Kunming, China: The pleasures and pitfalls of a pipa

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Kunming, China: The pleasures and pitfalls of a pipa

Sometimes, if you don't have a friend in an unfamiliar city to get you off the tourist trail, it helps to have a project which may lead to unexpected places.

So in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south west China, I decided to buy a pipa, a traditional lute-like instrument played by women, coincidentally the most notable being Kunming's own Liu Fang who now lives in Canada.

In a city with 6.5 million souls in the greater area, I had my ridiculous but amusing project: to find an instrument I hadn't even touched let alone was able to play. I thought it might look good hanging on the wall in the lounge, but mostly I just wanted an excuse to explore away from the familiar.

An English-speaker, a rarity, wrote an address on a piece of paper and circled a district on my map, so on a warm morning I strode purposefully along West Dongfeng Road – a main thoroughfare running east-west through the old city centre - in search of my pipa.

Kunming is a crossroad city at the intersection of many cultures (there are 25 ethnic minorities in Yunnan) and powerhouse of the province's economy. But it isn't a destination for foreigners. In my three days I only saw one other European on the streets.

PA260555By chance my project took me past the old-fashioned Provincial Museum with its worn staircases and displays of archeological finds from the 50s when artifacts such as shields and swords from the Dian Kingdom of around 400BC were first unearthed. Peculiar bronze figures had been turning up in the local Bird and Flower Market so researchers descended on nearby Mt Shizhai and started digging, just as the illicit traders had been doing.

But as interesting as the museum is, Kunming's energetic streets are the real attraction

Along Dongfeng sweet potato sellers set up stalls outside high-end shops, discount stores sell in bulk (barrows of jeans at 88 yuan, about $18) and cellphone stores blast local hip-hop and pop. There are shiny shops with odd names (“The Van of Foot” is Footlocker perhaps?) and a glamorous bridal parlour with huge windows which allow passers-by to make spot judgments on the blushing brides within.

The wide footpath was a surge of humanity: the young on cellphones, middle-aged couples hand in hand, the old shuffling, a mentally handicapped man with limbs crippled beyond belief begging from his wooden trolley, children with lollipops . . .

The breeze smelt of dampness, petrol and garlic.

A young woman turns her SUV and despite a turning space the width of paddock manages to drive straight into a wall with a hefty thunk which takes off her front panels. There is a universal “Oohhh” and a cellphone-toting crowd gathers.

I would have happily kept ambling past pop-up fashion shops full of kids with frizzed orange hair or cheap eateries, but the rains came. In sheets.

Dancing for shelter between eaves while checking my map I realised I was lost, and unwittingly had been for an hour. I hailed a cab, showed my paper and the driver turned back toward where I had been. At white-knuckle speed he wove down warrens of crowded alleys and backstreets full of vegetable sellers and fluorescent electronics shops, beneath dirty underpasses and onto wide boulevards. He cheerfully dropped me outside a store full of expensive pianos, electric guitars and drum kits.

Every music store in the row was conspicuously free of staff . . and local instruments.

No pipa? No matter, the rain had stopped. I walked past a forbidding looking military establishment – the guard stiffening as I crossed towards him – and around the corner were impressive army surplus stores (Camouflage net anyone?)

PA270651I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I stopped for noodles at a place where I paid at the door, was lead upstairs to a long empty room . . . and outside the window, between the highrise apartments, was an Olympic size swimming pool where old men were doing laps.

A singer on the stereo sang Tennessee Waltz as a big bowl of steaming noodle was delivered by a nervous young guy reading his cellphone in the other hand. I laughed to myself at the surreal juxtapositions.

I had achieved nothing but had seen things I might otherwise have not. Quite a day, had only cost me about $8 and it was still only noon. I didn't get a pipa, but had something much more valuable.

Tomorrow? Maybe I would try for that ethnic village to the south.

Two days later I saw a banner slung across Dongfeng Road. Despite the mangled syntax it made perfectly good sense: “Stay another while, friends from afar”.


Shopping: With prices on clothes, shoes and electronic goods so ridiculously cheap, you cannot go wrong. Bargaining will be reduced to hand signals and stabbing at a pocket calculator however. The area around the major intersection of West Dongfeng and Zhengyi Roads is recommended for just about everything you need.

PA270661World Horticultural Expo Garden: In the north-east of the city (a $5 taxi ride from the city centre) are these impressive gardens which opened in 1999 and draw visitors from all over the world. A place of tranquility, especially at the top of the cable car which affords a view over the city, the gardens here represent every province in China and numerous countries.

Yunnan Ethnic Villages: Just eight kms south of the city centre beside Lake Dianchi is this scenic spot where the ethnic minorities of the region have established traditional houses and entertain in their colourful costumes. Much less tacky than that sounds, there is a warmth and spontaneity about the people and their cultural performances. Excellent cheap shopping area too.

Stone Forest Scenic Area: Extraordinary. About an hour away by bus, this massive area of strange stone formations covers 350 sq kms and is breathtakingly strange as hundreds of surreal karst formations poke into the air like weird trees in a forest. There are excellent walkways throughout and your camera will work overtime. A must-see. For more see here.

Graham Reid flew to China courtesy of CTS Tours (NZ) and the China National Tourism Office on China Southern Airlines.

For further information on tourism and general travel enquiries about China go to www.chinatravel.co.nz

For specific information on Kunming go to here.

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