Life and death in Kunming

Today, Lisa and I went to the Stone Forest, but we didn’t sight-see or go on a tour or spend a lot of time there (less than an hour, actually). Lisa had something to attend to, and I stood in silence as she completed her mission. It probably only took a minute, even less, but it seemed like a long time. (If any of that sounds mysterious, you must read Lisa’s post; only she can tell this story.)

On to a more mundane aspect of the day – mundane, and yet perhaps as unforgettable for both Lisa and me as was opening the hongbao and emptying its contents in Shilin.

When we set out from Kunming to the Stone Forest, we were too late to catch the bus as planned. A hawker by the bus station told us they could take us there and back for 400 kuai. We walked up to a taxi driver first and asked how much she would charge, and she said 500 kuai. When we told her the gypsy cab would take us for 400 she warned us it would be unsafe. The hawker stepped over, told us they would reduce the price to 350, and we went with them. A serious mistake.

The black VW looked fine, and there was no trouble getting to our destination, about an hour away. It was only when we tried to return that the trouble started, and not until we had reached the outskirts of the city. It was about 5.30 and I was falling asleep in the back seat when I heard Lisa say in Chinese to the driver that something was wrong. I thought she meant she saw an accident; I had no idea she was saying something was wrong with our car. We were still on the highway, and cars were whizzing by us. I realized we had stalled, and the driver was frantically trying to restart the engine. to no avail. It was a four-lane highway and we were in the third lane, smack in the middle, and cars and trucks and buses were coming at us from all sides. I looked out the back window and saw a tractor trailer careening toward us and Lisa and I quickly concluded that we had to get out of there.

As the truck and cars approached and suddenly realized we were stopped, they slammed on their brakes, swerved into the surrounding lanes and pounded on thir horns. It was a scene of perfect anarchy and chaos. The driver got out and lifted the hood of the car, which at least signaled to the approaching cars that we were stopped. When we had a chance, we bolted from the car, ran across the fourth lane and stood pressed against the median divider. Trucks kept coming at us, slamming on their horns, no doubt mystified to see two laowai standing in the middle of a busy highway in the middle of nowhere looking totally dazed and confused. A police car, seemingly oblivious, sped right past us.

The next scene was even more surreal. An older fellow on a motorcycle saw the commotion, stood on the shoulder and motioned to Lisa and me to cross the highway to get to safety in the shoulder. We quickly discussed the viability of this suggestion, and decided it would almost certainly lead to our deaths. “I did not expect the day to end like this,” Lisa said. Cars and trucks were still racing past us, some only inches away and in every lane. The motorcycle driver saw we couldn’t possibly cross by ourselves and took matters into his own hands. He zig-zagged diagonally across the four lanes ad reached us. Then he told us to follow him. He held out his hand like a traffic officer, and guided us across the road, using his motorcycle as a buffer between us and the approaching traffic. Horns blared, driver shouted from their windows, but they all stopped and let us cross. We made it to the shoulder alive. By this point we were laughing. We weren’t laughing as we stood pressed against the divider.

Meanwhile, the taxi driver and some other good samaritans managed to push the taxi to the shoulder. He wanted his 350 kuai and Lisa screamed in Chinese he hadn’t kept his side of the bargain – no way were we going to pay full fare. I gave him 300 kuai, in retrospect too much (were were still at least half an hour from the hotel). When Lisa shouted in Chinese, the motorcycle driver laughed out loud and told us for a mere 10 kuai he’d drive us off the highway to a place where we could catch a taxi. It sounded like an excellent bargain, even though driving for ten minutes on the highway with two others on one motorcycles is not something I want to do again anytime soon.

Bottom line: after a day that was dramatic enough already, this seemed like an eerily appropriate ending, “the perfect bookend,” as Lisa remarked once we were out of harm’s way. We both kept thinking of the first taxi driver’s warning that these gypsy cabs aren’t safe….

Meanwhile, we’ve changed plans a bit, staying a day longer in Kunming, and deciding to go to Dali tomorrow, and then to Chengdu. Chongqing is something we are still debating. Some friends tell us it’s not really worth the time unless you have a few days to explore the surrounding countryside. We don’t have that much time, but would still like to go there for at least a day or two. Is it worth it?

Final words: Everyone seems to agree that Kunming is one of the most enjoyable and relaxed cities in all of China, and I want to say they’re right. Aside from the highway insanity, every minute here has been magical. The food is beyond belief and as cheap as food can be without being free. The people seem unhurried, laid back and eager to help lost foreigners. I could retire here. Today. Lisa says the only place in China even more relaxed is Chengdu; I’ll find out in a few days. A near-perfect trip so far. But no more gypsy cabs.

Oh, I deleted the earlier post because the link I offered wasn’t working. It’s late. I probably won’t post for a few days.

Update: Forgot to mention we had brunch with a reader of this blog today, and will meet other readers along the way. That this silly hobby can put us in touch with such awesome people….

Update 2: For a far more detailed look at what we went through, complete with photos, go here.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

Great story! Always a great read from you Richard.

