There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 29 October 2010

Kunming and The Stone Forest: Part 1 of China's Far Southwest

What follows is an extended and illustrated version of an email originally sent from Xingyi on 30/10/10

In The Stone Forest

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, China’s most southwesterly province, styles itself the ‘City of Eternal Spring’. We stepped out of the airport into an afternoon of cold, hard drizzle. Eternal Spring is, I suppose, much the same as Eternal Autumn, in a glass-half-empty sort of way, and at that moment Kunming looked a glass-half-empty sort of place; its 3.5 million shivering inhabitants apparently wandering around in search of somewhere warm.

We checked into our hotel and had a nap. After twenty-eight hours travelling and a seven-hour time change even the pneumatic drill in the adjacent building site could not keep us awake. Later we went for a recce to find an ATM and choose a restaurant for dinner before returning for a cup of tea, more rest and a discussion about what time the man with the drill might knock off work.

Bleary eyed and dog tired, but still eating -
what a guy!
Happily, drilling stopped before we went out. Most restaurants and many shops in Kunming are open-fronted and the main appeal of our selected restaurant was the wall between us and the elements. We sat down, eager to apply our limited knowledge of Chinese characters to the menu, only to discover there was no menu. Fortunately, our waitress rose to the occasion and led us into the busy kitchen. In one corner a young man wielding a fearsome cleaver sliced bacon from a large joint. Another youth twirled what seemed a lifetime’s supply of noodles in an immense wok using drumstick-sized chopsticks, one held in each hand. On a shelf at the side lay a selection of cabbages. We pointed at the bacon, cabbage and noodles and returned to our table.

Choosing the basic ingredients was one thing, but by the time they had been prepared, sauced and spiced they had, as so often in China, turned into a sophisticated and satisfying meal. For the first time that day we began to feel glad to be back in the country.

Next morning, wrapped up well, we set off to see the city. Finding a taxi is always easy, but today’s was the first we had encountered driven by a woman, and not only that but a woman who understood my verbal request to be taken to the Yuantong Buddhist temple – though she first felt the need to correct my pronunciation. The little bell hanging from her rear view mirror suggested she was herself a Buddhist. It ting-ed when she accelerated, it ting-ed when she braked and it ting-ed when she went round corners. Long before we reached the temple it had become quite an annoying little Buddhist bell.

' octagonal pavilion in a starlingly green pond...'
Yuantong Temple, Kunming
The most ‘important Buddhist site in north Yunnan’ is approached through an impressive marble archway, but we had to pick our way round a partially constructed new hall to find the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temple. Beyond an incense burner an octagonal pavilion sits in a startlingly green pond. Circumnavigating the pond in the approved clockwise direction, we came across of group of pilgrims in a side room chanting as they processed round and round in single file. We stopped to listen and record before moving on to the main hall at the back. Here, two dragons support an ornate wooden ceiling over statues of the Buddha seated in front of faded thirteenth century frescoes. Behind the main hall is a newer, smaller pavilion where fearsome stone animals protect a gilded bronze Buddha donated by the Thai government.

All around people with burning incense sticks were kneeling before the Buddha and bowing in the cardinal directions. The Chinese are not a notably spiritual people – indeed Taoist devotion often seems entirely concerned with ensuring good luck - but Yuantong had a peaceful, even reverent air.

Having started in the north of the city, we walked southwards, through an area of modern apartment blocks and clean shops. We were heading for the Muslim quarter but found the promised maze of streets had been bulldozed and replaced by a shopping mall. A shiny new mosque stood next to an older Christian church dedicated to those who fell in the allied cause in the Second World War, 1937- 45. The Sino-Japanese conflict was an integral part of that war and it was a reminder that our 1939 ‘starting date’ is somewhat parochial and eurocentric.

'...crowned with a spire and a red star...'
Yunnan Provincial Museum, Kunming
The nearby Provincial Museum is crowned with a spire and a red star in the ‘Stalinist Gothic’ style we had only previously encountered in Russia. The museum should have been open, but the ticket office was deserted and the doors padlocked. Closer inspection, however, revealed another door hidden behind an advertisement for the ‘Accounting through the Ages’ exhibition. Inside, a notice told us that today the museum was free.

The journey from tally sticks to double entry booking was less than riveting, particularly told in a language I was too ignorant to read. The centrepiece was an elaborate cowry box, dating back to the Dian Kingdom, which ruled Yunnan two thousand years ago and used shells for money. Upstairs a much more interesting collection of Dian artefacts; bronze weapons, agricultural implements, grave goods and more cowry boxes, gave a fascinating insight into life in Yunnan’s earliest civilization.

The east pagoda, Kunming
Further south, we huddled on a bench in an open fronted restaurant. Choosing a dish of beef and chillies was easy, but ordering it presented a problem. It is well known by all educated Chinese that no Westerner likes spicy food, so the girl kept pointing at the symbol for chillies (one of the few we actually know) and I kept nodding my head and saying ‘yes’. Eventually she gave in and we enjoyed an excellent - and distinctly spicy - lunch.

