We landed in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan state, in the southwestern corner of the red mammoth of China. Only USD 80 a ticket brought us here from Bangkok. The city has only 6 million inhabitants, only one more of China’s mega-cities.
First shock: Communication
Being an independent traveler, uncertainty is your bread and butter and therefore, when arriving in a new country, especially one such as China, we usually book the first nights at our first destination and learn the arrival methods to it. This time we booked a room in a hostel next to the train station, to ease the access. To our surprise, the hostel sent us a message the day prior to our arrival informing that our room is not available anymore. The outrage! Just a day before and now we are left with few and expensive options. If we were to cancel with such a short notice they would charge us for the whole stay! So I contacted Agoda, the booking company and they offered us an apartment on the 25th floor in the middle of the high-end commercial area at a higher price with a full refund on the exceeding price 😉
At the new apartment offered for an extra 5 USD, they offered airport pickup: Like a boss. To our dismay, the pickup never arrived and the owners denied any refund or compensation for the amount paid or the trouble.
Second shock: Language
There’s an inherent beauty in the Chinese language, the symbols are elegant and mystic, and when accompanied by an English translation even fun to try to decipher.
That’s not the case in most places and even in the airport, we found out that English is not spoken – at all.
You can imagine only how to get into the right bus to take you close to the point where another bus will get you close to the apartment, where the cleaning lady let us in speaking to us only in Chinese.
We must have looked so lost that a young couple, freshly returned from the US with a polished English, showed us the way to the second bus, even paying for the ticket, our first respite.
In the afternoon we spent one hour looking for the right mobile phone shop to buy a local SIM, a hard transaction that was conducted purely by a voice-translating app since nobody in the shop spoke a word in English.
Third shock: Our digital life
We live in a digital world, some long time backpackers call themselves digital nomads, we are connected and we find most of the information we need in our smartphones: maps, flights, hotels, restaurants, taxis, fellow travelers, even dates.
You can only imagine how we were handicapped in a blink of an eye when our Google, Maps, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, and Instagram stopped working. The Chinese government takes censorship to the next level and their grip on the digital world is so tight that it’s been known as “The Great Chinese Firewall”.
Don’t worry, the Chinese developed some apps by themselves to cover most necessities. The only problem: They are in Chinese.
Fourth shock: The food
We are not strangers to street food and endeavoring in the treats of local cuisine, we’ve tasted some bizarre food during the last five months, and while Tal’s vegetarian-kosher diet restricts us, we always found something to eat.
Every meal in China involves a new adventure, without an English menu or the capacity to communicate with the waiter, we are left to our own devices: bad OCR translator and hands signs.
It was a matter of time until I found myself eating some unknown inner part of the pork, and Tal having his noodles peppered with minced pork.
First relief: The people
We found out two kinds of interactions with the Chinese: they would totally ignore you (forget about staring looks like in India), you’ll feel non-existent and they won’t even look at you, maybe the kids only. The second kind of encounter is a warm welcoming, curiosity and will to help, this kind of encounter occurs only with English speaking people, no matter how few words they know. With the help of a voice-translating app, they’ll do their best to help.
Second relief: Safety
This is an awkward one: during the last week, we lost a credit card and my e-reader. The first one left in the ATM was rescued with the help of a hostel concierge and got back when we returned to the same bank a week later. My kindle was forgotten in the bus, and Jacky, the owner of the guesthouse made phone calls until he found the driver and got it back home to me. When all your earthly possessions fit in your backpack you get very attached and each one is important. I hope we won’t trust the Chinese honesty and continue spreading our valuables along the way.
Third relief: The quietness
The first thing to strike me when arriving in Kunming’s central area was the quietness, there’s a dichotomy between what the eyes see: bustling streets with cars, buses, people and motorbikes; and the silence broken seldomly by a honk. Motorbikes are all electric and if you don’t watch out you’ll get hit by one, buses run smoothly and the sidewalks are broad and clean. Pedestrians get the priority. On top of that, there are countless new subway lines in construction throughout the city.
Fourth relief: The beauty
The first image that comes to one’s mind when thinking about China is the Shanghai skyline, factories, sweatshops and crowded markets. While those are a big part of the Chinese tourist experience, there are unbelievable beautiful architecture and landscapes to be found here. Which we’ll share on the blog as we go.