February 16, 2009 @ 1:54 am | Comment

“Officially, the Chinese government says 300 people die every day in vehicle crashes on the country’s roads and byways. But the World Health Organization says that the real number is 680 traffic deaths a day. That compares with about 115 per day in the United States, where there are about eight times as many vehicles as in China, according to figures from the Chinese government and R.L. Polk & Co.”

I’ve come closest to death on Chinese roads than anywhere else in China, Japan, Canada or the US. I was traveling in an official overnight long distance bus at night when we almost rear ended a broken down dump truck, no lights on, and no street lights on the highway. The driver almost turned over the bus. Traveling at night at high speed, with drivers that don’t think about road safety is…living in China. The farther out of a big city, the laxer police enforcement will be.

February 16, 2009 @ 7:26 am | Comment

I was in Yunnan a month ago.This time Kunming felt a bit boring to me. Dali also has become quiet. Most people nowadays like to go the areas around Lijiang. From Lijiang you can easily travel to Shangrila, the Tiger Leap Gorge, and the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. You find Tibetan, Hui, Naxi
and Han people live side by side in harmony.

Don’t forget to try yak meat. It’s delicious.

February 16, 2009 @ 9:21 am | Comment

Serve, I’ve been to those places, and ate yak meat. This is my second trip to Yunnan, a place very dear to my heart.

February 16, 2009 @ 9:39 am | Comment

Update: Forgot to mention we had brunch with a reader of this blog today, and will meet other readers along the way. That this silly hobby can put us in touch with such awesome people….

Preach it, brother. I’ve met incredible, informed, interesting people through my blog.

Hey wait…we met through the blogs. Well, I guess that’s the exception… 🙂


February 16, 2009 @ 2:17 pm | Comment

Dali is always a fun place, if a little touristy these days. Lots to see and do. Get away from the Mary Jane peddlars by taking the cable car up the mountain. Once up there you’ll have a choice of paths and get to see some wonderful scenery without the crowds. Enjoy.

February 16, 2009 @ 3:35 pm | Comment

Chongqing is interesting to see purely from the fact of how much it has changed since it was made a municipality. I was there from 2003 until 2005 and it changed a lot then. last year when I went back it was unrecognisable but then that is China. Not many old things to see in the city but the hall of the people is a nice piece of architecture. Similar style to the temple of heaven in Beijing. The view over the river from the view point is nice, especially at night, however you need good visibility. Note the visibility is pretty bad most of the time. always quite hazy. Also if you like extra spicy hotpot this has got to be the place to go… If you get the chance to get out of the city there are a few nice places worth visiting such a DaZu for the rock carvings (about 60Km from the city), Jin Fu Xia gorge is also not so far. There are also some nice cave complexes in Wulong if I remember but they are further away. Might be better if you are going to chengdu to head upto JiuZhaiGou and Huanglong. Hope it helps

February 16, 2009 @ 3:46 pm | Comment

Kunming is my favourite city in China – even if they have razed the old sections and the traffic is now gridlocked much of the time. You may not have time but the Nujiang canyon (see is only a day’s journey by bus from Dali. Worth seeing before the beautiful old Catholic churches there are submerged under the next wave of damned [sic] river.

February 16, 2009 @ 7:24 pm | Comment

Kunming is my favourite city in China – even if they have razed the old sections and the traffic is now gridlocked much of the time. You may not have time but the Nujiang canyon (see here) is only a day’s journey by bus from Dali. Worth seeing before the beautiful old Catholic churches there are submerged under the next wave of damned [sic] river.

February 16, 2009 @ 7:26 pm | Comment

I’ll go out on a limb here and say I found Chengdu a bit of a disappointment (and I also went there straight by train from Kunming). Kunming is bright, cheery, laidback and about as fresh as you can get in the PRC. Unfortunately, when I visited Chengdu it was dreary, heavily polluted and looked like the same pile of ugly concrete and flashy developments you’d find anywhere up in northeast/central China. I didn’t catch the vibe that everyone else talks about. It was just big and grey.

I found Chongqing more interesting- sure it was even more of a cesspool, but it had a lot more character and some damn good hot pot. The hilly geography of the city also gives it a more unique feel than other cookie-cutter, Beijing-wannabee provincial cities. It was like Hong Kong crossed with Gotham City.

February 16, 2009 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

I wouldn’t bother with Lijiang. Its fake “new” old town is right out of the Disney design book. I think you’ll be really disappointed. Dali, though touristy has a slower pace and can be charming, especially off the beaten path. Hope your travels are a little less exciting than the return from Shilin. (I told you Kunming traffic was crazy!!!!)

February 17, 2009 @ 12:58 am | Comment

You just got Anti-CNNed.

February 17, 2009 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

Chongqing is no oil painting, but it’s a great city….loads of character and a few surprises once you get a few km from the city centre.
email me asap if you’re going to stop over and I’ll give you a sneak little tour in my jeep. Nick

February 18, 2009 @ 8:15 pm | Comment

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