Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Month Long Trip to Kunming

Old timers may recall the 700 mile (1150 kilometers) long Sino-Burmese Road used during World War II, a vital transportation route for wartime supplies to China. The Road runs through the mountains from Lashio, Myanmar and ending in Kunming. Today, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province (similar in size to California), is getting popular as the marathoners' training base and as the venue of the international horticultural exhibitions. Population of 30 million people includes members of 24 different ethnic groups, which represents a third of the total population in the province. This diversity is also a draw to visitors. There are a couple of theme parks featuring ethic villages.

Kunming, Shilin, Dali, Er-hai. How lovely their names sound! I yearn to go back. That's where I spent my second summer (1995) after returning to Japan from the U.S. when I retired. The general altitude is about 2000 meters (Approx. 6000 ft), so they are great summer retreats from the heat, even though bordering Laos and Myanmar in the south.

It was during one of my regular commuting flights between the U.S. and Japan that I first heard the name Kunming. The guy who sat next to me was a tall, rugged looking American. He unloaded his backpack before settling down in his seat. I asked him how he found the Japanese Alps. His answer surprised me. "I didn't climb Japan's Alps. I did the Chinese mountains." I continued, "How interesting! Where were you? Which part of China interested you most?" He replied, "Kunming in Yunnan, the city of eternal spring". The name stuck with me.

Later on, I made friends with a Japanese woman who had been to Kunming. She told me that Kunming and its backwoods are just paradise, and that you see exotic butterflies there that continually reflect various colors. She kept sending me articles on Yunnan even after I left for Japan. Then she sent an email about a special tour sponsored by the University of Vermont. I emailed the tour contact person and asked if I could join from Japan. I got the answer that the tour was for U.S. teachers to learn about China, but they could bend the rules. I jumped at the chance!

Vermont and Yunnan are in a sister state relationship and they have been exchanging teachers to learn about each other's cultures. It was at a hotel near Beijing Airport where I was introduced to the members of the group. There were four men and ten women, mostly from Vermont. The exceptions were a man from Connecticut, who became my roommate, and a woman from New Hampshire.

The Yunnan College of Teachers, our host school, had a welcome ceremony and dinner reception on the first day, attended by the College President, the faculty who would teach us various subjects of study for the next three weeks, the corps of interpreters, and staff members in charge of taking care of us, including a microbus chauffeur. That is how the three week "daily routine" project began.

Mornings were for Tai-chi exercise on the rooftop before breakfast and an easy Chinese lesson by Mrs. Wang, plus culture and art class (subject changed daily: calligraphy, brush painting, history, etc). Afternoons were for the extra-curricular programs such as visits to the children's palace (musical training for talented children), a hospital of Chinese medicine and acupuncture, Provincial museum and exhibits and temples in the city (including Yuantong-si, Xishan). Dr. Wu, a young assistant professor who specialized in minority races, accompanied us the whole time for the afternoon projects and he spoke excellent English. One evening he surprised us by taking us to his own apartment. He shared a one room apartment with his wife and a daughter 5 years of age. One curtain separated their bedroom from the others. We found out that other teachers and the chauffeur were living in the same apartment complex. The University operated like a big enterprise with hotels, restaurants, apartments and transportation.

Two weekends were for longer trips. One weekend we took a train to Lunnan Shilin, a geological phenomenon known as a stone forest. It is composed of closely knit outcrops of dark limestone karst. It was such a wide expanse of stone forest that you could easily get lost. Another weekend our chauffeur drove close to 10 hours (on a highway under construction) to reach Er-hai, one of the big inland lakes, famous for its pu-er tea. Rough weather made the lake a wild ocean with choppy waves and we had to wait to cross in order to visit a small minority group (subculture) village.

Our conversation with the villagers, including the village master, was the highlight of the entire trip. They live in their traditional homes on the slope of a hill with narrow roads of crushed rock. They were not bashful and very talkative yet modest. Many children gathered around us. Some female teachers had brought souvenirs for the smaller children and they cheered.

During our stay in Kunming we met a number of different minority groups: Na-Shi zu, Tai zu, Yi zu, Pai-zu, etc. Pai (white) zu did not look Chinese at all. They get special scholarships from the government and are allowed to bear up to three children.

Graduation, or the farewell ceremony, was held over dinner. Each member received a certificate, and a seal that was engraved with our names in Chinese characters.

We flew back to Beijing for one more week at another university hotel. A representative from the Chinese Cultural and Educational Exchange Bureau accompanied us on a city tour as well as a one day excursion to The Great Wall. Since the group was eating only Chinese meals throughout the visit, everyone wanted an American breakfast, but they were disappointed with the quality of it. I enjoyed the Chinese dishes during the trip. My favorite was rice porridge for breakfast.

The month long trip ended at Beijing Airport, where I said goodbye to my schoolmate teachers, and promised to correspond over the Internet.

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