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20 December 2009

Matt Schiavenza’s Kunming: Optimus Prime China

By Neil

Author: Matt Schiavenza, China Hotels

Kunming transformed his China experience from hyper-urban anonymity to laid-back diversity, giant kites and all. He might just stay a while…

California native Matt Schiavenza has lived in China since 2004. After living in Fuzhou and Lianyungang, Jiangsu, he moved to Kunming in 2007, where he’s been working, blogging and studying Mandarin ever since.

In August 2007, he started Matt Schiavenza: A China Journal, joining China expats like Ryan McLaughlin, Chris Waugh, Josh Garner, Brendan O’Kane, Ben Ross, Andy Best, Josh Summers, Mark Vranicar and Jonna Wibelius in creating a vibrant corner of the blogosphere where anythying and everything concerning life and travel in China is up for discussion.

We’ve been reading Matt’s blog for several years now, and recommend those headed to Yunnan check it out to get a taste of the laid-back vibe of China’s outdoor adventure and backpacker heaven.

Here, Matt fills us in on some of the local-flavor fun that Kunming residents get up to in their spare time: kiting, biking, drinking beers at The Box, learning Mandarin, lounging with Yunnan-grown coffee at Salvador’s, swapping tales, catching live music… all while taking time to get out of town and hit spots like Tiger Leaping Gorge, Dali, Yuelong Snow Mountain and Lijiang. Sounds good to us!

* * *

I had been in Kunming less than a month when I first discovered The Box. Located on Wenhua Xiang, an alley near Yunnan University, The Box is a hole-in-the-wall café that functioned as a study lounge, pizza house, and pub. I had walked past it hundreds of times without noticing it: there was no sign, after all. One day, posted on the window someone had scrawled on a piece of scratch paper: Vietnam Coffee: 8 yuan. That was enough to pull me in.

I took a seat near the front door, taking advantage of the sunshine. The only other customer that afternoon was a well-built foreigner in his 30s, sipping a Tsingtao and working away on his laptop. He looked up and said hello.

“How long have you been here?”

“Got here a few weeks ago. You?”

He chuckled, and said: “since ‘97.”

I was startled. In China, the tenure of expatriate residency typically ranges from six months to three years. As someone entering my third year, I felt like a real lifer: a “China hand,” if you will. But since 1997? That’s an eternity.

We carried on the conversation, going over the usual questions. Naively, I assumed that he was either a teacher or a student. After all, most foreigners outside of the major cities are. Not Matti. “I am a freelance graphic designer, and I do sand sculptures. Oh, and once a year, I help run a 4×4 off-road competition in southwest Yunnan.”

Soon I realized that for Kunming, his experience was hardly exceptional. His friend Mike, who arrived later, told me he manufactured hemp products. Another man was a self-made millionaire who ran non-religious charities in the nearby countryside. A couple from New Zealand had recently opened Kunming’s only karate school. All were well-traveled, and all had chosen to base themselves in Kunming for no other reason than they enjoyed it.

I had spent my first two years in China living in faceless coastal cities, and the expatriates I encountered there typically huddled together like soldiers dispatched to a remote outpost. I recalled once being invited to a “foreigner-only” brunch, an opportunity for embittered Westerners to complain about China without the inconvenience of dealing with actual Chinese people. In Kunming, this seemed impossible: most of those I had met at The Box had come to terms with China, learned Mandarin, and mingled easily with the locals.

Matti epitomized this spirit. On a subsequent meeting, he asked: “would you be interested in doing a bit of kiting?”

“Sure,” I replied, compulsively. Why not?”

“Alright. Meet me here tomorrow at 2:30. Bring your bike, sturdy shoes, and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.”

“OK,” I said, wondering why sturdy shoes and ragged clothes were necessary for the seemingly benign activity of kite flying.

The next afternoon, we set out from The Box, following Matti’s lead. We rode past the lake and were soon onto a four-lane highway heading west out of the city. The posh lakefront houses and smart shops soon gave way to crumbling apartment blocks and smoke-belching factories. My bike, a simple one-speed I had purchased at a second-hand market, had trouble negotiating the gravelly road. At one point, Matti stopped in front of a car dealership and asked, “You ever watch Transformer’s as a kid?”

“Um, yeah,” I replied, unsure what prompted his question.

“Recognize him?”

I looked up and saw a towering, massive statue of Optimus Prime. It had to be thirty meters tall. It appeared to serve no function, and I couldn’t understand why the owner of that particular Toyota dealership chose to adorn his property with an icon of American pop culture.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” he said, and I nodded, wondering what other surprises were in store.

