China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 232 (42)

Kunming

Tuesday 26th October

We got up without any problems this morning and bid farewell to Sam’s. A taxi was once again conveniently waiting for us outside of the hotel building. I guess that’s one of the advantages of the hostel being part of a larger hotel. With people coming and going all the time, it’s never very difficult to find a cab. Our backpacks are now starting to get very heavy with all of the souvenir and other purchases we’ve been making. I keep saying this but we will need to send another package home again soon.

As usual, we handed the taxi a piece of paper with our destination written on it in Chinese. The hostel staff routinely writes things down for their guests and I’m frankly not sure what we’d do without this little bit of help that we get from time to time. We can and do sometimes rely on the guidebook to try to communicate with the locals and the little pictogram flip chart that I have has also proven to be very useful at times. The problem is that as soon as they start talking, things frequently go pear-shaped.

The taxi ride was about half an hour or more out of town but there were several terminal buildings and our driver drove around a couple of times before we finally found the correct one. If I understood him correctly, the piece of paper that we handed him was for the international terminal building whereas our flight left from the domestic terminal. This little merry-go-round ride cost us an extra couple of Yuan on the meter but trying to make an issue of that seemed like a fruitless endeavour so we simply collected our bags and handed over the displayed fare.

The airport terminal seems relatively modern and has clearly been built with future additional capacity in mind. There were quite a few gates but very few planes, today at least. There was also a wireless network in operation in and around the airport and I was able to connect to it from my laptop. Unfortunately, I could only get as far as a page telling me to send a text message to a specific number to get a login ID. Since we don’t have a cell phone any more, this put a brief stop to any ideas of surfing the Internet so I sat and played games instead.

It was a good job that we’d brought our own snacks and things with us, as the prices in the terminal building were ludicrous. You have to wonder that the logic of pricing yourself out of consideration to the point of not selling anything at all. After about an hour of tedium, our boarding call came and we got onto the very new and modern aircraft for our two-hour flight to Kunming. What little we did understand of the few English bits and pieces we heard being announced was not very encouraging. The temperature was predicted to be a fresh twelve degrees Centigrade. I was sure that we would eventually run into some brighter and warmer weather the farther South we went but this is just not proving to be the case. We’re both getting quite tired of wearing the same few bits of cold weather clothing that we have with us and will be grateful to find the warmer weather again.

There was a tourist information office in the terminal building when we landed in Kunming but it was unmanned. There was another little information kiosk near the exit and this was staffed by a uniformed Chinese woman that did speak some English but her range of conversational skills was limited and she came over as being very unfriendly. Still with no idea where we were going, I decided to crack open the guidebook and found a cheap hostel for us to head for. Trying to get any information from the woman at the kiosk about which bus to catch was proving to be more trouble than it was worth but we did learn that the number two bus went to the train station and the guidebook told us which bus to take from there so off we waddled to join the crowd near the bus stop at the far end of the car park.

We got in what we thought was the correct bus, only to be immediately ushered off again by the driver when I showed her the little picture of a train on my flipchart. The woman driver did seem quite friendly and with a lot of pointing at the bus stop sign board, she was able to reveal the correct number of bus to take to the train station and as luck would have it, this bus was just pulling up behind so we relocated with a smile and a thanks. This time, the driver nodded at me after I showed her my little train and were let out ten minutes later by one of the main train stations. We found the next bus we needed just around the corner from where we got off of the first and I repeated the name of the bus stop as best I could from the Pinyin in the guidebook to the next bus driver. He did seem to understand after a while and ten minutes and several bus stops later, he motioned for us to get out. We spent the next half an hour under the seemingly increasing weight of our backpacks trying to decide if we had got out at the right bus stop after all. Irritation was by now well and truly starting to set in. I made several attempts to ask people on the street where we were but could find nobody with whom I could successfully communicate – another example of the language barrier creating a mountain out of a molehill. It should be noted that under any other circumstances, we would quite enjoy this miscommunication and travelling about the city by bus trying to find a specific destination. It’s all part of the experience and we very much enjoyed this the other day. When laden with several heavy backpacks, however, it can be less fun and more irritation. It was all very new and exciting to begin with but we’ve been here for a few weeks now and simply want to get from A to B with as little fuss as possible with all our stuff. The romance of being in a far away and exotic place has all but worn off for us now here. Maybe it’s getting high time to move on.

Drastic situations require drastic measures so we found a bank and walked in hoping to find someone that might speak English. The more educated people are here, the more likely they are to be able to speak English and I was hoping that bank employees might be further up the education chain than the average person on the street. Of course, this is a stereotypical generalisation that doesn’t always hold true but this seemed like a reasonable enough of a gamble to try to find someone to help us out in this hour of need. Sure enough, we soon found a young man that spoke fairly good English. He was one of the bank managers we later learned and was extremely friendly and helpful. So much so, in fact, that he was not content to simply point us in the right direction but he actually walked out onto the street with us and insisted that he personally take us to find the hostel we were looking for. He wasn’t sure where it was himself but gleamed enough out of the guidebook to at least know that we were in the right vicinity and was able to talk to shop owners along the way to get directions.

