An American Abroad

Daytrip to Kunming

I spent Monday in Kunming, the city of 6.5 million people that lies about an hour north of Yuxi. I’d been there twice before, once when I first flew to China and again when I had my visa physical, but I’d never even started to explore the city. I wanted to do that–and to buy coffee.

Coffee is not popular in Yuxi. The local stores stock Nescafé instant, but buying either whole-bean or ground coffee is very difficult. I’d been drinking Yunnan Arabica, a very nice brew indeed, but the store I bought it from when I first moved here no longer stocks it. When I ran out on Sunday morning, I knew desperate measures were called for. Hence Kunming.

I rendezvoused with Owen and Matt, two of my new colleagues, at 9:00 in the morning and together we walked to the Yuxi bus station. There we arranged to take what is essentially an intercity taxi to Kunming for ¥55 (about $8.80) each.

The first order of business when we got there was to go to Salvador’s Coffee House, a well-known establishment in a part of town where there are many stores that cater to backpackers, college students, and Kunming’s expat population. We were here:

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Salvador’s turned out to be a charming place that serves Mexican and American food, has a small lending library of English books, and sells its own coffee (which they ground for me on the spot). It also has sketchy plumbing, but Mr. T is there in the bathroom to help out.
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We had lunch up in the loft, overlooking the front door.
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I had spaghetti with meat sauce, my first American meal in almost four weeks. It was comforting to hear the burble of American-accented English again. Much as I didn’t come to China to hang out with expats, it seemed like an incredible luxury to be eating my native food in a familiar environment in the presence of other Americans.

After lunch, we went back to the center of Kunming so Matt and Owens could do some shopping. All three of us stand 6’1″ or taller and the stores in Yuxi simply don’t stock clothes that large. I sat down to rest while Matt went to the ATM.
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Owen and Matt did find clothes that fit, though prices at the foreign stores they patronized were no lower than they would have been in the US or the UK.
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Kunming is not a beautiful city, nor an easy one go get around in. There are throngs of people everywhere and transportation is hampered by a massive subway construction project that has much of the central city walled off, dug up, and rerouted. Many of the streets are closed to both automobiles and pedestrians on one side, which funnels both motorized and foot traffic into half the space the roads usually provide. It’s going to be great when you can zip around the city underground, but right now it is just chaos. With nowhere else to go, scooters, bicycles and motorcycles take to the sidewalks, further adding to the stress of simply walking down the street. Fortunately, I found respite in a nice shady pedestrian mall in the middle of the city, which was undoubtedly the prettiest part of town I saw.
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Near this was an enormous residential and retail complex, a multi-level indoor/outdoor mall connected by multiple walkways to three 30-story apartment buildings. The mix of indoor and outdoor spaces was nice, though again the architecture and construction left me cold.
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We all gorged ourselves with dinner at Papa John’s. This was the first pizza–in fact, it was the first cheese of any kind–I had eaten in almost four weeks. As Willy says, “The art of our necessities is strange / That can make vile things precious.” I’d have to review the text, but I’m not sure Lear had pizza in mind when he made that remark.

Pushing through the thousands of people going home at evening rush hour and stepping over open manholes, piles of sidewalk pavers, and construction debris, we made our way back to the bus station to catch an intercity taxi back to Yuxi. These cars hold a driver and four passengers and they don’t go unless they are full. The three of us got in and waited for a fourth passenger. A Chinese woman came up to the car and put her luggage in the trunk. Then she walked around the side of the car to get in, but changed her mind. Another Chinese woman approached and the same thing happened. The driver later told us that neither woman wanted to ride with three foreigners, though whether out of fear or embarrassment I could not tell. Finally a young Chinese man got in with us and off we went. We arrived back in Yuxi twelve hours after we’d left.

And this morning, I was once again able to enjoy my two morning cups of joe.


  1. Ken Wieland says:

    Good stuff Jim. Can’t wait till the next installment.

  2. Thom Sinn says:

    Three non-locals, each over 6’1″, in the back of a taxi……Yeah, I’ll bet that’s a little off-putting to the ladies of the region!

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