This morning, I woke up on the 32nd floor, looked out of my bedroom window, across the smog that clouds the rising sun, across the skyscrapers, across the building sites, to the mountains in the distance and thought, “My GOD! I’m in China.”
For a child of the Cold War, nothing quite beats arriving in China, stepping behind the bamboo curtain.
And here we are in the bustling, thriving, explosively expanding Kunming, in warm south-western China.
As a city, Kunming is, by Chinese standards, pocket-sized. With a population of around 7 million, it’s slightly less populous than London or New York, but far, far bigger than any other North American or British city. In Chinese terms, it’s a baby. It doesn’t even make their top ten.
China has, perhaps unfairly, a reputation for being a very difficult place to travel. Not just for the language and script difficulties. But for aggression, fraud, scams. Someone told me, in fact, that “China is to Vietnam as Vietnam is to Laos.”
And, as so far with China, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we’re both a bit in love…
It’s been, to be honest, remarkably easy. A transition from rural beauty to industrial powerhouse, overnight.
Though there was the odd hiccup.
We arrived at the airport, y’see, with only Lao kip, a currency about as convertible as the fine notes of Myanmar and North Korea, due to the Lao Politburo’s practically minded habit of setting the exchange rate as it sees fit.
I’d figured that the change place at Wattay airport, Vientiane, would be open. At 5am? Dream on, sister.
At Kunming, I approach the currency exchange place and, optimistically, present my bundle of Lao kip.
Come on! You’re a Communist country too, right, China?
“Nowhere in China will change these,” says the lady, in excellent English.
Never fear! I think.
I find an ATM. It speaks English but spits out my card.
I go to airport information, wave my card at them and sign that I would like to find a place to use it. The machine downstairs speaks English, too. But it is also allergic to my card.
That means we have no money.
And no sleep.
And Z wants to get shot of his backpack.
After getting up at 4am, I’m not really in the frame of mind to try and communicate “FIRST international ATM, THEN this address HERE,” to a Chinese-speaking taxi driver.
Enter the taxi lady. She’s been loitering at the airport door with the other taxi touts asking us if we want a taxi — in a remarkably mellow and non-persistent fashion.
Given that there’s a rank of metered cabs right opposite, it’s an offer, all the same, that has the waft of
Vietnamese taxi scam about it.
Still, she speaks English. “I don’t want a taxi,” I say. “I want an international ATM.”
She trots us across three roads and a building site, through traffic which makes Saigon feel like a walk in the park, and into the business section of the airport.
By way of a thank you, I pay at least double the metered fare for a ride in her mate’s car to the street with the expat bars, and take a card for her tourism business.
We’re in the bright lights of the big city. (These are the ones from our living room window.)
Now, our plan for China was always to start with a month in a flat somewhere, to get a handle on the language and the culture, and not be too overwhelmed.
We were thinking Shanghai.
But then we heard good things about Kunming. It’s where both flights and buses from Laos terminate. It’s a logical starting point for a journey that will take us eastwards. It’s also cheap.
So, Kunming it is.
I find a cafe with wifi and smooth lattes. Z demonstrates, yet again, his ability to sleep any time, any place anywhere.
I log back on to the expat website GoKunming.com, where I’ve been following up on rentals for the last few days. Nothing’s new, so, as I don’t speak Chinese, I call an English-speaking middleman I’ve been emailing. Rick has an expensive, and very lucky, mobile number, full of 8s.
Rick meets us at the bar in a couple of hours — he’s a smart, young guy, graduated in English from Yunnan University, with excellent English, so sharp I can’t help but think of him as Rickaaaaayyy.
We make some small talk, and jump a taxi out to some high-rises on the north end of one of Kunming’s main cross streets, Beijing Lu.
It’s a curious district, so new it doesn’t really have a name. A hundred metres down the road from a bona fide, 100% legit Louis Vuitton store (and, like I said, this isn’t a particularly big Chinese city), there’s folk selling sweetcorn, peaches, pomegranates, grapes, sour plums and roasted sweet potatoes on the street.
Silent but deadly electric motorbikes, fat arsed and heavy with their batteries, cruise down the pavement — and yes, that is the pavement. Z coos over a Porsche hybrid, just one of a range of serious cars.