The Chinese people are warm and friendly. We always come to this conclusion when we meet one with whom we can successfully communicate. The thing is, this often gets lots through the language barrier. When someone is trying to talk to us in Chinese, our not being able to understand them means that all we see is someone standing in front of us making a lot of noise. For all we know, they could be trying to be very helpful and friendly but it doesn’t always come over as such. The fact that the Chinese often speak quite loudly and confidently is something that we often interpret as aggressive, when this may not be the case at all. A friendly encounter, such as this one with the helpful bank manager, is sometimes a welcome and necessary reminder to us just how friendly and welcoming the Chinese people really are.

Our newfound Chinese bank manager friend did eventually manage to bring us to the hostel we were looking for. It was tucked neatly away behind another building, down a winding alley, with absolutely nothing to indicate that it was there. Unless you already knew exactly where to go, I cannot see how anyone would find it – and certainly not from the woefully inadequate description in the guidebook – another example of it letting us down. As hostels go, this one seemed fairly typical with all the usual trappings. The only obvious flaw was that there was no heating in the room we were shown. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the case for all their rooms and I supposed this was an indication of just how warm it normally might be here, when there isn’t a cold front pushing through.

By now we were both quite tired, irritated and cold but I did my best to be patient with the nice young girl at the reception desk whilst I tried to learn what I could about the various options for travelling around Yunnan Province for the coming week that we plan to be here. After we had finished with all of this, our moods had not improved. All of the options we were presented with were not terribly attractive. Neither of us is keen on long bus journeys but that seemed to be the preferred way to travel here. Quite amazingly, train travel to some of the key places around the province is not only more expensive, predictably, but can take many more hours to reach the same destination. To cap it all off, the receptionist told me that they were expecting much colder weather over the next several days and Sandy was not going to tolerate cold weather with no heating in the room.

We made ourselves comfortable in the room and decided to go walkabouts and explore the surrounding area. The hostel is located right next to a nice park with several lakes and footbridges running through it. The receptionist told us where to go to find an Internet café and we set off in that direction with one of the hostel brochures in hand that had a map of the immediate area. We did our level best to locate the Internet café but the area around the lake had quite a few more features and roads leading away from it than the map represented and we got thoroughly lost. In addition to the Internet café, we were also trying to locate another cheap hostel that was also recommended by the guidebook but the same bloody idiot that wrote the directions to our place must have written the directions to it too. We eventually found our way home after a good solid hour of walking through the cold. Nothing seemed to be going right for us at the moment and we returned back to our room really quite depressed and despondent.

We sat and pondered the gloomy situation for a while in our room. Several things all seemed to be culminating together. The continually deteriorating weather, the unattractive transportation options and the feeling we both had of not really seeing anything new anymore, all conspired to lead us to the same conclusion. It was, in fact, time we thought about moving on after all. We could stay and try to squeeze what enjoyment we could out of this region of Chins but there are so many more wonderful places waiting for us to explore, there really isn’t any need for us to have to go out of our way to have a good time. Looking over the spreadsheet of our planned migration around Asia and into Australasia, it seemed like we would gain more from cutting short our remaining time in China, in favour of spending more time exploring South East Asia. We are still bound by the self-professed desire to get to Melbourne, Australia in time for Christmas and this has always meant that we will have restricted time in South East Asia. But finishing up here in China now, together with spending a few less days back in Hong Kong before we fly off to Bangkok, this will give us an extra couple of weeks in the region and might even allow us a little time to briefly explore Vietnam too. The more we thought about it, the more it made sense and pretty soon the decision was mutually made so we went back down to reception to organise how we would now get back to Hong Kong and to make the necessary date changes for our next RTW flight to Bangkok.

We spent the best part of an hour making these next arrangements in a very hectic and frantic atmosphere down in reception. I had to correctly coordinate the trip from here to Hong Kong and the subsequent flight out of Hong Kong to Bangkok and needed to make sure to book one leg of this trip to happily marry up with the other. The first problem was with finding the correct phone number for the relevant airline offices. Apparently, the only method available here in Kunming of finding phone numbers was only good for local numbers. Not even the English-speaking receptionist had any idea about how to locate a phone number for the airlines. Fortunately, our guidebook proved useful in this regard, as it had listings for all the airlines in Hong Kong. We spent the next five minutes trying to figure out how to dial an international number but I was eventually able to make a connection. The ticketing agent at Cathay Pacific was very friendly and helpful and was able to put a hold on the seats we needed for tomorrow. The receptionist had earlier called the local travel agent about travel arrangements from here to Shenzhen tomorrow morning and we were told that there was a good discount available for the flight out so it was on the strength of this that we made the date change for the Hong Kong to Bangkok flight but I had to call back to confirm some important numbers on the ticket coupon before the flight could be confirmed. The other alternative was to take the twenty-four hour across country train journey. The flight would certainly be our first choice even if it was going to be a little more expensive that the train. Whilst I was looking up the flight coupon number for the airlines, the receptionist called back to the travel agent to make the booking for the flight to Shenzhen. I got the distinct impression from watching her talk on the phone that our fun and games were not over yet. Sure enough, when she put the phone down, she reluctantly told us that it now appears that there are no seats available with the discounted fares on the flight to Shenzhen. We might be able to get on the flight but it was going to cost about ¥1,200 ($145) each. Ouch! Alternatively, we could take the long train journey for just ¥480 ($58) each in the soft sleeper class. Otherwise, we would have to hang around here for several more days and take a later flight that did have a good discount available for it. This would mean more money for food and accommodation to sustain us for the next few days so we decided to go with the train option instead. The cold weather and absence of heating was very much on Sandy’s mind at this point. The only problem now was with availability of seats on the flight out of Hong Kong for the day after that which I had just told the airline agent to hold our seats for. I called back to Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong and was relieved to learn that there was plenty of seats available for the next day so I went ahead and had them change the date again.

