Green Lake Park

Sep 16, 2013

Kunming: Dancing in the park

The old 两个-step

Dancing with the people in Green Lake Park

Here’s the rule: Anywhere there is open space, large groups of dancers will gather. They’ll be mostly women, and mostly older, but everyone is invited. It’s good exercise, it’s group fun, it’s something to do outside of the house … whatever!

Wandering Kunming’s Green Lake Park, we found dozens of such dancing groups, sometimes one right on top of another. Some people were dressed in ethnic costume, but most were in contemporary street wear. My mom and I joined in for a bit, causing — Peter later said — some hilarious double takes.

The key, I realized, to accurately following the moves is to, even though you may be sneaking in the back, watch the leader up front. Don’t try to copy the ladies also hiding in the back with you; they’re as lost as you are!

Jul 28, 2013

Listen up Kunming

Where the rock’s at (and the yaogun and the jazz and the trad …)

Punk rockers at Camel BarCamel Bar has fun artThe crowd at Camel BarOur Camel Bartender readies the absinthe
Kunming punk band 零一路 plays Camel Bar, and the hometown crowd takes it in.
The group show at TGC NordicaTGC Nordica
When we looked a little lost after we got out of the cab, a neighborhood man knew right away we were there to see the gallery. He directed us toward the alleyway that is the home of TGC Nordica, an art and theater space/cafe. The group show on view was super cool!
Guitar jam at Wenlin MementoZoltan's Trio at Alei Lounge
l: Guitar jam at Wenlin Memento; r: Zoltan’s Jazz Trio at Alei Lounge
South Cats' keyboardist at Camel Bar
The keyboardist from South Cats, also on the bill with 零一路.
The lead singer of 零一路 at Camel BarCamel Bar's bathroom
The bathroom at Camel Bar had one of the greatest interior decorating schemes we’ve seen in China.

We were ecstatic to find that among the wide range of experiences that Kunming offers is a lively art and music scene. There’s a small but growing network of art galleries, and you can find live music somewhere, every night of the week. People make stuff here! Creative stuff!

Perusing the events calendar on GoKunming ahead of time, this is one area where we allowed ourselves heightened expectations. Our plan was to take it easy on the daytime tourist stuff, and follow an aggressive schedule of nightly rocking. Two shows a night, some nights. Venues were various, from western restaurants to dedicated rock clubs to the aforementioned art galleries, and the styles of music was similarly diverse. We were excited.

And we weren’t let down. We found music even when we weren’t looking for it. Small combos in bars played covers everywhere you turned. And in Green Lake Park, large groups gathered under every tree to play traditional tunes. Our every move was soundtracked.

As far as intentional music, there were a few standouts:

Zoltan’s Jazz Trio played abstracted standards at Alei Lounge Club and Tapas Bar, with a bass line through out that could have walked us all the way back to Luzhou. The band was two-thirds Chinese (Zoltan himself is Swedish, I believe), and the audience skewed young, fashionable and local. This is a precedent that we would happily see repeated all week. You see, even with hopes so high, there was a fear that the whole scene would be a grafted-on, expat-only social affair. Something unsustainable and exclusionary. It was great to find that this wasn’t the case.

At Wenlin Memento, a sophisticated little club with an NPR vibe and a family crowd, we caught an acoustic jam with guitarist 鄢文杰. He and his friends were wicked talented, their fingers dancing all over the fret board with speed and mellow agility. Our only complaint was that the club was so smoky that we had to leave before the performance was over.

Our favorite show, however, had to be 零一路, a Kunming punk band, at the Camel Bar. They were opening for another local band called South Cats (whom, to gauge audience reaction, was the real reason everyone was there), but to us, their scrappy little punk show was it. Incorporating influences like Nirvana with a yaogun sensibility, they totally rocked. There was a nice give and take between the bassist and the guitarist as dueling frontmen, with the guitarist prowling the stage like a wild animal kept in check by the bassist’s stern rhythm. They did a punk version of “The Powerpuff Girls” theme song, and at times they were one dissonant chord away from thrash metal.

The band played to a loving and supportive hometown crowd. (And keeping with what I’ve experienced so far in China, the genders were an even 50/50 split. Go girls! And go boys, for making the girls feel safe and welcome!) The club was spacious and large, with two well-stocked bars — we even had absinthe shots, all proper with the sugar cube and the spoon and all. It may have been here that we decided for certain that Kunming is our next home. Not because of the absinthe, though. The music! It’s all about the music.

