A Travellerspoint blog

December 2013

Kunming: The Not So Good

snow -2 °C

It had to happen, I suppose: have one place on my journey where there was such a concatenation of things go wrong that it marred the whole experience of being there. All in all, it would have been better not to have had the four nights in Kunming (I was compelled to stay that long because I needed a visa). Not that it was all bad, but it was bad enough to split my account into two posts – the bad and the good.

First, however, there is the long train trip down from Zigong. I had an hour or so to wait in the station, and was most entertained by the Passenger Transport Officer. I don’t know how senior that made him in the structure of the Zigong Railway Station, but his was the only office on the ground floor. But this was dinner time, so his office turned into a pop-up restaurant for his people: about six uniformed staff clustered around his desk, all sharing their food from communal pots. They ate quickly – after about 20 minutes, everyone took their plates etc away, washed up, he had a quiet smoke with one other officer, his desk was cleared of all dining paraphernalia and we have the model railway official’s office back. I was interrupted in my scrutiny by a girl, I thought at first she was a school student but it turned out that she was a level three university student, who made a beeline for the seat beside mine. I was very conscious of her sitting there, looking at me, sort of anxious about something: eventually, after a couple of false starts from her and smiles from me, she talked and we chatted through until it was time to go – she was off to visit her mother in Kunming.

I had decided to go for soft sleeper, since it didn’t cost very much and it was going to be something like 16 hours on the train. Funnily enough, a soft sleeper is no softer than a hard one. For the first part, I had the four berth compartment to myself: then I was joined by a bloke who snored through the night. I enjoyed the sensation of this long slow journey through the night, with its twists, its climbs, its stops for the up train or to collect passengers. At one point I was astonished to find snow on the hills beside the tracks – I had not seen any to the north, so had thought I would see none at all. I read later that snow in this area is so unexpected that it caused problems in north Vietnam, where people were stopping on its roads (difficult to negotiate at the best of times) to gawp at this strangeness.

In Kunming, I had paid for the premium garden view room in the hostel (not actually my first choice of place to stay (it was closed for renovation) or second (it was full for two nights): the room was nice alright and showed me the garden, so there was nothing misleading about its description. But there was NO HEATING! I mentioned the snow: it was still snowing when I hit Kunming, and overnight temperatures were always below zero while I was there. The bar was the one place to be warm and get some internet: it was normally crowded and closed at midnight.

My Monday started well, but then went downhill: I had a plan of things I was going to see, but had not worked out that Mondays are the one day that most tourist sites (museums, art galleries, even the Provincial library) close. It was Tuesday, however, that things really got bad. One of the major things influencing my choice to come to Kunming, indeed to this part of China, is the Stone Forest – a five hundred square kilometre park of intricate karst outcrops. I have seen many photos and videos of these and they look magical, but you need about five hours in park to get to the good stuff.


The park is a mere 73 km from Kunming. I knew exactly how to get there: I couldn’t take the train, because you need your passport for that and mine was in the Vietnamese Consulate, but there are buses. The #22 will take you to the East bus station, and from there a bus will take you directly to the park. It is worth repeating this: the directions were clear and the distance is 73 km. I left the hostel at around 9:30 and found the #22 bus stop. I waited. I waited some more. I grew moss I was there so long but eventually a #22 bus did arrive. It is about the oldest bus I have seen in China. It turned out that the East bus station is way out in the country, up in the hills above Kunming. The impotent #22 could barely make it up the hills – having so many people on board would not have helped (I longed for the wonderful new buses they use in Yichang which seemed to fly up the gorge hills).

But, finally, we made it to the East Bus Station, a brand new and fairly grand looking building with, I noticed, an even newer metro station. But then I am completely flummoxed: there are a large number of ticket windows, and I thought the writing over each represented a different destination. By now, it is a bit before noon, and I am wondering if there is any point continuing. But, yes, I will and I found out that simply saying “stone forest” produced a ticket. Finding the right gate for the Stone Forest was easy, but no bus actually left until 1:00. I still thought I would get to see something, particularly as the bus goes there directly by expressway. Hah! The expressway is funded by tolls: to collect tolls, you need tollgates. There were two between the East Bus Station and the Stone Forest (one was a mere 500 metres before the forest): each had the traffic backed up for 3 – 4 km. My estimation of when we would arrived kept being put back, but it was nearly 4:00 before I was off the bus.