The road narrowed and before long we had entered a village. We were only eight kilometers outside of Kunming, yet cycling through the crowded streets I felt we had entered China’s distant past. Bronzed farmers pulled wheelbarrows full of fruits and vegetables, while children shouted hello as we cycled past. None of the trappings of urban China: the cell-phone shops, supermarkets, or karaoke bars, existed in the village. The only motorized vehicles were three-wheeled tin cans, honking their horns at the obstructing pedestrians.

“How did you find this place,” I asked Matti, once we had traversed the village and emerged back on a main road.

“When I first moved here, I used to take my bike out on weekends and try to get lost. One day, I rode past these open fields and later, when I got into kiting, found that they were the perfect place to fly.”

Upon arriving at the field, we hoisted our bikes onto a narrow ditch and locked them to each other. Matti opened his pack and took out two kites, and suddenly I understood: these weren’t your grandfather’s kites. They were huge, each the size of parachutes, and contained several strings and handlebars. Walking into the middle of the field, Matti flicked some grass in the air to gauge the wind. Deeming it sufficient, he took out the smaller of the two kites and flung it in the air. Within a minute, he was lifted off the ground a few feet and skidded along the grass before releasing the handlebars. I was pleased I took his advice to wear good shoes.

Being a newbie, it took me about 15 minutes before I started getting the hang of it. In a strong wind, controlling a big kite requires quite a bit of upper body strength, and after a half-hour I noticed my biceps were aching. I had also acquired a strawberry on my left knee from an abrupt fall.

Some of the farmers stopped and watched, and it dawned on me that seeing two foreigners in the countryside participating in an unusual sport did not happen every day. After an hour or so, exhausted, we sat on the grass and chugged from our water bottles. The weather was perfect: warm and dry with a slight breeze. I wondered idly whether it’d be possible to camp there.

Safely back in Kunming, we went (where else?) straight to the Box for a celebratory beer. A mixture of Chinese and foreign patrons were there, some eating panzerotti- a calzone like pizza appetizer introduced by an visiting Italian student. The sun was still blazing, but, tempered by Kunming’s altitude, the temperature remained pleasant. A group of European students wandered in, and indulged me while I practiced my rusty Italian with them. I pinched myself: am I in China? We were only a couple thousand kilometers away from Beijing and Shanghai, but the difference at that moment appeared immeasurable.

As Matti and I nursed our beers, I mentioned how Kunming seemed a world apart from the rest of the country. “Absolutely,” he said. “You can walk out your front door and get the full experience: the noise, the noodle stands, the smiling children, the neon signs, but where else in this country can you skip out of town and go kiting at a moment’s notice? And then come back to The Box for a cold beer and a pizza. That’s why I live here.”

Suddenly, the prospect of spending ten years in Kunming didn’t seem so strange at all.

More about Kunming

For the vast majority of travelers who venture to southwestern China, Kunming represents a convenient transit point more than a destination of its own. At first glance, visitors can hardly be blamed for their oversight: Kunming’s wide boulevards, glistening new shopping malls, and ersatz architecture bear an unflattering resemblance to most other Chinese cities.

Yunnan Province, of which Kunming is the capital, is known for its horticulture, blissful rural scenery, and fabulous outdoor activities. Why bother idling in what seems like just another Han-dominated concrete jungle?

The Chinese dub Kunming “the city of eternal spring” and while the description certainly exaggerates actual conditions, Kunming is indeed blessed with some of the best weather in all of China. Situated at 1,960 meters above sea level, Kunming avoids the suffocatingly hot summers that plague the rest of the country.

Even in the city’s hottest months (typically April and May), sightseers can walk comfortably around the city without worrying about excessive sweat or dehydration. If you’ve ever trudged around Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou during the hot season, Kunming offers a cool and welcome respite.

Likewise, Kunming’s subtropical latitude keeps winter temperatures pleasantly mild. As late as mid-December, a light sweater or windbreaker will suffice for even the most climate-sensitive traveler. Even during the coldest days of the year, the weather rarely prohibits outdoor activity, a significant reason why Kunming residents enjoy a quality of life unusual in Chinese urban settings. Mix in relatively light pollution, ample sunshine, and an abundance of nighttime stars, Kunming’s physical environment is conducive to a healthy lifestyle unlike anywhere else I’ve stayed in China.

While travelers flock to Yunnan for the very reasons I’ve described, most believe they must venture far beyond the city limits in order to begin their trip in earnest. This is not so. For even within Kunming proper, a wide variety of athletic, tourist, and cultural options exist.

For the nightlife set, early Saturday mornings may not seem like an ideal time for an excursion. Nevertheless, those who manage to drag themselves out of bed will be rewarded by a bike adventure guided by the proprietors of the Xiong Brothers Bike Shop. Located near the front gate of Yunnan University, the Xiong brothers run Kunming’s best-respected bicycle establishment and can rent state-of-the-art mountain and road bikes for 40 yuan per day.