Every aspect of our trip outstripped our expectations, but none more than the opportunity to see live shows. And I didn’t even mention that all of this was free! No cover charges anywhere. Only good vibes and excellent music. The only thing we could say is: Yes.

Jul 27, 2013

A taste of the international

Willkommen! Bienvenue! 欢迎!

Green Lake, in the center of its park
Other foreigners in Green Lake ParkBoat rides in Green Lake ParkMore Green Lake ParkMore foreigners in Green Lake ParkGreen Lake Park
Green Lake Park is a lovely hangout spot in the center of Kunming.
Dianchi LakeA park near Dianchi Lake聂耳 at his museumThe cable car up the West HillsDianchi Lake from the West Hills
The West Hills and Dianchi Lake are just a short cab ride outside the city. Don’t skip the 聂耳 museum tucked away behind the cluster of tourist eateries; it’s really cool!
Salvador's on Wenlin JieHeavenly Manna on Wenlin JieWenlin JieNighttime on Wenlin Jie
The cool kids hang out on Wenlin Jie.
Jinbi Square
Shopping in Jinbi Square; there’s a Carrefour around here somewhere.
The Hump RestaurantGoat cheese Burmese curry at the Hump
Get the goat cheese Burmese curry at The Hump.
Central KunmingCentral KunmingA sandwich in central Kunming
Street scenes around central Kunming
The mall where we found the Indian restaurantOur Indian meal
The Indian restaurant we went to was in a gigantic mall just outside the Second Ring Road.
The little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseThe little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseLost Garden's rooftop restaurantSnacks on the rooftop loungeLost Garden has pizzaThe real fire oven at Lost Garden
Lost Garden Guesthouse and environs were peaceful and beautiful. And their pizza was excellent.
Sunnyside massage centerBeauty spots in Kunming
There’s something fun tucked around every corner!
Fishing at Dianchi LakePineapple and cucumber -- yes, please
Left: A party of fishermen and -women at Dianchi Lake. Right: Yunnan food knows how to use its pineapple effectively.
A perfect bloody MaryA view from the rooftop at Lost Garden
A good drink in a relaxing hideaway: Bloody Marys on the terrace of our hostel were just too wonderful.

When we arrived in Kunming, it was almost like reverse culture shock.

I mean, we were still clearly in China. But it was a much different China than the one we’d been living in.

For one thing, Kunming is actually beautiful. There are green spaces, walkable neighborhoods, trees everywhere, architecture in a style other than “Communist Poured Concrete” … It’s the first city we’ve been to that visually dazzled.

It helped that we stayed right around the corner from Green Lake Park, an impeccably landscaped green space surrounding the titular body of water. We passed through there daily, and, it appeared, so did everyone else: tourists and locals, foreigners and nationals. Available activities: Snacks, street musicians, small pedal boats, people watching.

Further afield, we explored the beautiful West Hills overlooking Dianchi Lake, about a half-hour’s drive from the city center. As you ascend, there are temples and traditional structures interwoven into the nature, as well as an interesting museum about 聂耳, a young musician from Yunnan who rose impressively quickly through the ranks of the Communist party before dying at age 23. You can hike the mountains, though we took a bus and then a cable car across the lake. Fun, natural fun!

Between those two extremes was a city still ringed by the ginormous highways that define all Chinese cities, but tucked in between those were funky-cute nabes, with space for urban rambling, and trees and shops and people and traffic. We loved it.

Keep in mind, we are city people, however.

Peter from America: Do you like Kunming?

Peter from Malaysia: No. The oxygen is so bad.

— Malaysian Peter, a two-year Kunming veteran, introduced himself to us when we stopped at a street side stall to buy an icey coffee drink. We traded travel stories (“You’re from Malaysia?! We’ve been to Malaysia!”) while our drink was being made.

The other big loop thrower was how international our experience was. By which I don’t just mean the fact that there were other westerners, but that all cultures — Western, Chinese, local ethnic minorities, other Asians — mingled together in a hip, cosmopolitan way.