Luckily I was able to work out that there were two more buses back to Kunming – at 5:00 and at 6:00. Unluckily, I found out that it is about a 4 km walk from where I was into where the karst formations began to cluster. So, after a wander around and a rather nice bacon fried rice I gulped down, I caught the 5:00 bus back to town.

Of course, going back, I couldn’t help but notice that the traffic was flowing easily both ways, with no hold ups at the tollgates. But my day was not quite done yet: I still had to contend with the #22 bus (I did try the metro, but it is not yet complete, and only runs further East, to the airport, at this stage). To be honest, I am no longer sure the #22 bus back exists. I found the right stop. I’d say that at one point, up to a hundred people were waiting for the #22 – some could obviously go by a different bus, but when a bus with the magic numbers finally turned up, thlere were a good 50 people waiting, and they’d been waiting for a long time. So, there was an altercation – the driver got extremely rude and shouty, and stopped a lot of people getting on the bus: I thought it was because they had shouted at him. It turns out that what he was shouting (I deduce this from later events, not a miraculous uptake of Chinese language skills) was “This bus says it is a #22 but it is not: I am going somewhere different”. I got on with about 6 others: at least the bus did go into Kunming, and thanks to my fruitless walk around, I knew where I was. Only then did it dawn on me that he was not actually letting people off – I stood up near a bus stop, but was ignored.

So, it was about 9:30 I finally made it back to the hostel, dinner plans ruined (but that’s OK because I had discovered that to stay warm in my frozen room, pot noodles helped).

I have nothing bad to say about the rest of my time in Kunming or a subsequent fleeing visit to change trains, save to say that Kunming had one final sting to administer: I took some money out during that fleeting visit and have now found out that this transaction has been duplicated: apparently I took precisely the same amount out several hours after I left.

Next post = nice Kunming

Posted by NZBarry 22:09 Archived in China Comments (0)

Zigong: Salt and Dinosaurs

sunny 16 °C

It is a bit over 1100 km between Chengdu and Kunming: China is presently building a superfast rail track which will see you there in 4-5 hours but at the moment, it can take anywhere between 14 and 23 hours, depending which train you take. I can certainly see the gains in efficiency from the faster train, but there is quite a cost - these fast tracks involve lots of tunnels and viaducts so that it runs pretty flat and the bends are turned into very gentle curves. The older tracks are often only a single track, so you have to wait for the up train, and they run with the environment, so there will be the occasional hill or a sequence of twists to get round one, with tunnels and aqueducts being used when there really is no alternative. I have to say I prefer this sort of train - the fast ones seem to be more about transport than travel.

Not that I did the whole trip in one hit: I had a very important date with a salt mine and some dinosaurs, in a sweet city called Zigong, a mere 258 km down the line on the Fuxi River (yet another Yangtze tributary). I opted for the 10:00 a.m start as I didn't want to get up too early and was in Zigong mid afternoon. The train followed the river very closely, just a few metres above it. The area seemed to involve a lot more of the old-style intensive farming that has gone on for centuries than other areas I have seen - terraces not much bigger than a croissant cascading down to a rice paddy, with each terrace having several different postage stamp sized crops. Dirt footpaths provided access to all areas, and I saw a number of farmers out their with their hoes - a hard slog, but it seemed to be paying off in that the houses tended towards being quite modern brick places, often with a couple of storeys.

In Zigong, I had rather a nice hotel so I decided for once to dine in: they fed me leather for dinner. Not meat as tough as leather, but actual leather. They had a nice Western style restaurant with English menu but I thought that since I was in China, I would eat in their Chinese banquet hall: they evidently didn't quite expect that, and put me in an antechamber off to the front, and brought me pictures of the food on an IPAD. One dish looked good - strips of meat surrounded by a ring of broccoli: the waitress could tell me it was beef and spicey, and that was about it. The only feature the dish that turned up shared with the photo was the ring of broccoli; there was then a moat of chili sauce and a pile of minced up stuff (I detected garlic, but that was the only taste I could identify) in which there were grey strips of something - eating revealed them to be very tender (so obviously marinated for some time) strips of cow skin (or, as we call it, leather).

