Called 'Spring city' for its agreeable climate, Kunming is quite amazingly modern. A clean Bangkok if you will, almost boring, generic. So amazingly quiet, specifically after just coming from Kolkata.
Taking a taxi from the airport, it took a while to register why in fact it was so quiet. All scooters are electric. And there's virtuallty no honking, while at traffic lights, ladis hold banners in front if the bikes to stop them from shooting off before the lights turn green.
I arrived fairly early, with, on the city's central square, groups of old ladies practicing tai-chi in super slow motion. And shoeshiners are women.
Later, a crowd stood and watched as I bought fermented veggies on the street. In Chinese.
There's an app for that.
North of the city, in green lake park, the cacaphonic absurdity of ethnic and modern dancers, orchestras and singers competing for supremacy with low quality amplifiers, too high pitched, too much echo, creating an orgastric wall of sound, interspersed with ladies in native dress from the provinces, doing their own dances.
Trying to characterize Kunming, I first ought of it as a mellow cross between Bangkok and Tokyo, but later realized that it's simply very much what it is: a highly successful product of communism.
The skyscrapers haven't yet reached stupefying levels, but there are many. But more intriguingly, the streets are neat in a way that provincial Russian streets are; overly planned, too quiet, but also with obvious mistakes here and there, perhaps the result of some too heavy handed directive from above.
Yes, at night, there is some neon to light up the streets, but its very subdued. There are a few too many, though very pleasing to the eye, police booths around town, reminding the visitor that this is still a country where government wants to keep control.
The outskirts of town are quickly changing into a forest of high rise apartment buildings. But even though the structures are both good looking, for what they are, and quite impressive, in reality they are just modern equivalents of the typical Soviet apartment blocks.
I spent a day in the western mountains, Xi Shan, on the shores of Dian Chi, a lake some 40km long and 300km squared. The views of Kunming across the lake are decent, but I felt very ambivalent about the whole experience. The 6 or 7 kilometers you have to walk up the mountain are on a freshly tarred two lane road on which a large bus plies the route every few minutes. Part of the way, you can take a freshly laid and well maintained path straddling the road. Recycling bins line the roads, popping up every 50 meters. A few temples as well, charging surprisingly steep prices to get in. And on top of that you have to pay more than peanuts to get into Dragon's Gate, the viewpoint everyone comes for.
Many of the visitors have their cellphone or radio playing their favorite tunes, while your ears might be accosted to some laughing group, hiding somewhere, trying out their best ha-ha.
Even on a Friday, the route is busy, crawling with people, the whole experience so extremely cultivated that it feels more like a theme park than anything else.
In town, though the streets are lined with decidedly upmarket and international chains, they also see plenty of old school road side stalls, selling all sorts of foods and cheap pirated goods, alternating with the physically handicapped and the occasional child doing karaoke using low quality sound systems, hoping to earn a few yuan.
Mostly, foreign social networks are blocked in China, though foursquare is an exception, perhaps because it's so very much location oriented.
However, strangely, it's possible, within China, to pay for an online service, with a Chinese credit card, through a Chinese bank, that circumvents the great firewall, allowing you to access Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.