Kunming, China

Sunday September 7th

This is the craziest arival in a new country so far. I had no choice but to make a big gamble and so far it's working out.

I got a bit of questioning at the airport because I've been hanging out for so long in Thailand without taking any big trips (they are suspecting I might want to work in China) but that didn't last long.

It is impossible to get Chinese currency outside of China (apart from I hear the embassy in Bangkok) and no ATMs at or near Kunming airport had money or enough English to understand (I wonder how long does it take to learn to read Mandarin?) and it's Sunday evening so the banks and exchange counters are all closed. The taxi drivers didn't want to know about going to an ATM. The last resort are the various self-employed helpers - the last people you turn to after the scams in Thailand and the general reputation of danger in travelling alone, especially in China. I chose against the guy who claimed he couldn't read Mandarin and then proceeded to know the button to press on the ATM. And went for a lady who wanted 50 yuan (£3.75) for herself and her husband for driving me into Kunming. A good start when they straight away talk about things not being extremely cheap or free, so I took the gamble and got into the car with the shades down on the back windows... But instead of a mafia stronghold it went very well and here I am in a nice hotel at apparently half the usual rate, 130 yuan (£10).

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When you are dangerous...

I'll check out tomorrow and wander into the slightly notoriously shabby older hotels just to see what it is like and be nearer the centre of town.

It's definitely high up here, 2000m above sea level, the highest city in China. All my crisp packets from Thailand have ballooned out!

So far it's a cleaner more open place than Bangkok, surrounded by mountains if you can have a room like this high up on the 12th floor. There are some interesting daytrips as well.

View from the room

Exercise with fans

I went walkabout in the evening, it's easy to find tea shops but really hard to find somewhere to eat on Sunday evening here, but after about a mile I found a district of noodle shops with hundreds of people eating away and almost no chance of me communicating what I'd like to eat! I came back, passing by lines of cheap smart clothes shops and some binoculars that I had been looking to buy in China, but no good prices, and eventually found an area of street barbecue food. Unlike Thailand all the food had been sitting out all day raw. Maybe that works because it is cooler here. I went into the last place which was an indoor restaurant with most of the people eating apparently family of the owners.

I pointed at the fish and the least strange-looking raw meat and sat down to what became an enormous meal, they had taken whole heaps of the things I had asked for and I ended up with a plate of food that there was no chance of eating more than a third of! I later found out that in China it's impolite to finish a meal or they think they haven't been generous enough, just as well! Very tasty, the fish had just the right amount of spiciness, and different to Thailand, and the meat was small spare ribs. They all seemed very happy with me when I left.

Like everything else the roads seem crazy here, you have four lanes to cross, two wide carriageways for the cars and also wide even busier cycle lanes on either side. I have given plenty of entertainment to people here as I cross the road, the traffic drives on the right, different to Thailand, and everyone does what they like, U-turns, shortcuts, and just when I'm sure I've worked it out there comes some kind of bicycle vehicle thing from behind. Even the pavements near hotels and shops will have cars driving down them.

Monday September 8th

A good view from the hotel room in the morning (see pictures above), there is a very busy street market below and for 10 minutes a group of older women are doing some kind of Chinese exercise thing while waving big red fans.

ATM time again, so into the bank next door. The security guard has an amazing weapon, a long silver colour metal spike with about fifty small sharp spikes coming out of it sideways. It didn't seem the moment to ask for a photograph! The ATM said VISA and Cirrus but neither worked. The bank staff tried to help out, trying all combinations to no success, then indicated I could cross the big road to a bank on the other side. I walked out of there wandering whether they could have seen my PIN number but my UK bank assured me that is wasn't possible for them to use my card as the card has an internal number that only the ATM machine knows.

No surprise to see an accident on the road this morning, involving a bicycle and two taxis.

You have to dodge mucky water being thrown out of the market stalls and if someone clears their throat and spits noisily right behind you that isn't an insult.

Kunming is two worlds, the traditional market backstreets and the modern Singapore-quality wide boulevards for the main streets. People say this place is changing very fast.

On the way to the centre of the city

The cycle lanes are as big and as busy as the road

The currency is confusing here, it's the only one I have found so far where the minor unit is a tenth of the main one, not a hundredth. So if someone says something costs 5, you don't know whether that's yuan or jiao. I caught a stallholder trying that one on, and a lady helped me out by saying I was right. Several times I have given someone 1 or 2 yuan and been surprised ot get a whole stack of jiao notes back as change.

The best thing so far is that there is absolutely no sign of any other non-chinese person in this city of a million people. I'm getting even babies waving at me and lots of looks of bemusement from everyone. After walking across half of the city and all around the centre the only other sign of a westerner are a few pictures of David Beckham. And it cannot go without saying how beautiful the girls are... it's a shame I cannot stay here as long as I can in Thailand, which seems now just like a small hill tribe in comparison to China.

Every short walk away there is a bicycle fixing station so there's never going to be a problem getting a puncture here. The idea of hiring a bicycle is looking better, especially as it's such a high altitude here that walking around is harder than it was in Chiang Mai. It's less than 500 miles from Chiang Mai but the altitude loses the tropical climate for one at this time of year more like England, cloudy, but without all the rain!

The department stores in the centre of town have similar prices to Thailand, except for clothes. I noticed one shop with jackets selling for 17 yuan, £1.25.

The markets and everywhere else have lots of police, but they are so relaxed as to appear quite friendly.

Tuesday September 9th

Today is another crazy day in China like Sunday! It has changed my perceptions even more about ATM machines and having a go at cycling in China makes me wonder if it's all over for computer games.