On the whole, I liked Zigong - on my side of the river, there was quite a strip of flat land on which they had built a new area of the town - an odd combination of home improvement stores, kareoke bars, the local government office and the Zigong library. Across the rver was the city proper, just a few streets of high density retail running along the spine of the hill, with lots of housing and eating places on the hillside facing the river and tunnels to get through the hill. Along bits of the river, there are said to be lots of historical tea shops - I don't know if the one I saw was historical or not


Something like two hundred million years ago, this area was the roaming ground of dinosaurs, yet somehow no-one seemed to notice until the 1980's (I find this particularly odd given that the other reason this area is important is for its mining) - since then, they have excavated the remains of something like 200 dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes over a 50 square kilometre area. In the late 1980's, the Zigong Dinosaur Museum



was established, which has a few exhibits devoted to explaining the life style of the dinosaur and some replicas wandering around outside



but the main feature is the collection of actual dinosaurs. There is one local fellow, Szechuanosaurus Zigongensis


but the rest are presumably not just found in this area (I didn't keep a record of their names, sorry) but was impressed with just how mighty some of these fellows were.




Then, at the other end of the scale, you have this




The thing that impressed me about this excavation site (the museum is built right over it) is how densely packed the remains must have been - there's a lot of stuff in this one little area


Now, Zigong's other claim to fame is for its salt (there was something about a particular tree but I paid no attention). According to Chinese tradition, salt is incredibly important for one's health (including mental and spiritual) and for a balanced life: they have been sourcing salt for around 8,000 years - initially by evaporating lakes, then the ocean but then they found underground salt. The first technique was a bit clumsy, just your normal well and a bucket, but then they developed something called percussion drilling. None of my explorations in Zigong left me with a clear idea of what that is, but the internet has come to the rescue - essentially the twisting of the drill bit is aided by having the dril bit pound the rock or earth in order to assist its progress.

It is said that the best salt comes from Sichuan and the best in Sichuan comes from Zigong (I actually tried to buy some, but could only find bath salts (but maybe that was its traditional use)). There is still a functioning well, the Sanghai well, in Zigong - when it was first dug, at about 1,000 metres, it was the deepest well in the world. I was hoping to find it but came across it accidentally - the bus from the dinosaur museum stopped outside. Unfortunately, it was actually closed for renovation while I was there, so I never got to see it in action. There are four main components to the saltwell - the derrick which houses the drill bit, the buffalo drive unit, the well from which the salt brine is extracted and then the area where the brine is boiled in order to extract the salt. In a nice piece of luck, they also discovered natural gas while looking for salt: that is used to burn off the brine. The equipment at Sanghai all looks as it is: something developed hundreds of years ago.





There were some engravings on the wall to illustrate saltmining here, which I did find a little helpful



In town, there is also the official Zigong Salt Industry History Museum, which told the story of salt and its various methods of extraction, noting that the 20th century had mechanised this process dramatically, so that places like Sanghai are now of historical interest only. The museum is in an old guildhouse




so I was glad to have the chance to properly nose about the building as much as the museum, which was essentially a bunch of artifacts and a couple of models - a salt well and a more modern salt factory.





I had an evening train to catch, so after wandering around the museum area and another look at Zigong town, I plonked myself down in one of the teahouses and read - for a mere 6 yuan, they brought me a thermos of hot water and tea leaves and left me to it (unlike what happened in a fancy tea place at the dinosaur museum - they brought me a list of teas (in Chinese) but I could not work out what to order so went away empty-handed).

Posted by NZBarry 20:26 Archived in China Comments (0)

Chongqing: A Taste of New Zealand(!)

rain 12 °C

This will be a fairly short post, to wrap up my last day in Chongqing. The plan was to go over to the People's Square and explore the Three Gorges Museum, which turned out to be a longish walk away, not helped by the fact that it was actually raining (the first I have seen). I had some sort of problem with buying an umbrella from a street vendor, their products seemed curiously flimsy and rather garish in colour, so I stubbornly insisted to myself that I'd get one from a proper shop or not at all and, besides, it couldn't rain for ever (luckily, it didn't). Nonetheless, when I found this shop cunningly concealed under a hill


I went in. I don't know whether to admire Walmart for doing its best to be hidden, or be annoyed with it for daring to locate itself beneath the People's Square. I have to say, they don't look much like a Walmart store inside, much more like a typical Chinese supermarket, which often have a range of other stuff (clothing, bags, electrical, umbrellas...) alongside their fresh food and grocery items. Before hitting the museum, I noticed a bakery - and I was in luck, it was one of the few that have this really dangerously bad for you to eat thing - it is sort of like a cro-nut, but is in the shape of a twist. Approaching the museum, I was quite impressed by this building, which was entirely lacking in identification