Particularly the neighborhood around Wenlin Jie — which felt like a transplanted Lower East Side with Chinese Characteristics — was lousy with foreigners, but exuded an “All are welcome” vibe. The bars, and there were many bars, served up western-style cocktails alongside Chinese nibbles (beware the mustard potatoes; they’re like boiled fries drenched in wasabi!). The crowds were always international and mixed. We did, however, run into three separate expat meet-up groups in that area over the course of our time there.

Outside of that area, it was less common to glimpse obvious foreigners, but we could tell that we were turning many fewer heads. Which was a nice thing. It’s fun being a superstar, but it’s also a constant reminder that we’re in but not of the place we’re calling home. We want a pot in which to melt, please.

Drunk Beijinger: Where are you from?

Emily and Peter: We’re American.

DB: [accusing, but friendly] I thought you were Italian!

Emily: Well, we’re not!

French friend of DB: I’m French. We can’t all be perfect. [leads drunk friend away]

— A nighttime encounter at a bar on Wenlin Jie. Later, when we went over to say goodbye, the pair said that they could tell we were English teachers because we spoke so slowly and carefully.

Actually, the extreme (to us) cosmopolitanality of Kunming was disorienting at times. It may have looked and sounded like we were just around the corner from somewhere familiar, but that really wasn’t the case. It led to confusing situations like when I asked the (Chinese) server at French Cafe if we could “sit outside.” He looked at me in panic and turned to get an English speaker. I realized my mistake, repeated my question in Chinese, and wondered what made me do that.

Emily: [reading a poster at a small Burmese cafe] Oh! They have a farmers market here on Sundays. That’s so great. We’ll have to come here … What am I saying?! We live in the middle of a farm.

— It only took a few days to forget my current countryside life. My only excuse is that I’m an urban girl. The Burmese curry, it must be mentioned, was fabulous.

But it was a relief to be reminded that we are still in China after all. We like living China! We like learning the Chinese language! And we love eating the Chinese food!

We didn’t get to eat as much Yunnan food as we wanted (we didn’t get to eat as much food as we wanted, full stop), but the one meal we had, at Heavenly Manna, was terrific. We, of course, ordered the fried goat cheese, which was light, gentle and delicious. We possibly “did it wrong” by dipping our triangles of cheese in the tangy sauce that came with the cucumbers and pineapple dish, but whatevs. I also got a fantastic pork and coriander plate, and we completed the meal with curried mashed potatoes, which should be eaten every day, all day.

And we wanted to. But we were too dazzled by all the options available to us. In one week, we did pizza, Mexican, Indian, felafel, Carrefour picnic, sandwiches, dumplings, french fries. Some of it was junk and some of it was the best, but all of it was different. All we knew was that there just weren’t enough meals in the day.

There is a fear
That it’s a misplaced bit of meat
Or an undercooked morsel.
But maybe you just ate too much.

— A late-night Emily original

On the first night (over wood-fired pizza at our hostel), we both decided that Kunming was the place for us. And then, we reminded each other to stay real. The second day (after hour-long massages and cupping treatments), we decided again that Kunming is the place for us. And then, again, we tried to keep our heads level. It became a joke for one of the other of us to declare, “I know it’s not cool for me to decide unilaterally, but we’re moving here.” But by the end of the trip, it wasn’t a joke, we know that Kunming is the place for us.

We love that you can get western food, obviously. But more than that, we’re really excited to see that fusion that occurs in an international city, where everyone has different ideas and wants to share them. It’s a city where language exchange programs are hosted in every other cafe; where the guy at the next table is more likely to ask to take that extra chair than to take your picture (that was embarrassing!); where there’s room for a couple of westerners to not only exist alongside and separate from the local goings on, but to integrate, interact and participate. We may not always understand each other (sometimes literally), but there’s a willingness and desire to have fun trying.

Chinese server: [handing over two wonderfully spiced bloody Marys] Can I ask you something? How do you like this kind of cocktail?

Peter and Emily: We love it!

Server: Really? I think it’s too crazy!

Peter: Well, it’s the best of this kind of drink that we’ve had in China!

Server: [big smile] Thank you!

— We spent a lot of time on the rooftop terrace at our hostel, because it was beautiful, the staff was super friendly, and they had great drinks.

Peter at Dianchi LakeEmily on the roof at Lost Garden