Connections and spirits abound in Kunming

Flying into Kunming three days ago was a jarring experience. The Yunnan provincial capital, known as the “Spring” city due to it’s subtropical, highland location almost 2,000m high, didn’t offer me a warm welcome. I went from beach weather in Sanya to frigid cold. That aside, I have quickly found warmth in the people and easy-going, mixed culture. Kunming has soul.

An American expat, Kevin, I befriended in Shenzhen quickly plugged me in thanks to the time he spent living here. He put me in touch with an American friend, Charlie, who works at a brew pub called Humdinger. The city has a budding beer-making culture and more pubs are set to open in the near future. Dave and his Chinese wife, Yujia, opened Humdinger (try a pint and homemade pretzel for 25 yuan!) a year ago and also run an outstanding hostel called Lost Garden (60 yuan 3-bed dorm room, 240 yuan single), where I’m staying. The quiet, recently-renovated hostel is in an excellent, central location — off Huanggong Dong Street beside Green Lake Park — a short walk from Humdinger, off Renmin Zhong Road.

After taking the Airport Express No.1 line (25 yuan) to the West Hotel, followed by a short taxi ride, I checked into the Lost Garden and headed over to Humdinger. I braved the cold at Humdinger’s new, outdoor bar to chat with Charlie, and before I knew it, I was tapping into Kunming’s lively expat scene. Charlie took me to his music gig at a Chinese bar and I quickly learned that the foreigners I met came to Kunming on a whim and ended up staying. The city has a year-round mild climate (usually) and unique culture, home to the Yi people and other minorities, at the crossroads of SE Asia, not far from Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

Strolling through Green Lake Park on a Saturday afternoon, you will find large crowds dancing, some in colorful garb. When you get hungry, try Yunnan’s famous rice noodles or minority cuisine (I had a spicy sampler platter of pineapple rice, pork, cucumbers, eggs, and mushrooms, all served on banana leaves at a Dai restaurant). When you get tired, relax at one of the numerous cafés that line the park. Nearby is 1,200-year-old Yuantong Temple (6 yuan admission) and the Bird and Flower Market, where you can shop for souvenirs and walk the old streets (the little alleys off Nanping Street were my favorite).

The city serves as a gateway to the Stone Forest and Lijiang old town — both UNESCO World Heritage sites — for most tourists due to it’s bus/train links. However, I will be using a different mode of transportation when I leave Kunming. Kevin has graciously offered me his motorbike to tour the mountains and valleys of Yunnan!

Visiting Hainan’s fairies without breaking the bank

I had planned to hike one of Hainan’s inland mountains well before I arrived on the island. Initially, it was going to be the tallest provincial peak — Wuzhishan — but I was informed in Haikou that some unfortunate foreigners died there last year so the authorities have since forbid access to foreigners. So I chose Seven Fairy Mountain, which is known for it’s numerous hot springs and lush rainforest.

I decided to do it after five wonderful nights at Sea & Sky in Tianyazhen. It just so happened that a volunteer staff member was flying back home the next day so we agreed to share Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) the next morning. For the last evening, I shared a communal dinner with the friendly staff and then a generous gentleman from Henan treated me and the volunteer to drinks. While drinking Heineken  and smoking his 100 yuan pack of cigarettes, the volunteer — a university student from Sichuan — acted as a translator. The Henan man was a  jolly, 28-year-old with an adorable 4-year-old boy and a beautiful wife. After quite a few rounds, I somehow managed to wake up at 7:30am to catch the ride into the Sanya city center. I later caught a 2-hour bus (20 yuan) from the Sanya bus station (take Bus 10 or 12 to the Qichezongzhan stop) to Baoting, a Li-minority town that’s 8km from Seven Fairy Mountain.

At the Baoting bus station, I asked a taxi to take me to a reasonably-priced hotel, close to the mountain. The ride was 50 yuan. The hotel (188 yuan a night) is to the left of the main road leading to the mountain park, beside the access road to the 5-star Narada Spa & Resort. The 4km-walk to the park entrance is uphill and took 30 minutes. I decided to start the hike at 4pm, but the ticket office refused to sell me a 48 yuan pass because the park closes at 5. Well, I tried my luck and walked through the gate without being stopped. Score!