Finally, we were now settled. We remain for the one night that we paid for here in the hostel in Kunming and tomorrow morning, we board the train bound for Guangzhou where, about twenty-four hours later, we will hopefully be able to catch the two-hour ferry, or a bus, across to Hong Kong. We still have some Hong Kong Dollars and our Octopus public transport cards and so we will probably head straight for the same place we stayed at last time and spend one night there before flying to Bangkok the next morning. I can hardly believe just how much our plans have changed over the short space of an hour or less. One minute we are enjoying South West China and the next we are looking forward to Thailand in South East Asia.

I paid for and, about an hour later, received our two train tickets. The flight to Bangkok was confirmed and all we now had to do was rest and sit out our one remaining night here. With pretty much nothing else left to do, I set off in search of the Internet café that we couldn’t find earlier. I was determined to find it this time and first interrogated a much larger map of the city that hung on the reception office wall for a while before I set out. I did eventually find it after about half an hour of searching. It was quite a big place with probably over a hundred terminals and most of those were occupied by kids playing role playing and shoot ‘m up games. I asked for a terminal and was sat at one but it had to be started first. I clearly must have upset the gods at some point as the spotty faced kid then spent the next half an hour trying to get this computer to work. He ultimately gave up and sat me in front of another. I paid ¥4,5 ($0,55) for just over two hours of Internet surfing. Amongst other things, I was trying to get some information on the ferry between Guangzhou and Hong Kong but couldn’t find what I was looking for. I did get a reply from the guy at World Nomads about my travel blog web site. He apparently want to know if I would be interested in earning some commission by putting a link to their travel insurance web site on my home page. I told him to send me more information.

It was now dark and I decided to go home to see if Sandy wanted to go out to get something to eat. It will be a long trip on the train tomorrow and I doubt we will enjoy the train food very much. We set off in search of a restaurant after I returned but fortune was still not smiling on us today. We passed several nice looking places but none of them had English menus. We would have tolerated this if there were at least some pictures to point at but even this was not to be. On one of the main road crossings, there was what looked like a very nice looking option with plenty of people in it so we decided to give it a try. Lots of people looked like they were enjoying lots of good food so we thought our luck was starting to change. We found a seat and a waitress of understood the concept of wanting to first look at a menu before ordering and were pleasantly surprised to see not only English and pictures on the menu but the prices were very good too. We set about pointing at what we wanted to order but one by one, the waitress indicated that what we were ordering was not available. Perhaps it was because it was late in the evening (the restaurants in China close their kitchens relatively early) but the only things that she seemed to think that we could order were such exotic dishes as ducks liver or chicken heads and the like. Now really very pissed off with the entire world, we just got up and left with the hump. Determined to find at least something to eat, we wandered around the immediate vicinity for a while before spotting a KFC. We were so glad to have found at least the option of having something to eat that we didn’t even bother to look any farther.

Just around the corner from the KFC was, surprisingly enough, a Walmart superstore so we decided to take a look for ourselves. Sure enough, it’s much like any other Walmart superstore in America and sells just about anything and everything. Luckily for us, this one had a supermarket section and we stocked up with bread, rolls, noodles, drinks and just about whatever else we thought we might eat on the train tomorrow. Over the past week or more, I’ve been on the lookout for a beard trimmer to replace the one I have with me that got a bit beaten up in my backpack. With so few Chinese with facial hair, I’ve been supremely unsuccessful at finding one but strangely enough, they had one here at the Walmart. As a special bonus, it even runs on batteries so I won’t have to worry about plugging it in wherever we got.

After leaving the Walmart with a couple of arms full of supplies, we ran into another one of those little DVD stalls that sell what must surely be knocked-off DVDs. They had all the latest blockbusters and at just ¥6 ($0,70) each, I couldn’t resist adding another half a dozen or more to our now growing collection.

Back at the hostel, we fired up the laptop and sat through Tomb Raider, somewhat in anticipation of our trip to Cambodia where we will visit Angkor Wat, which is featured in the film. I fell asleep shortly before the end of the movie and it was a satisfying end to what had turned out to otherwise be a pretty grim and depressing day.

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