Sunday, August 25, 2013

Next Stop- Kunming, China

I was ready to move on to China. Everyone has told me this will be the challenging part of my trip. Since I was warned the Chinese do not speak English, I downloaded a few apps (Pleco, iTranslate and CamDictionary) to make communication easier. I am going prepared with my five words: hello, goodbye, yes, no and thank you. I know that will not be sufficient but it is a start. Everyone seems to have a negative opinion and has warned me what I should and should not do while in China.  I smile and listen and reassure them I will be fine. I am leaving with and open mind and a desire to see a portion of this vast country and get a feel for traveling China. I am ready for a new adventure. When I return, I have planned to spend some time in Bali and the Gilli Islands. I will probably need to relax and decompress from the crowds in Beijing.

As I waited in the airport, a heavy rainstorm rolled into Kuala Lumpur. Great, I wonder if that means my backpack will be soaked. Kuala Lumpur has a separate terminal for the low cost flights for Air Asia. All flights are boarded on the tarmac. I was delighted to see the staff of Air Asia distributing umbrellas for  the walk to the plane. I joked with the couple behind me that these could be useful on the plane. If your neighbor was not nice we could poke them. We all laughed and came up with several uses for the umbrellas. Unfortunately, the flight attendants confiscated them as we boarded the plane. As I sat down and looked out the window I snapped a quick photo. It was raining and I was a little sad to be leaving SE Asia. The picture demonstrates a sadness I felt in my heart. My time in Asia will be ending soon and a part of me is not ready for that but torn because I am excited to explore other countries.
After four hours, I arrived in Kunming ready  to explore China. I cleared passport control and customs with no issues, made a quick stop at the ATM and headed for the taxis. I handed the driver my hotel information in Mandarin. He looked at the address, got out of the cab and went to talk to the other taxi drivers. Yelling started. I quietly watched trying to figure out the problem. The driver returned to the car. More yelling pursued in the cab. I could not find anyone that spoke English to explain the issue. The driver started the car. A mile outside the airport he pulled over to yell at another taxi. They said something to me but I responded I did not understand in my best Chinese. The drivers threw their hands in the air and drove off. I laughed. I really did not know what was going on but from an outsiders perspective it appeared very childish. My driver got on his cell phone and yelled at someone for the entire drive. I had no idea what was going on. I just wanted to get to my hostel safely. I kept pointing to my map and asked if he had directions. He shook his hand at me and yelled louder into the phone. Oh no! I started looking for street names near the hostel. Luckily, he took me to my hostel with no problems. Whew! I wanted to kiss the ground when I arrived. If that is how the next 30 days will go then I will learn a little Chinese!

The Upland Youth Hostel was great! The bar was a central meeting point for travelers and the garden courtyard is a relaxing oasis after a day sightseeing. I sat down and enjoyed a beer while I talked to some guys traveling from China on the "Stan tour" (Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan). Those were some guys off the beaten path! I listened as they told their plans. Before I left they warned me to watch my bags as they had a camera stolen on the bus. I met many tourists who had cameras stolen and everyone warned me to watch my bag and lock them before I headed out. Check! I am going to have to be more careful here.

I decided to get acquainted with the city and go for a stroll through Green Lake Park. It was a beautiful park with locals enjoying the surroundings and live music. Over the course of my time in  Kunming, I spent a significant amount of time in the park. I spent mornings doing tai chi with the locals and walking. I ended most days with a peaceful and relaxing evening stroll. 

The next morning, I had a few errands before going to sightsee. As I move from one country to the next, I get a SIM card on the first day. Normally this is a simple process. I go to a kiosk or store, buy a SIM card and they install and set-up my phone. It usually costs less than $20/month.  China was a whole new experience. I knew language would be a barrier so I was prepared and asked the girl at the hostel reception to write that I need a SIM card for local calls/text and internet in pinyin (Chinese characters). She gave me directions and I took my note to the China Mobile store. I thought it would be simple. I went prepared. WRONG! After 30 minutes, a girl called someone that spoke English. I explained what I wanted and he told me I needed to return with my passport. I was told a 1 month plan would cost $16. Ok. I handed the phone back to the girl and she hung up on him without talking to him. Great! I knew that meant we would go through this all again when I returned. So, 15 minutes later she sat looking at my note and passport and I pointed at her phone. She eventually called him again and handed me the phone. I was told I could buy a 3 month plan for $16 USD. Ok. I handed the phone to her and she hung up again! Ugh! I took out money and showed it to her and she told me no and walked away. I was not going to give up. I had invested time and energy and wanted a SIM card. I got in line and went through the same thing again. A phone call later and the girl told me no because of tariffs. I broke out laughing! This was stupid and hilarious. I pushed my money toward her and she told me no. I asked where I buy a SIM card and she said she did not know. I shook my head and laughed hysterically as I left. China, there are things that's me no sense and this was one if them. Ugh! I walked around town and tried a few other stores but everyone told me no. I heard that they did not have any, the computer was broken or only the manager could do it. I got the impression nobody wanted to deal with the western girl that only spoke English. I finally decided to wait until I arrived in Dali. Maybe the more touristic towns would be easier to get a SIM card. I returned to the hostel and was asked if I got my SIM card. No. The girl was shocked and laughed. Another traveler said he had a Chinese friend that went and bought his. Guess it is time for me to find a Chinese friend with a little spare time.

The one place I wanted to go near Kunming was the Stone Garden. There is an old Chinese saying "If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time." About 270 million years ago, the area was a vast sea. Over time, the waters retreated leaving the limestone landscape and erosion caused the present day appearance. It was a 2 hour bus ride to the park. I met other travelers that wanted to go so, we hired a private driver for the day. I laughed when one of the couples introduced me to their friends. It was the couple from the plane that told me I could poke people with an umbrella. Yes, it is a small world! It was a fun group: me, a Malay woman and 4 Aussies. A bus load of fun!  We all hiked together with the agreement that if we got separated to meet back at the van at 3:00 PM. John and I went up the trail and waited...and waited. We went back and searched for them but could not find them. Oh, well.  John and I spent the afternoon laughing and hiking the forest. I marveled at the stone formations and the beauty.
As it got to be later, we were tired and came upon the shuttle bus in the park. We jumped aboard and enjoyed our ride around the outskirts of the park. We got off and started walking when we found the others.  I was surprised it was that easy! We enjoyed a few views of the park and then headed back to the van. At the end of the day, I was happy I had made the journey to see to astonishing Stone Forest. We returned to the Upland Youth Hostel, I went to the bar for a cold Beerlao (the best beer in SE Asia). Mmmmmm! I spent the evening drinking and chatting with John and a few other Aussies. I said my goodbyes to all my new friends. In the morning, I was leaving for Dali. Now I will experience the public transportation in China. Another new adventure!

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