Each Saturday morning at 9, the Xiong Brothers set out on a full-day journey into the nearby countryside, encompassing as many as 90 kilometers of rural terrain. Although the regulars tend to be experienced riders and very fast, they always make sure that the slower participants are getting along fine. In addition, they carry tools with them in case anyone should require a repair along the road. At lunch, the party stops and eats an authentic Chinese meal cooked at a local restaurant, costing as little as 10 yuan per person. Back by evening, you’ll have explored the countryside, gotten a great workout, and met some wonderful locals all in the course of a single day. At 50 yuan (bike rental plus lunch), you can’t really ask for a better bargain than that.

Even the most physically active traveler needs a bit of rest, and Kunming knows how to relax as well as any major city in China. For most expatriates, the main areas of recreation are the streets surrounding Yunnan University and Green Lake Park. After an invigorating bike ride, you’ll have definitely deserved a drink. I’m partial to Salvador’s Coffee House, an American owned café/restaurant located on the intersection of Wenlin Jie and Wenhua Xiang.

Salvador’s extensive and unique menu makes a mockery of what passes as “Western” food in China. At any given moment, you could be practicing your Chinese while munching on sun-dried tomato bagels or homemade tortilla chips. Salvador’s also makes its own ice cream, wheat rolls, and veggie burgers. If cocktails suit your tastes, Salvadors’ happy hour will not disappoint. A double gin and tonic goes for 16 yuan, but be prepared: the staff is famous (infamous?) for their generous pours.

Bagels, barbeque sauce, and falafel aside, you didn’t come to China to eat foreign food, did you? Fortunately, Kunming boasts a wide array of Chinese restaurants, but what makes the city unique is its breadth of ethnic minority cuisine. Roughly half of China’s fifty-five ethnic minority groups call Yunnan Province home, and in the provincial capital authentic restaurants are everywhere.

The Dai minority, based in southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region, are famous for delicious fare that combines elements of Chinese and Thai cuisine. I never miss an opportunity to order pineapple fried rice, which is served in (of course) an actual fresh pineapple. Located in Kunming’s north near the Carrefour, the local Dai restaurant is well-appointed with an authentic design, while the waitresses wear traditional Dai costumes. Where else in China, or for that matter, the world, can you munch on chips and salsa and then traditional Yunnanese cuisine in the space of two hours?

Compared to a city like Shanghai, Kunming’s nightlife won’t bowl you over with its sophistication and grandeur. Then again, it won’t leave you with a significantly lighter wallet, either.

On weekend evenings, I often start out with a trip to the Hump, one of Kunming’s better-established guesthouses. Located in Jinbi Square in the city center, the Hump has a rooftop bar/restaurant that is an ideal place to chill out, meet fellow travelers, and even gaze at the stars (a rarity in urban China).

Within walking distance you’ll have access to a large number of discos and bars, some of which feature an international array of DJs spinning anything from 80s-vintage Michael Jackson to the latest throbbing techno beats.

Should a quieter evening on the town appeal, the Nordica Art complex often has live jazz and folk performances as well as several art galleries featuring both Chinese and international works. At no time will taxi fare to any of these places exceed 15 yuan.

Of course, other cities in today’s rapidly developing China can claim a broad range of dining, drinking, and cultural options. Yet while cities like Beijing and Shanghai are attractive for their historical or financial opportunities, Kunming attracts people with its promise of a high quality of life at reasonable prices.

While those on expense accounts can certainly find ways to spend their largesse, more budget-oriented travelers can indulge in a tremendous amount of activities without paying through the nose. In addition, Kunming lacks the frenetic pace of the coastal metropolises, so whiling away a few days here won’t leave you with a headache and constant runny nose.

If you have a week or two devoted to Yunnan, you’ll definitely want to get out of Kunming: after all, Dali, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri-La, and Xishuangbanna are fantastic destinations right in the capital’s backyard. The city also has visa services for onward travel to several Southeastern Asian countries, and Kunming’s international airport offers direct flights to cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, and Hanoi as well as destinations within China. But if you find yourself with a few days to spare in Kunming, don’t despair: even those that have “seen it all” will leave with a smile on their face and some memories to share.

Read more of Matt’s stories and musings about life as a young, American expat living in Kunming on his blog, Matt Schiavenza: A China Journal.

How to get there

Kunming airport services daily flights to most major cities in China, some on an hourly basis. There are even direct flights from Taipei to Kunming now. Check out the full Kunming flights schedule for more info.