The hike to the 933m summit of one of the seven “fairies” — which are limestone pillars that look like stone swords — took me roughly one hour. On a non-holiday, Monday afternoon, I passed by a few couples and groups (the biggest group included a Californian and his Chinese wife’s friends), but since I was the last to enter the park, I was the last to come down. Thanks to the clouds, there was no stunning sunset to be had at the top (most of the hike consists of moderately-strenuous steps, but the last 50m is a near-vertical rock climb, assisted by chains). Regardless, the nearly 360-degree view was still impressive. Aside from Baoting in the distance, all you really see is unspoiled rainforest. The park advertises dozens of fauna types, but I only heard and saw birds. Descending the mountain was absolute bliss as I didn’t see a soul on the stone/wooden walkway just before dusk.

Worn out from the hike, I spent the next day at Narada’s hot spring, a 5-minute walk from my hotel. I wasn’t asked to pay (perhaps because the staff assumed I was a hotel guest), but when I ordered a coconut, I was asked to provide a room number. So I had to fork over 35 yuan. As the surrounding area was developed, and is currently developing, purely for tourism, be prepared to pay a steep premium for most things. A coconut at my comfortable hotel (though my room lacked mosquito netting, which was an annoying downside) was 10 yuan. Across the road at a corner store, I was quoted 10 yuan for a mango and a banana. Despite the ubiquitous high prices, you can find little shops a short walk up the Seven Fairy Mountain road that sell normally-priced necessities, like water and beer. There are also a few hotel/restaurants, on the left side, that are slightly cheaper than mine.

To get back to Sanya for my flight to Kunming, I used a Narada hotel shuttle. The van whisked me off for the 2-hour trip — for free. Once again, the hotel staff assumed I was a hotel guest. Of course, I gave the driver a generous tip.

Finding cheap serenity on the edge of Sanya


Following Jack’s invitation, I took Bus 28 (12 yuan) from Dadonghai to the end of the route in Houhai Bay, a super chill, bayside community with a counter-culture vibe. I spotted quite a few long-haired, tattooed Asians looking to surf in the beginner waves, as I walked to Jile, where you can get a bayview room for 300 yuan. It’s out of my budget, but it’s a great place to hang out by the pool or the bar, where you can ask the staff to get you started on the waves. I met a cool biker chick from Mongolia there.

I spent the late afternoon walking/running along the beach, watching the surfers catch waves by a grounded transport ship, flanked by a small cluster of hotels on one side and a strip-mining operation on the far side. While an eyesore to the natural beauty of the area, the mine gives the bay an appropriate fixture for the anti-resort atmosphere. I had an incredible seafood dinner with jack at a hole-in-the-wall spot. Dinner for four set us back 270 yuan, which blew away the overpriced dinner for two I had the previous night at a tourist trap in Dadonghai.

After spending the next day writing (due in part to rainy weather) in my hotel’s comfortable lounge area, I agreed to go to Yalong Bay the following day to meet a friend, who worked at Mangrove Tree Resort. I knew beforehand what I was getting myself into — a sea of expensive, 5-star resorts — but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So I took Bus 28 and transferred to Bus 27, which dropped me off at the entrance to the Yalong Bay Tropical Forest. Failing to find the cheap hostel I reserved, 3km from the beach, I asked the English-speaking reception at a charming hotel in the area. The staff called my hostel, which informed me my reservation was cancelled because I’m a foreigner (it’s a common occurrence for Chinese hotels to turn away foreigners). I ended up bargaining to stay one night for 150 yuan at the helpful hotel – Yuan Fang You Ge Cun. I walked by cow pastures on the way to the beach, passing by some local shepherds that smiled and said “hello”. The atmosphere brought back memories of the friendly locals I came across in the countryside of SE Asia. The fields quickly yielded to the resorts, which were a sight to behold — luxurious expanses that cater to your every desire. Of course, you pay a premium for everything, except water, although I managed to get a 48 yuan coffee for free by flashing a smile and dropping my friend’s name.

After resort central, I took Bus 25 for a 2-hour scenic tour (17 yuan) — passing through the city and fields of sunflower, papaya, banana, and rice — to it’s western terminus at Nanshan Cultural Scenic Area on Wednesday. If you want to pay 180 yuan to fight Chinese tour groups for photo ops, it’s the place for you. I had an after-hours lunch at the hillside restaurant by the entrance so I had a great view of the lighthouse all by myself. Wanting to get away from the tourists, I took a shot in the dark by choosing a well-reviewed (by Ctrip) beachfront hotel in Tianyazhen, on the western outskirts of Sanya. The hotel, called Sea & Sky, is located in a genuine, local town, not a tourist mecca like Yalong Bay or Dadonghai. Walking the betel nut-stained streets in the late afternoon, you see locals speaking Hainanese, lounging in plastic chairs playing cards or mahjong, driving scooters/motorbikes/ebikes, and preparing for dinner. I was checking out a huge feast being cooked in three gigantic woks when a bystander offered me a plastic bag of freshly-cooked seafood noodles. From what I understood in my broken Mandarin and his limited Mandarin, I should come back the next evening for girls (my host later said it was a wedding).

