To many Americans, Kunming is one of the world’s greatest resort cities that “you have never heard of.” It is the political, historical, and cultural capital of Yunnan province, sitting in southwest China on the border with Vietnam. Surrounded by mountains and Dian Lake, the sky was noticeably bluer, the air fresher, and the sun, well, sunnier as we stepped into this absolutely stunning city. It is known as the land of eternal Spring. Both days reached 65 degrees and cooled off to only about 50 with a nice breeze that definitely made us feel at ease and able to take life at a slower tempo—especially in contrast to the bustle of Beijing and Qingdao. The local tourist board justifiably uses the slogan “civilized Kunming.” Here’s a picture from my hotel room.
During our first night in Kunming, we wandered the downtown hub filled with high-end shops, street vendors, and the hardest working bakery employees ever. The employees at one bakery seemed to sing throughout their entire shift to entice you into the shop, while generously offering samples of all of the treats inside. Kunming is noted for its rose cake, but there were so many confections to choose from. There are a few of us on this trip with New Jersey roots and with the warm breeze, we felt a little like we were down the Shore (just with a little more class).
The real treat, though, was to step out to the main plaza to find a large mass of people dancing in traditional costume. This group dance was joyous and almost impossible to resist not trying to join in. We discovered that these were all members of the Dai ethnic group. China recognizes over 50 distinct ethnic groups with its borders, but 92% of the country is Han Chinese. The Dai are native to Yunnan and, as typical of being a small ethnic group in a large country, struggle to maintain its culture and traditions. There’s no better way to do so than through a celebration of song and dance.
Friday morning brought us to the Experimental Middle School Attached to Yunnan Normal University. This was the first school that we had the opportunity to visit…and what a difference from our schools. First, we had to wait outside the iron gate of the school while a police officer stood guard (and there was a security room at the entrance to the school). It opened to a small, concrete playground and then into a spare academic building with signs instructing the students on expected behavior. Check out the pictures below.
The students, though, were warm and wonderful. As proof that students are the same everywhere, they had a giant poster on the back wall in which all of them wrote “what they wanted to be when they grew up.” Answers ranged from being a doctor to an economist to playing professional basketball. In an interview, one student asked me to describe the shopping opportunities she would have if she came to our school. This was an excellent chance to again build a bridge to another school. This school had on the wall a list of places that it had sent students to the U.S. One of them was “The Williams School.” I’m hoping that we can make just a slight modification to that when they re-do the poster.
In the afternoon, we went to Dian Lake to take in the scenery and the eternal spring breeze. I expected a relaxing stroll, but instead found the cacophony of seagulls and a flock of locals attempting to feed them. This was a cultural shock from the Jersey Shore where you absolutely do not feed the sea gulls (which have enough attitude to take your food anyway). The seagulls here are migratory and only in Kunming from January to March and everyone here wanted to reach out and watch the birds swoop to take bread and birdfeed from their hands.
No real food adventures to report in Kunming. However, for the first time in China, we truly had excellent tea. This was the first city we went to where when we sat down for meals, the restaurant brought us hot tea without asking. Most places in China actually bring you hot water (I gather in part because the water isn’t safe to drink without boiling it first). Many excellent teas come from Yunnan Province. At our hotel breakfast alone, there were three different types of tea – Scented tea, a Bamboo tea, and a Chrysanthemum team (there was also a pot of Lipton for the tourists, but I won’t count that.) Alex, our senior from Kunming, has described himself as a tea collector and I can see why. I’m bringing some home so there will be excellent Yunnan Province tea in my office for a while.
On a sidenote, we ran into a super hero-themed advertisement for a local coffee shop. This was not a surprise per se because Marvel characters are everywhere in China. For example, there was a Spider-Man leaning off a building at a local pub which had, in English, a marquee that read “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”
This particular one, though, presented a rather interesting perspective on “Captain America” and the other super-heroes.
We only scratched the surface of Kunming’s beauty and charm. The pace of our trip really did slow down a little here, and life got a little more civilized. And it was nice to walk outside in January in short sleeves.
Off to Hangzhou tomorrow.