A scarfed woman carries a baby slung across her back as well-to-do students swish by in vertiginous heels, skinny jeans and lacy tops. An elderly man in a Mao cap scavenges cans and stores them in the basket of his bike, while slick young hipsters head past in skinny jackets and kids in polos race to the gaming arcade.
One side of the street is a wall of neon, yet the centre is a welter of abandoned construction, a Bladerunner mess of steel and cement.
There are buildings going up *everywhere*. All over town.
It’s chaos. Dynamic, crazy, dirty, smoggy, chaos.
We like. A lot. But hell, we liked Manila.
We take the lift to the 32nd floor, and Rick opens the door to the apartment.
“Wow!” says Z. He’s been wanting a skyline for a while, and this is most definitely a skyline. The towering blocks beside us have room enough for us to see the mountains, yet light up the room at night like a disco.
“I guess I’ll just have to get over my vertigo,” I say.
There are two bedrooms, with neat double beds and white linen, and wardrobes. A living room with a sofa, some chairs and a flatscreen TV. A small kitchen. A nice size Western bathroom (when flat-hunting in China, note that Chinese-style apartment means “has squat toilet”). And a little balcony.
All done out in a kind of Chinese IKEA cheap neutral-minimalism which suits me just fine.
It’s a bit further out of the expat bit of town than I’d hoped — probably a mile on the buses that ply Beijing Lu at pace.
But it has wifi. A Western bathroom. Laminate floors. A washing machine. Floor to ceiling windows. Z’s sold.
And all we need to do is dump our stuff, go out for a couple of hours while they clean the place up, and we’re ready to move in.
It’s even easier than finding our little house in the rice fields in Bali.
And for Z, the bedrooms are the height of sophistication.
All that remains, I figure, is to sort out the price. My vertigo will just have to deal.
“2600, right?” I say to Rick, which was the price we’d discussed earlier.
“Yes,” he says. “But the utilities…”
“Utilities?” I say. “They’re extra?”
“Yeah,” he says. He begins to tot things up on his iPhone-alike mobile.
“Hang on, though,” I say. “When I emailed you, I said my price range was up to 2500. And when we talked you said 2600.” (From what I’ve figured out, a 2-bedroom Western style flat in Kunming runs from 2000-2500 yuan per month, or about £200-£250.)
At which point he pulls the neatest switchback I’ve ever heard. “Well, maybe we can discount on the agent’s fee.”
“Agent’s fee?” I say, starting to feel the sleeplessness kicking in, and utterly unwilling to leave.
“Yeah,” he says. “Normally, the agent’s fee is one month’s rent. But because you are only staying one month, we can maybe discount…”
We get it down to 3500 in the end. It’s a good day’s work for Rickaaaay.
And, frankly, I’m happy to pay over the odds for a nice flat on a good road on the first day we arrive with a personable English-speaking middleman on the end of a phone.
And you know what I find HILARIOUS?
Every one of the 100-yuan notes I hand over in this utterly capitalistic transaction has Chairman Mao’s face on it.
It’s an adventure, China. The script makes it so. There are 2500 characters in the Mandarin alphabet, so it’s not like Thailand or Laos where you can puzzle scripts out if you have to, or sweet, short alphabets of 20-something letters like Greek, Russian and Hebrew.
You’re going in, basically, blind. You’re going into a restaurant with a sign you couldn’t hope to read, and picking optimistically from photo menus, with dishes that you have no idea about — it’s only when the Sichuan pepper numbs your lips that you can tell you’re in a Sichuan restaurant.
What with the tones and the range of sibilants — when it comes to “sh” and “zh” and and “tsy” sounds, Mandarin makes Polish look easy — it’s a hard task to be understood.
But it’s exciting, too. From the little things, like figuring out a Chinese washing machine (clue: press the start button and hope), or how to hang out your washing on a 32nd floor balcony when the lines are high above you (clue: put your clothes on coathangers and use the pole to hook them up), to negotiating a trip to the supermarket or buying a mobile SIM card, to, I guess, the bigger things, like exploring properly and getting a handle on the language.
To be honest, a trip to the supermarket is quite the adventure.
And, in some ways, the language side is easier than I’d thought. All the streets have names in Roman script, as well as Mandarin, as do big buildings, banks and brand/chain stores.
We’re both glad we’re here. And once my son gets the telly working, I’m looking forward to some Chinese TV…
Best thing of all? Living up this high is seriously helping my vertigo…