Continuing our progress, we visited two Tang Dynasty (618-1206) pagodas, standing fifty metres apart near the city centre. Despite their age, they are neither beautiful nor particularly interesting. One stands in a small garden, the other beside an alleyway. There is little more to be said.

By this time we were flagging, so we taxied the rest of way to our hotel. We sat in the warm, had a cup of tea and listened to the pneumatic drill

Later, after a bowl of warming soup in another cold, open-fronted restaurant, we met Wang, our guide for the next day’s journey to The Stone Forest, and drove to the theatre.

Dynamic Yunnan - some of the cast
The Chinese government recognises fifty-five ethnic minorities living alongside the Han majority, many of them in the southwest. ‘Dynamic Yunnan’ is a performance extravaganza based on the traditional dance, music and costumes of the local minorities. Choreographed by the ‘world famous’ Yang Liping the show has toured China, Europe and the USA. It was certainly very professional with a lot of high energy dancing, screechy singing and very loud drums. The brochure quotes the New York Times on Yang Liping’s Peacock Princess Dance: ‘she dances so fluently like a spirit from nature, using her slim figure, extending her arms, fingers and legs, resembling a youth full of live (sic).’ She was extraordinarily graceful, but my first reaction on seeing a woman that thin is to administer an emergency bowl of noodles, not watch her dance.

It was not raining when we came out, so we walked back. Watching people bedding down in doorways, reminded us how fortunate we were to have a warm hotel room waiting.

The drive to Shilin (literally: Stone Forest) took a couple of hours. The roads were motorway standard and, once we had left the city, largely empty. Kunming’s spring-like (or autumnal) climate is the result of its warm southerly location and its 1800 metre altitude. Our journey through rich agricultural land involved a number of long straight descents and we passed several lorries with smoke billowing from their brakes.

Despite the drop in height, the temperature remained unchanged. At Shilin we checked into the only hotel and found our room had cooling but no heating. We mentioned this to Wang, then repaired to the unheated restaurant, which was full of tour parties from Korea, Taiwan and France. The food was mass catering and the duck was lukewarm but one dish was truly remarkable. Traditionally the Chinese have not used dairy products. In recent years, milk has been promoted as a health drink and is now frequently consumed at breakfast, but butter and cheese are unknown – except in Yunnan. The Yi (pronounced ‘jerr’) ethnic minority make China’s one and only cheese and Shilin is a Yi village. We ate a hard goat’s milk cheese pleasantly similar to Ribblesdale. The most exceptional thing about Yi cheese is that it is unexceptional.

The Great Stone Forest
Approaching Shilin the quality of the farmland had deteriorated and we had seen many fields containing tall stones, clustered like conferring menhirs. The National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covers 350 km² but at its heart, the Great Stone Forest is an area of stones, typically 4 or 5 metres high, crowding together like trees in a forest. It is an extreme example of Karst geology and a truly extraordinary sight.

Threading our way through the stones on well-made paths, there were corners that looked like the approach to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ at Disneyland, and we had to keep reminding ourselves that that was fake and this was real. The crowds were reminiscent of Disneyland, too. We think of tourism in China as involving Europeans, Americans or Australians, but one by-product of the Chinese economic miracle has been the explosion in home grown tourism. The few Westerners were vastly outnumbered by the Chinese visitors who arrived on tour buses in their thousands, each group obediently following its flag-wielding leader who kept up a running commentary via a portable loud speaker strapped to their waist.

''the Chinese do so like a crowd...'
Shilin Stone Forest
The Chinese do so like a crowd, but Wang led us along quieter paths, past limpid pools and up low hills where we could see the forest without having to listen to five competing commentaries. In China there is always a crowd – and nearby there is always somewhere quiet and peaceful.

The 'Shadows' Walk'
Shilin Stone Forest
This area was once farmed by the Yi, and a difficult task they had wresting a living from this stony land. There is little or no farming in Shilin now. There is plenty of work for attractive young women who dress up in brightly coloured traditional costume and act as guides. Every Chinese tour group acquires one, though what they can tell them that their voice-amplified, flag-toting commissars cannot is a mystery. Older women work as photographers, snapping each member of a tour party in front of their chosen rock. Their menfolk park their motorbikes on the nearby road (‘they’ve got better bikes than me’ said Wang with a touch of envy) and rush the camera cards to the printers in the village, returning before the group leaves the forest. Every tourist carries their own digital camera, but for reasons deep within the Chinese psyche, the business thrives. Elsewhere, four young men strummed three-string guitars while strutting ‘The Shadows’ Walk’ (for those old enough to remember) and a group of girls danced a homespun excerpt from ‘Dynamic Yunnan’. The older and less comely members of the Yi community can be observed in dirtier and less colourful versions of traditional dress, sweeping away litter or hacking back vegetation, but you are not supposed to notice them.

Undoubtedly most of the Yi in Shilin are financially better off and have much easier lives than they did before the tourists came. Perhaps they sometimes wonder how living in a World Heritage Site came to destroy their heritage. I have no idea if they ever regret it.

We returned to the hotel to find a heater had been placed in our room. Whether any of the other guests had one, we do not know and decided not to ask.

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