I moved hotel to where all the foreigners seem to hang out - they are nowhere to be seen anywhere else. You can arrange trips to Tibet from here, either a flight or a road trip that takes about 10 days each way. The daytrips from Kunming don't now seem interesting enough to bother with!

The second task was to try again to submit my Thailand visa form, this time arriving 20 minutes before the visa office closed, again barely enough time! I should get the visa tomorrow.

After another false lead from the Lonely Planet (the city is changing very fast) I found a great place to eat breakfast.

That was enough walking already so time to hire that bicycle. You have to give a 200 yuan (£15) deposit which is the cost of a new bicycle here! So off to the ATM, passing a western tourist who said it was a nightmare with all the runarounds you get trying to book a flight ticket here. Skip this paragraph if you don't need to know about China ATM fraud... There are loads of banks and ATMs and I quickly found one that said VISA. Unfortunately I was too in a hurry to walk further for a Cirrus machine. After 5 minutes waiting for a reponse from the ATM machine suspicions get pretty strong, but the end result was the bank manager piling up the notes he had managed to take out of my account, 10 times the bicycle deposit. It is a major bank in China and almost certainly government-owned, but things have got to the point where managers have complete control over their own ATM machines, despite the assurances I'd been given by my UK bank yesterday. Note to me for future reference: Always use straight Bank of China, not The [anything else] Bank of China, and a Cirrus card, not VISA. The reason for Cirrus is that I can force that account to have no overdraft, not even an unauthorised overdraft, and I can safely use the internet to set a really low balance. VISA cards seem to have an infinitely deep spending power however they are set up.

So thanks to my Cirrus card I still have access to money and I finally rented the bicycle. Most people cycle in Kunming, and to some extent there is safety in numbers. Today's accident was between two motorcyclists. There are so many uniforms in Kunming but I am slowly working out who are police, who are army and who are private security. Either way there are huge numbers of all of them, enough to make them pretty relaxed and almost hanging around most of the day. They all appear quite friendly though despite the wide assortment of big martial art style weapons the private security people have.

So I cycled to the centre of town and had a look at one of the twin Pagodas, within line of sight of the other one only due to a long corridor being left in the modern development. Then I found a bicycle park and luckily figured out I needed to get a ticket from the attendant.

West pagoda

An old street in the city centre

A kite flying in the city centre

Looking the other way across a big road

I tried to cross the roundabout using the subway to get to the flower and bird market. Subways are great here, they are full of market shops as you walk along the corridors, and occasional offices and cupboards buried into the ground along the passages. I went down there, along a few corridors observing that the market shops I passed weren't quite the same as the ones I had passed earlier, and came up at about where I was sure the other side of the roundabout was. I had managed to resurface about 20 metres from where I had gone down, on the exact same corner of the roundabout. This is a genious design, making sure you are confused enough to spend lots of time at the shops down there! So down again and a much longer walk, at some points with a choice of 3 corridors all going in the same direction, and with slightly different angles to the horzontal, and two attempts later I came up at the right place, where sure enough there were two subway stairway entrances.

The flower and bird market didn't have any flowers but there were plenty of birds and even more aquarium fish. It's a kind of mixture of a Thailand day and night market with a wider variety of things to look at.

I have noticed the draughts-like game people are playing on the streets here is more like chess, as all the round pieces have a different symbol.

I collected the bicycle, guessing I needed the smaller of the currency units. I seem to be getting the hang of that now, which kinds of things need smaller money and which the larger kind.

For some reason I cannot sleep tonight, perhaps recovering from two days of high altitude walking and cycling, or perhaps trying to avoid the impossible gaining of understanding about what everything is about here after the ATM reality check and the surreal, almost plague of, hanging around police officers. I think it was the cycling. It does mean that this diary gets written up for a change, and perhaps become another of those websites that gets banned in China!

Wednesday September 10th

I had a good go on the internet today. Hotmail is definitely limited in the length of emails that can be read, about 10K, presumably because some other people like to read them too, and BBC News is not available but Google and everything else I tried works ok.

Today I kept to walking around, and after picking up the visa (yipee! up to three more months in Thailand) I went back into the centre of the city.

The main challenge was to find some binoculars. I know they are made in Kunming so they should be a lot cheaper than Thailand. The last shop I tried was the Kunming Department Store, and they had a pair of 10-30 x 50 binoculars for only 480 yuan (£36). They look and work fine, the build quality might not be 100%, but no doubt heaps cheaper than the UK!

I went to have a look at the East Pagoda. The Lonely Planet got them the wrong way around but there wasn't much difference. Plenty of 3-4 year old children walking around on their own in the markets here, reminding me of eastern Europe in the early days after Communism.

East pagoda

Older houses in a backstreet

Lanmao Tea Market

Heaps of tea

A kind of temple within the tea market

In the late evening I went on a snack hunt: as with the previous hotel it's a lot easier to find tea-selling shops than places to eat. You have to eat by 10pm because just about everything closes then. Crouching down in a dark corner of the footbridge next to a couple of traders were two police officers.

Thursday September 11th

More hot water for green tea to wake up to in the morning. I'm not planning to do a lot today, and won't spend more than I have to of the money I have left, there's been enough of an ATM theme to this holiday and it will be very useful to say the least to have some money when I arrive next time...

Well lucky I did still have some money left, I needed 90 yuan for the airport tax.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Friday September 12th

Sure enough it's back to the heat in Thailand, but it quickly cooled down this afternoon and big rain set in, apparently it's been doing this since I've been away. The river next to the condo appartments has finally overflown so I reckon I'll be wading out to the bar tonight.

Such a change, only yesterday I was drinking green tea in China.

River getting high at the condo

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