Yunnan Province, China, Dec 2009

When Rodger had to go to a conference in Kunming, Yunnan province, we jumped at the opportunity to get a first taste of China. Kunming met none of our expectations. Instead of being crowded, chaotic, built-up, polluted and hard work, it turned out to be a very green, spacious, friendly, laid-back and delightful place. Although modern life has firmly taken root, glimpses of traditional architecture, lifestyle and culture are still easily caught in the City of Eternal Spring. English is not widely spoken, which makes the experience all the more authentic, and the locals – a mix of 25 ethnicities – are friendly and helpful when approached but generally getting on with their lives and letting you get on with yours.

One of the city gates Tweets of the feathered kind at the old bird market.

Delivery bikes in the old quarter Scooters rule, silently though, as they are all electric!

Yunnan food is delicious and cheap. The local specialty is Across the Bridge Noodles, best enjoyed in a packed, unheated local hole in the wall where you can concentrate on the flavours and where the steam of broth and human congeniality warm you up. Potatoes also figure large as streetfood. Either fried with various condiments . . .

. . . or baked by a street vendor in his push cart.

Yunnan is famous for its teas, especially the smokey pu err. Countless little teashops are dotted around various neighbourhoods, with barely an inch to move, but jam-packed with cha, and the odd reference to China’s cultural and political history.

Green Lake Park is the heart and soul of Kunming. A maze of walkways, islands, pagodas, plazas, nooks and crannies, teahouses and temples on Green Lake,the park is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating slice of Kunming life. Go for a walk, squat down for a chat with friends, sing, get some exercise, play a musical instrument . . . or just sit in the sun and read quietly.

Seagulls are welcome winter visitors in the park. Feeding them with rubbery baguettes and seeds from the carts is a popular passtime. Whether traditional Chinese or modern ballroom, dancing in the park is BIG. While smaller groups find their niche in picturesque corners, larger concregations take over whole plazas. The sounds of five-tone music and pop mingle freely to create a culturally ambitious, at times rather cacophanous, accoutic background.

Forget DS Light and Gameboys. The name of the game in Kunming is good old board- or card games, from chess to mahjong to Chinese checkers. All you need is a board or a deck of cards, a makeshift table and a folding chair, and all the time in the world, which the locals seem to have plenty of.

Taichi has got to be the number one form of exercise in the park. There are individuals and groups, aspiring beginners and graceful pros, playing the luteparting the horse’s mane, with their bare hands, with swords, with fans. Poetry in motion. Dance with umbrellas, another popular group activity that adds to the colourful mix of life on the lake.

All it takes to get out of the city and into the surrounding hills is a couple of busrides. The Xi Shan Western Hills by Lake Dian have a small network of hiking trails that take you through forests . . . . . . past the lovely Yuangtong Temple (Rodger with his China-bought and -made Northface jacket trying to blend in with the gingko autumn leaves) and up the hill to the carved rocks that are home to the famous Dragon Gate.

It might seem like the cheater’s approach to reaching the top, but the views from the lift are well worth getting a bad hiking reputation. He isn’t the most attractive specimen in the lineup of Buddhist deities, but if you are the God of Longevity looks really don’t matter.

Hi-tech has snuck into the most surprising areas of Chinese culture. The men’s washroom on the Dragon Gate hillside features ultramodern urinals with individual LCD screens (showing a woman playing a string instrument in an autumnal forest setting). Old-fashioned and just what you need after a steep climb: piping-hot Yunnan tea with the obligatory metal thermos for water refills.

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