Our welcome to China occurred at the Kunming International Airport, a brilliant new building held up by warm, sinuous supports. Nathan and I had been looking forward to returning to China ever since we first visited in 2009. But, like India, we were also a little anxious. There are things we love about China. The incredible food, the vibrant street life, the beautiful historical architecture all enchanted us. But the intense traffic, incessant smoking and hacking, kids being allowed to piss and shit on the sidewalk, seriously unhygienic bathrooms, and the governments rapid destruction of the beautiful historic architecture were all turn offs. Trying to navigate everything with only a few key phrases of Chinese complicates everything as well.
China, put simply, is not for beginners. If you want to veer off the major shopping streets and get at the heart of the country and its people, it takes research, effort, patience and a whole lot of pointing. Nathan and I knew what we were getting into so we decided to take some time to warm up to China. We wanted to spend a few days in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, to catch up on some things and better plan our trip through the rest of China. Unfortunately, our plan backfired a bit since the slow, censored Chinese internet did not take kindly to our research needs. But when the frustration got too much, walking the streets of laid back Kunming provided a welcome respite to breathe and regroup.
We were lucky. We got great recommendations from friends. Our friend Adam had actually lived in Kunming a few years ago, he met his wife here, and has made numerous return visits. He was kind enough to give us a few recommendations on food and we excitedly worked our way down the list. The first item was dou hua mi xian jia mao (豆花米线加帽), a rice noodle dish that is topped with soft tofu, a savory red pork sauce, peanuts and chives. We found it at a little stall in the popular market near our hostel. The fresh tofu was so silky and you could taste the soy beans used to make it.
Mushroom steamed bun
We had heard that mushrooms are the specialty of Yunnan and by luck we found a mushroom filled steamed bun while perusing the market after our noodles. Like the noodles, it was phenomenal with extremely rich, flavorful mushrooms mixed with minced onions. Oh yeah.
Main shopping square
After doing a bit of work back at the hostel we ventured out again for some dinner. We ended at a grilled tofu stall that topped its tofu patties with a peanut sauce, chili sauce and some fried wonton bits. In a word, tasty. As we walked we also noticed a few Muslim Chinese restaurants. Yunnan hosts a large Muslim community with rocky historical relations with the Han Chinese. This may play a part in the current government’s redevelopment of the old Muslim quarter in Kunming, including the destruction of the 400 year old mosque. They did replace the mosque but I heard it was so garish that I didn’t bother to go see it. As Nathan and I walked on Kunming’s main shopping street we were close to the old Muslim neighborhood but traces were few and far between. Mostly, one is able to see a restaurant here and there. I hope that the community lives on somewhere and that I just can’t see the signs (literally, because they are written in mandarin).
Nathan and the seagulls
Another day in Kunming decided to take a break from catching up and be tourists again. First we walked over to Green Lake Park, a green space with a series of islands linked by small bridges. In the winter flocks of red beaked seagulls spend their days in the park getting fat off the bread the locals feed them. Nathan was even able to have them pluck the food from his hands. We walked along the park, soaking up the sun for warmth. Since leaving the oppressing heat of Bangkok, we were quickly plunged into a crisp winter cold of 30 to 40 degrees. And there was no escaping it as nowhere has heaters – not our hostel, restaurants or cafes. Brrr!
Heavenly Manna restaurant
Us with Yun
After the park we had lunch plans with a friend of Adam’s who is from Kunming. Yun asked us to meet her at Heavenly Manna Restaurant on Wenhua Xiang. She told us about life in Kunming and her job helping foreign exchange students adjust to life in China. Meanwhile we devoured some amazing dishes. My absolute favorite was a cumin beef dish served with crispy fried mint leaves. It was so mouthwatering I could not stop myself from scooping thirds and fourths on my plate! We also sampled some stir fried greens, yellow corn fried with rich egg yolks and a light soup. At the end of our lunch, we thanked Yun for her stories and advice. But Nathan and I weren’t quite ready to brave a walk in the cold. So we went next door to Salvador’s, an expat owned bar owned serving some familiar favorites. Nathan splurged on Rouge River Amber Ale from Oregon to take a break from all the light beers Asia has to offer. I opted for a hot rum apple cider to take the chill off.
Yuantong Temple entrance
Intricate Chinese decorative painting
Center of Yuantong Temple
When we did finally leave we made our way to Yuantong Temple. It is one of the oldest and biggest Buddhist temples in Kunming and it was a thoroughly pleasant place to be. We encountered a group of monks chanting as part of a ceremony that we did not understand. But it certainly added to the ambiance.
Rice noodles in rich spicy broth
Stir fried rice noodles
As we left the temple we already had a dinner place in mind – a crowded restaurant serving variations of rice noodles. This involved a lot of pointing and bringing the woman taking orders around the restaurant in order to show exactly what we wanted. It worked!
Chinese doughnut with savory pudding
We found another cheap joint for breakfast the next morning just north of our hostel. The man out front was frying up mounds of Chinese doughnuts, which are long wands of dough and aren’t sweet. From his wife, Nathan and I ordered two dipping sauces for our doughnuts. One was a warm sweetened soy milk and the other a thick savory pudding. It was plenty filling and cost a whole $1.13 for the both of us.
For dinner we went in a different direction, literally and figuratively. We boarded a bus to the southeast of the city and encountered the evidence of China’s rapid urbanization. Freeway overpasses appeared and streets got wider. We got dropped off on the edge of a highway and had to walk with others along the edge of the road, no sidewalk, until we got to some smaller, more manageable streets. In the new China, they do pay attention to the public transit infrastructure but the pedestrian connections to transit are unfortunately ignored.
We eventually found ourselves in a strange area that was felt like a business park but was interspersed with a few corporate looking strip malls and gigantic apartment blocks. It seemed like a very boring place to live. And in the middle of it all was a super center Walmart surrounded by a large parking lot. Just like in the US, it had everything you could want and more. They certainly cater to their market here as this Walmart is filled with all the local foods – smoked pig faces, fermented tofu and black footed chickens. It seemed extremely popular and does not bode well for all the mom and pop shops in Kunming. Not that the urban planners left much room for these types of family owned stores in the new parts of town.
Mushroom hot pot and sides at Dian Jun Wang
But back to the food. Yun praised Dian Jun Wang which seems to be a local, high end chain. It was a good thing we were hungry when we sat down because we were in for a feast. The specific reason for our visit was mushroom hot pot. Yunnan is known for its bounty of mushrooms and we were ready for them. With a combination of pictures, pointing and guessing we ended up with a nice rounded meal. As a starter we were delivered a vinegary vegetable dish that had the the texture of softened pine needles and may have actually been pine needles. That may not sound appealing but it was very good. Then came the broth that was kept on a burner on our table, to which a selection of mushrooms was added. Once cooked, the mushrooms were spooned into our bowls and we could dip then in a spicy dipping sauce. Next, we cooked and ate rice cakes and cabbage. And finally, thinly shaved beef. We drank a much of the broth as we could but we were getting dangerously full.
Dian Jun Wang was a wonderful meal and we were well taken care of by the numerous staff. With tea, the bill came to $54. I believe it to be well worth the money, but the price did point out the dichotomy of rich and poor in China. Especially compared to our incredibly cheap breakfast that same day. The husband and wife making Chinese doughnuts could not afford to eat at Dian Jun Wang nor are they given space to work in these newly planned communities. Which is too bad because they are part of what makes China great! My favorite food is always in the hole-in-the-wall eateries anyway.
It was a good thing we took things slow for our first few days in China. It can be equal parts charming and frustrating and from the start we experienced both emotions. Two months in China? Bring it on!