It is the Chongqing People's Government building, according to google, sitting alongside the People's Park - which has the "Great Hall" or "People's Auditorium" at one end


and the Three Gorges Museum at the other




I was more than a little surprised to see this as I entered (as few people who have spoken to me know where New Zealand is and I bet there are fewer back home who will have heard of Chongqing)


Sure enough, there was a big collection of tiki, mere and adzes along with descriptions and examples of NZ greenstone





The locals seemed genuinely interested in looking at these items - there were quite a few in this part of the museum, and they were taking their time. I, in turn, went and looked at their stuff. Being the Three Gorges Museum, there was a lot of information about the Gorges and the Dam, with exhibits being set out to show what life on the river






or the hills would be like









That bed looked very impressive, and I couldn't quite work it out, but it looked like those raised panels actually fold down, and close the bed off altogether.

In Sichuan and the neighbouring Yunnan, there is a hugely diverse range of tribes - a floor of the museum was devoted to identifying the arts and crafts of the various ethnic groups associated with the Three Gorges: I think just seeing the different clothes worn by these groups gives an idea of how many there are (or, more accurately I suspect, were)




Going back, I managed to get a bit lost: I could never get really lost, as I was walking along the river bank and had a metro line above me, but the plan was to go to the railway station to sort out my onward ticket, but I didn't know quite where it was. Eventually, I gave up walking and hopped on the metro. I'd been in last night to try to get tickets to my next destination but, apart from a train getting in at 1:14 a.m. could not find the trains the internet was telling me existed. My new helper could not either, so I gave up and got myself a ticket on the fast train to Chengdu, where I overnighted and then started my trip south.

Posted by NZBarry 09:55 Archived in China Comments (0)

Chongqing: New and Old

sunny 15 °C

Across the road from my hostel there is a shopping mall, so new that it only has about half of its shops tenanted. That mall is on the edge of Jiefangbei Pedestrian Street - a somewhat misleading name, as the central few blocks of Chongqing have been turned into a pedestrianised plaza, out of which numerous tall banks, hotels and other commercial buildings sprout alongside squat shopping malls. The key selling point of this area is that there are 3,500 shops. I did take a walk through but didn't find that it had anything at all to offer me, with one exception, It did surprise me that in Communist China, there would be such an aggregation of high end consumer brands - there were Gucci, Rolex, Versace, Ermenegildo Zegna, Dior ... shops all rubbing shoulders with each other and shouting out their presence with large neon signs. Funnily enough, the thing that I liked was right at the very beginning of my walk - a branch of a chain of Chinese restaurants called UNCLE, which provided English menus, decent food and chilled beer (very rare in this part of China to find the beer cold).

But then I went up to Ciqikou, which is the Chongqing version of an ancient town and came away feeling absolutely delighted. Although a lot of the shops were obviously just selling to the tourist market, one thing that made it better than other ancient towns I have visited is that it is not a recently manufactured one. It was originally set up around 900 years ago as a place in which porcelain was made (it is on the banks of the Jialing River, which would no doubt have been helpful for that trade). I don't know how many of the original buildings are still standing (not a lot, I suspect) but the town like any other town, has just gone through a process of natural regeneration. I think the pictures will largely tell the story of my visit - once again, I found myself the centre of attention from a couple of groups of young women (I *think* they were late teens or early 20's), wanting to have my photo but also to find out where I was from, and how I was doing - it made me think these girls are kind of cool, the way they're willing to just approach a complete random (particularly an old and hairy one!).

So anyway, my photos are in three basic groups - here are some general shots of the streets of Ciqikou, starting near the metro and going down to the river:











On my walk, I encountered a panda, and right near the end found a hostel that would have been really cool to have stayed in (not that I was in any way not happy with where I was staying, but this one backed on to the river)



There were a couple of historic spots - Xin's Variety Shop was used as a means of communications between the people in prison (they are just across the tracks and up the hill from Ciqikou) and the outside world and a central point in the underground resistance (I think the fellow standing outside is supposed to be Xin, but there is nothing to identify him)



and an old guild house which has been turned into a sort of museum (its exhibits took the form of placards and photos rather than anything that would make for a good photo, except for the entry).


My second group of photos is of the various foods I saw as I walked around - many not identifiable. I only actually ate one of the foods pictured: those who know me will probably be able to work out which.










That last fellow was a real showman, keeping up a non-stop patter as he made his rotis (starting with a small ball of dough which had to be stretched out - he'd throw the dough in the air as part of that process) but no matter how busy, no-one seemed to be able to get near his stand without him noticing, as might be obvious from the far from surreptitious photo I took of him. As I was leaving the area, I came across the sweetest little coffee shop, just a couple of tables and a couch, and the most lovely of ladies running the place. She made me a pour over filter coffee, at my table, but doing it properly - just putting a little water in at a time, let it do its work, then pouring a little more. As she did so, she talked me through the types of beans used, the fact that she had roasted them herself and generally chatted. As a wee amusement, she provided a slice of lemon with coffee grounds and sugar: you roll up the lemon and suck through its contents. Oh, and the coffee was great. I was a wee bit surprised to walk over the brow and find a whole bunch of other coffee shops - I knew about the 100 or so tea shops in the area, but not the coffee.




The theme of my third group of photos is simply colour:






Posted by NZBarry 08:35 Archived in China Comments (0)

Chongqing: A Tale of Two Prisons

sunny 15 °C

I said I was not unhappy to get off in Chongqing, but my arrival there turned out to be a little daunting. I had booked a hostel and had precise directions as to how to get from a particular metro station to the hostel, but nothing else. The plan had been to use the internet on the cruise to fill in the details but the cloud cover was so bad, the satellite internet had been turned off. So, I got off at the dock with no idea where to head: there was a bus stop with just the one bus line serving it, so I had to hope it went somewhere useful. It did, sort of: the central railway station, but the only visible metro line was an elevated one going across the river and no stop in sight.

The thing about Chongqing is that the main city is high on a ridge (which runs between two rivers) but the railway station is essentially at the river level: I was faced with a cliff face, with the city at the top, and the only way I could see to get up was a zigzaggy street, which did have sets of steps to provide shortcuts – it was a long way up carrying my luggage. Of course, had I done the research, I would have found out that the longest escalator in Asia runs from the railway station to the metro station at the top of the cliff.

But eventually, I found the hostel, and I have to say it (the Greenforest) is one of the sweetest hostels I have ever stayed in. From the outside, it looked like nothing – it occupied the fourth floor of a fairly shabby apartment building


– but inside, they had done wonders. I had my own room, but spent most of my time in the communal area, having a couple of beers of an evening, sharing the space with the nice people who ran it and other guests, simply because it was so welcoming.


I had no particular reason for coming to Chongqing, it was just where the boat stopped, but ended up enjoying my time here greatly. In terms of modern Chinese history, it is a tremendously important place – it was up in the hills (Gele Mountain) that Chiang Kai Shek (another fellow I learnt about in school - he fled to Taiwan and established the Republic of China there) had set up HQ for his Kuomintang, so the civil war of the 1930’s-40’s that led to the Communist Party taking control was centred here. The KMT had a branch rather euphemistically called the Military Statistics Bureau, which was really a system of prisons for political prisoners: I visited two of them.

The larger, Zhazidong, housed about 300. It looks quite nice, until you notice the barbed wire , bars on the windows and sentry boxes







There were 16 or so rooms, furnished in quite a spartan fashion



One of the rooms was used to “torment” the prisoners in order to obtain their confessions, using this sort of equipment




These were all Communist party members, or at least suspected of being members, who are now honoured as martyrs – most of the rooms featured pictures and stories of their occupants


I say martyrs, because in 1949, they came to a terrible end: “secret agents massacred all the prisoners” and set fire to the buildings – 15 managed to escape through a hole in the wall. The other prison, Baigongguan, was a different sort of prison, and must have been used to house the elite prisoners (and at one point housed US military officers, who were working with the KMT). It is a villa built by a warlord, and rather nice. Here, the prisoners were not tormented – they were “queried”.




But, again, its inhabitants were all murdered in November, 1949. At various points around the area, small fields have been set aside to commemorate these martyrs



This was a pretty sobering day for me, but there was one brief moment of amusement – they were using dogs to track prisoners, but the Chinese dogs either died or ran away, so an important contribution from the Americans was to bring 25 police dogs over. The first order of business was then to teach these dogs to eat rice.

As I was walking out of this area, I came across this:




it is the House of Memories, also erected to commemorate the revolutionists and martyrs who fought against the KMT. One thing that did hearten me was to learn that while this civil war was under way, the Japanese seized the opportunity to attack, and actually had control of Chongqing for a while, under a “puppet” “traitor” governor. The KMT and Communist Party were able to suspend their differences for a while, unite to repel the Japanese, and then carry on with their civil war.

Posted by NZBarry 07:51 Archived in China Comments (0)

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