Oh yeah, and the beach and surf are perfect! Just the occasional couple or group along the long, golden strand. The hotel has a wide veranda and mini-pool with commanding views of the sea — the Nanshan giant statue of Guan Yin on the west and Tianya Haijiao (a popular rock formation for newly-weds and couples) on the east. At night, all you hear is the soothing sound of crashing waves, even from my “mountainview” room, which I negotiated for 125 yuan.  If you’re looking to relax on a quiet, non-touristy, beach and mingle with locals, come here.

 

Going with the flow in Sanya

The fast train from Haikou to Sanya took 2 hours (86.5 yuan) and I arrived at the Sanya Backpackers Hostel in Dadonghai Bay an hour later thanks to Bus 15. After checking in with Ina, a very sweet Chinese lady who manages the place, I strolled along the highly-developed beach. I wanted to meet people, which is why I chose the well-situated hostel, a stone’s throw from the favorite beach of foreigners (namely Russian). Sanya is the No. 1 tourist destination in China, but due to my post-CNY timing, the crowds were sparse. The lack of sun kept more at bay.

After reaching my limit of watching girls using selfie sticks in the water and only finding boardwalk restaurants and entertainment that catered to tourists, I headed back to my laid-back hostel enclave. I had drinks and chit-chatted with the hostel staff, who were anxious to practice their English. Ina then pointed me to M2, the go-to mega club in downtown Sanya, where foreigners can basically drink for free. That’s where I met a girl, who exemplifies China: smart, beautiful, strong, shy, and traditional, thanks to parents that want her to stay in Hainan and marry a local boy.

How will the world come together if that tradition continues? I admire the strength of Chinese families and, I must admit, I’ve sacrificed my family due to my love of travel, but the right way must be somewhere in the middle. There must be a balance between family and an individual’s life pursuits.

The next day at my hostel, I met more fascinating people: An Irishman, who has been studying Wuxi Taichi for four years and recently relocated to Sanya with his Shufu (master) to escape the northern cold; A German transplant from Chengdu, who’s a rare Chinese free spirit and studied music in university; and a Chinese man who has lived in Canada for 15 years and recommended I go with him to Houhai Bay, a quiet, relaxing place in Sanya that is a reach for most tourists.

 

Mistake or serendipity in a small world?

My second tour of Asia began in earnest Tuesday when I flew from Shenzhen, where I finished my second year of teaching, to Haikou.  The plan was to spend a couple days at Banana International Youth Hostel (run by a Belgium expat named Pete for the past 10 years) before hitting the road with a rented motorbike for two weeks. The isolated, central highlands of tropical Hainan were calling. Before leaving, I befriended an interesting character from South Carolina, who was looking for teaching gigs on the island. I admired his tenacity; he talked up Pete and any foreigner he came across for possible job leads. I inquired with Pete about a bike, and lo and behold, he had one!

Two problems came to light: the weather and the law. The overcast, threatening weather, while an improvement from chilly Shenzhen, wasn’t ideal for idyll relaxation on the beach or motoring. To make matters worse, the traffic police recently began a city-wide crackdown on petrol motorbikes. Yikes. With mutual awareness of the possible pitfalls, we agreed on a 400 yuan rental fee and 2000 yuan deposit, which I would forfeit if I didn’t return the Chinese-made 125cc bike in two weeks. Pete recommended I leave before day break to beat the morning rush hour and police checkpoints.

Well, I decided to wait until sunrise the next morning to eye the weather. If it was raining, I would cancel my ride. If the coast was clear, I would make a run for it. It was cloudy, yet dry.

I rolled the dice and… lost.

My motorbike trip lasted five minutes as traffic police swarmed around me at the first, busy intersection on Renmin Boulevard. As the police chained my bike in a row with others that befell a similar fate, it dawned on me how ill-prepared I really was. I didn’t do any recon or plan the best, least-busy route out of the city or even consider how I would approach a checkpoint.

So after sharing the bad news with Pete and taking the financial hit and drinking my sorrows away, I took the fast train to Sanya the next afternoon.