“Welcome to China” (as the Olympic-related expression goes). I was so excited to be here! And, instantly shocked by the fact when Kunming seems….pretty much like Perth. Or, even newer and wealthier? But everything IS still very Chinese!
China and India frequently get grouped together in articles and discussions about geo-politics and economic globalisation, but goodness they couldn’t seem more different. China instantly feels more like Japan – clean, new, wrapped in plastic, but even more chilled out. Even the honking is gentle, and the silent electric bikes could not be further from the deafening, polluting motorbikes that dominate the Indian cities.
My first days in China were spent at the fantastic Cloudland hostel. With a lovely little park nearby, I was pretty happy with my first real ‘backpackers’ hostel’ since….Bucharest. Wi-fi, nice beds, clean showers, washing machines…it was all so nice and relaxing. It also happened to be very near a massive Walmart. Oh well, can’t have everything perfect.
I avoided the Walmart, instead eating at little food stalls with tofu and rice my staple. The following days were spent visiting the lakes, temples and surounding hills. The first temple I visited (‘Bamboo’) was a delight – clean, beautiful, quiet, and I shared an early morning meal with the few monks before the rest of the tourists rolled in. I was so happy to be allowed to take photos everywhere inside the temple, which was absolutely not allowed anywhere in India.
By the third or fourth temple, however, I realised that these aren’t really ‘temples’ rather tourist attractions that just look exactly like a temple. Few people worship here, they were all re-built in the last few years, are guarded by the military, and are more a monument to a spiritual tradition than home of it.
That is not entirely fair to suggest this is not a good thing, as the number of people who say they are religious in China has (according to National Geographic) tripled in the last decade. So, people are coming back to it. Jus t what I saw felt a bit cynical.
But what the temple experience shows is that China just sort of decides to do things, and does it. Like, ‘we should fix that temple’ and the next thing you know there are twenty carpenters creating roof structures that I just presumed couldn’t be made anymore. In the way they seem to do what they put their mind to, it actually reminds me of Sweden. Though the Swedes I met at the uber-cool Swedish-Chinese arts space/cultural centre/bar disagreed with my comparisons ; )
The other cultural link is the eucalypts. Not content with covering India, the old Australian blue gums have been in China since 1896. I saw the first one ever planted, in a park outside Kunming, and can not believe how much they dominate the landscape here! And for those not well-versed in ecology and the problems of weeds and invasive species – it is probably NOT a good thing.
After all that, I really, really like Kunming, and could well imagine myself living here. Sure, the military parading and synchronised dancing that signals the opening of shops in the city is a bit weird, but the synchronised Tai Chi happening ten metres away is GREAT!.
Apparently Kunming is one of the more relaxed cities in China. Having said that, ten years ago there were apparently ‘no cars’, whereas now it is a modern city like any other in Europe or Australia. Who knows what it will be like ten years from now? Perhaps the new infrastructure China builds each year (equivalent to everything that exists in Australia right now) will get built there. Perhaps more of the power stations (the equivalent of the whole of the UKs generating capacity, each year) will get located nearby?
Well, to get a sense of what it is like now, check out more of the Kunming photos here.
Actually, I checked, and the photos there show nothing of what it is like – it’s mainly photos of cool aspects of the temples. But, take a peek anyway.