Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chinese New Year in Kunming

What have I done? I'd deliberately planned to come to Southern China, up from Myanmar. Nearly every traveler I met, however, had little good to say about the place. I started thinking of the Indonesian islands until I met another Canadian on a long boat ride up the Irrawaddy river. He gushed about the place and went so far as to build an itinerary for me. Two weeks later I met a Chinese woman and an English guy who confirmed that Yunnan was very much worth visiting. I paid $150USD for my visa and about $500 for the ticket to Kunming.

My guidebook suggested it might be cool in Yunnan, and my traveling friends suggested I might need warm clothes if I went up into the mountain. When I got off the plane I was surprised to see people wearing heavy jackets. The moment I stepped outside, in my sandals and short-sleeve shirt, I was crestfallen. It was indeed cold.

Sucking it up, I grabbed a cab and gave the driver the name of the guest house I wanted (written in Chinese characters by a helpful tourism employee). I arrived at the Hump and met a Chinese fellow on his way in. "You're going to the Hump?" he asked. He then asked if I had a reservation. When I said no, his eyebrows shot up and looked very concerned. Not a good sign.

The Hump is rocking. It's three flights up, just past a bustling restaurant. It has a terrace that overlooks a square in which everyone is celebrating the Chinese New Year. What a great time to be in China. Skyrockets go off every few seconds and the sky is filled with red paper balloons held aloft by a small flame.

The clientele of the Hump are young backpackers drinking, smoking and generally carrying on. At the desk, which is also the bar, I'm asked if I have reservations. The young Chinese man gives me a disappointed look and tells me the place is full. He tells me there's a cheap hotel just down the road and gives me the name in Chinese characters. With my heavy backpack in place, I make my way down the road past the revelers and their fireworks.

I stop at the first hotel I see, a fairly nice one, and show the woman at the desk the note the Hump employee gave me. She starts speaking in Chinese and gesturing. I pantomime that I don't understand but she continues to speak and gesture. I point to the note and make a searching look. Her gestures are as mysterious as her speech so I wave goodbye and hope I run into the guest house further down.

Stopping at a small store, two young guys spot my note and send me right back to the hotel I just came! I smile at the receptionist, point to the note and make sleeping gestures. Her return gestures are as mysterious as before. After some effort, I figure out that the hotel is full. I manage to get her to write down the name of another hotel then have her call to make sure there's a room. Success!

Another ten minutes of hiking. People are lined up on the road launching their fireworks into the air. The cars scream in protest as their automatic alarms are triggered every few minutes.

I arrive at the hotel and note that a room is $35USD. That would get me three nights in Myanmar but I was running out of options.
The desk clerk takes my passport and fills the form and then asks for 266 CNY for the room. I have only fifty but pull out two US twenty-dollar notes. She shakes her head and indicates they only take Chinese currency. I point to the cost of the room in US dollars and gesture at the cash. She shakes her head. Then I point to the currency exchange board and gesture that I want to change the USD for CNY. No good. I ask where I can change she writes down something and points up the street from where I just came. There are no places where I can exchange money up that way.

I leave my bags behind the desk and head back up the previous hotel in hopes they might change money. They don't. I wasn't far from the Hump so I continued walking. Sitting on a step, I spot a Caucasian. He's been working in China few a few years and suggests a much cheaper hotel some distance away, but a short taxi ride. Feeling a bit better, I take the stairs up to the hump two at a time.

The desk staff are not exactly eager to change dollars for Yuan. They'll do it if they have to, but at an appalling rate. Just as I agree, an Englishman taps me on the shoulder and says he'll change it for me. He's planning a trip to Vietnam and thinks he might need it. I tell him I'm pretty sure he won't but would really appreciate his help. He's been working in China long enough to have a bank account and gives me 670CNY for my 100USD. Time to celebrate!

I go back to the Hump's terrace and make my first Chinese purchase: a beer. The fireworks continue and the balloons float up into the night sky. Kunming is really modern. The square is surrounded by neon laden shopping malls, hotels and apartment blocks. It's actually quite attractive, but not what I've come to see. I run into a few young Americans teaching up north. They love the place.

Walking back to the hotel where I left my bags, I'm struck by the fact that the Chinese really know how to celebrate new year. They don't have a fireworks show with carefully orchestrated effects in time with music, they just blow stuff up. Every parking lot is a launch platform from which the residence blast skyrockets into the night. We're not talking about the bottle rockets I remember from my childhood, but honest to god rockets that explode. In every direction, the sky lights up with star bursts.

I pick up my bags at the hotel and take a cab on the street. The Hump workers were kind enough to reserve a room at the Camilla, a budget hotel that provides a free breakfast. Outside, they're launching some of the biggest explosives I've seen all night. The highlight is the firecracker chain. I've set off small ones; they're pencil thin firecrackers as long as your pinky. The hotel is going all out. These firecrackers are larger than shotgun shells and make enough racket to wake the dead.

I'm cold.

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