuse plants a seed of distrust and where they won't let you leave until you eat just one more meal.
Where they cook for the pigs before cooking for the family. Where somehow cats befriend dogs, dogs befriend ducks and ducks befriend chickens, while cows and buffalo stand around seemingly stupefied by it all. Where the idea that dogs can't eat chicken bones is laughable. Where the proud clucks of a hen that just laid an egg don't go unnoticed by the owner.
Where wearing high heels or a business suit is no reason to stay out of the rice paddies. Where children don't practice the violin for five hours a day and the term 'tiger mom' means nothing more than the mother of a tiger. Where the only traffic is a herd of goats and the only honks are from geese.
Where the ability to chat is an art form and "privacy" is a foreign concept. Where you can't help but feel like a wimp when you notice how worn everyone else's hands are and how manicured yours look. Where everything you eat was raised or grown just a short walk away and even the corn cobs don't go to waste. Where a walk to the neighbors' house might take a couple hours.
Where fire still stokes the embers of life for cooking, heating, disposing, fertilizing and as the vehicle to fill the wallets of passed relatives. Where even with barking dogs, clanging cow bells, early rooster calls and roaring tractor motors you somehow sleep sounder than you have in a long time. Where you can still find your way by the light of the moon and the Milky Way spans the entire sky.
About the blogger
Past blog entries