The purpose of our visit to Kunming was to get our Vietnamese visa. Judging by the people we met in the hostel, this seems like a fairly typical reason to visit. Kunming is positioned in a convenient location to travel to Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar or Thailand, there is even a plan to link it to all of these countries by high speed rail. From what we saw of Kunming it was a cool city with a very relaxed atmosphere and excellent cost of living. Baozi were 1RMB each and our private room in the hostel was cheaper than dorm beds in most places. We booked in for 5 nights to allow for the 3 business day processing time of our Vietnamese visa and I have to say it was a pleasant and relaxing stay.
The embassy is on the 5th floor of a huge hotel complex and is notoriously difficult to find, but we came prepared with a detailed description that someone had written on tripadvisor. We confidently walked past the sign marked “World Trade Centre Kunming’, up the car ramp, into the foyer, turned to the left, walked into the entrance next to a bank and approached the receptionist waiting there and said “Yuènán dàshǐ guǎn?”. “No” … I was crushed. Had the unknown tripadvisor user been playing a joke, sending hapless travellers to frustrate this receptionist time and again? Before I could panic and begin contacting a lawyer about the possible legal repercussions of posting fake directions online the receptionist clarified that the embassy was located there but the staff were out to lunch, we could return in 40 minutes when they’d be back. So we went out to the hotel foyer cafe (with its free WiFi) and waited, turning down the hints from hotel staff that we might want to order a drink.
We don’t have any relevant photos so here’s a picture of me doing the monkeybars – actually harder than getting a visa
The actual application was pretty straightforward, we entered the embassy 40 minutes later and saw an empty reception desk with a stack of visa application forms on it, took two and completed them. Then we waited for 30 minutes for a staff member to turn up. He saw that we wanted to enter Vietnam on the 1st and told us to come and collect the visa’s on the evening of the 31st. What a coincidence. From what I’ve read about Vietnamese visas they often have the surprise flexibility to fit your exact requirements. Need it ready in 4 days? Then that’s how long they take to get ready. Need it for 45 rather than 30 days? Just $100 more and there’s a special visa just for you. Forgot a photo for the visa? You can now pay an additional ‘missing photo’ fee and you’re all set.
Of the few sights we saw in Kunming, the most picturesque part was probably Green Lake. Not the famous Dian lake which has literally turned green from pollution, but the lake in the city centre that forms part of a large park. People sit around it on weekends and sing songs together, dance and play music. We saw a man doing calligraphy on the pavement which was actually quite poetic. He was writing with water, where he started already drying as he went. Similar to sculptures in sand the impermanence of it made it special, like a live performance that can only be witnessed in that place at that time.
Dian lake isn’t all bad though, there’s a hill next to it which has lots of really nice temples dotted across it, with excellent views back across the city. After walking along the lake for a while Rosanna and I decided to get the cable car up and then to walk the remaining kilometer at the top to the most famous landmark – “the dragon gate”. After saving ourselves of the cable car fee by walking the flat section at the beginning we were feeling quite satisfied by our frugal activity. The saving was roughly equal to the price for a pizza each back at the hostel and there is no such thing as coincidence – this added to our self-satisfaction. Unfortunately at the end of the cable car we were greeted by another gate and another entrance fee. This is a favorite money-making manuever of Chinese tourist attractions and it is infuriating. Every section is separated out with additional charges for each and busses or cable cars between them which all cost extra. We were warned about this back in Harbin by a Malaysian man on our third or fourth day in the country and we’ve never forgotten his phrasing, we parrot it each time this happens: “The bloody Chinese and their damned entrance fees!”. The walk back down the hillside (we weren’t paying for the cable car back down) was very pleasant, there were even a couple of temples with no entrance fee. One of these had been left to age which made a nice change from the constant ‘refurbishing’ of historical buildings here.
Kunming is also famous for its markets. We went to several, the most famous of which was the bird and flower market, so-called because they used to sell primarily birds and flowers. Now there are only a few bird sellers, their twittering accompanies you through the stalls. This market is incredibly touristy with the usual tedious rigmarole of having the barter for goods you want to purchase. Stall holders are pretty bad at working out when you are genuinely not interested and when you are simply playing hard to get as a bargaining tactic. We were looking at some badges on one stall when the man behind it told us “200 Yuan” (this is a crazy price – £25 or so). We looked but couldn’t find one we liked, “100 Yuan”. We decided we didn’t want a badge so we left the stall, “15 YUAN!” he shouted to us as we walked off.
We preferred the markets near our hostel which were more food focussed and full of local people buying things, always a good sign. Kunming was the cheapest place we stayed in China, we typically spent 10 RMB on a meal (< £1.50), but the food was delicious. Big bowls of noodles packed with coriander, garlic, chilli and spring onion. Roasted aubergine in black bean sauce. Boazi (large bready dumplings) stuffed with mushroom, onion and pak choi – these were so cheap we’d gorge on them for breakfast, often having 4 each. I saw a lady one day with an impressive array of vegetables in front of her, chopping them methodically into a large pestle and mortar with a pair of old scissors. The resulting mixture looked similar to Baba Ganoush but had a much more oriental flavour. We bought fresh bread from another stall and had the two for lunch, it was glorious.
We really took it easy in Kunming, and for the purposes of unwinding it is a good city. It’s calm (for China) and cheap to stay in. It was a nice way to say farewell to China before we headed off to Vietnam.
Full pictures from Kunming can be seen here: