Sunday, 2 December 2012
A New Day in Kunming, China
WIth an unexpected day to explore Kunming before our overnight train north east I woke and hopefully stated to Julian that "China is going to be different today". After a lazy morning doing luxury things like shaving legs and washing hair in steamy showers we set out into the city on a brilliant, cool, cloudless day. Picking out a rough route passing through Green Lake park en-route to Yuantong Temple, I gave into an Asian bakery, another luxury (much to my distress) often enjoyed by Julian that I usually attempt to turn a blind eye to. Today though, I was quite happy to pick out my own piece of savoury, yet sweet, pastry topped with bits of spicy sausage and cheese. We neared a small lake with large floral centrepiece. The paths through the park were lined with floral arrangements on their last legs and we wondered if perhaps some sort of flower show or festival had recently occurred. In the south east Asian peninsula people would often watch and greet us with smiles, encouraging their children to do so as well as we passed. Walking around here felt different. The stares felt more intense (though still only curious) and often no other acknowledgement was initiated. Our greetings towards young children were often responded to in open mouth stares, only a few overcoming the initial shock to wave in return before looking to their parents for approval. Adults are the same, quite happy to blatantly stare but will either quickly avert their eyes when they meet ours after looking at us bottom to top, some quickly nodding in response to our greetings and a select few responding whole heartedly. This was only an initial observation as we walked through the park, admiring the autumn colours and watching a pair of exceptionally large ducks (about twice the size of the mallards in the west) preening.
Autumn. Through the intense heat of south east Asia I have been dreaming of autumn; one of my favourite times of year, especially at home in southern Ontario. When the heat ceases, leaves turn and colours flourish. Ignorantly, I wasn't expecting to come across autumn this year, yet of course as we moved north out of the tropics in October, what else should I have expected? Somehow we have managed to plan this trip perfectly, without actually planning anything at all. We have managed to avoid the high season in the most popular of places, we have followed the monsoon; only once intercepting it, experiencing the intensity of the rain for just a short while. Now, as high season is about to hit in SE Asia, we ventured north into China, missing their holiday weekend at the start of October by a fortnight and avoiding the crowds completely, dipping our toes into cooler seasons but avoiding the early snows coming off the Himalayas.
As we wandered up the main road towards the temple complex we admired the the Chinese characters on every building, completely normal here, though so beautifully foreign to our eyes. A sign for a hospital has never been so pretty. Approaching the stunning entry gates to the temple an elderly man sat upon the steps with a long, wispy grey beard and his hair tied back in a loose ponytail. Normally shy about approaching people for a photograph, Julian was captivated enough with his look that without hesitation he ventured the question and was soon given whole hearted permission for a portrait. He was certainly one of the most distinguished men I had ever seen and it didn't take long for us to realize how many of them there are. Fact of the matter is, old Chinese men are exceptionally beautiful, smoking their pipes, long wispy silver hair and sun kissed skin so leathery it almost takes you back in time.
Entering Yuantong Temple we followed flagstone steps under an archway and around the first of the buildings which forms the east side of a courtyard complex. Within the area that is usually an open space, there is a pond, home to hundreds of turtles and golden koi. A walkway surrounds all four sides and a pair of white arched bridges lead to the centre of the water and the pagoda there. We stood before large vats of ash with burning incense, plumes of smoke lingering in the air; offerings made by the devoted. Lingering around the outer edges of the pagoda island I watched a gorgeous woman sat on the lower steps near the water, stroke the shells of many turtles surrounding here. On the other side, a group of three blessed the contents of a bag before releasing two small turtles into the water. It was then I realized that the turtles here were actually devote offerings to the temple. We later concluded they were representative of 'good deeds', people addressing their personal karma and attempting to tilt the balance before their final judgement and placement in the next life. If one releases a captive animal it is inherently a 'good' and 'selfless' deed. Of course with a cynical and western viewpoint one might argue the animals would not be captive in the first place were it not for the market surrounding such efforts to alter the balance of ones own life; perhaps a neutral deed at best then and not accounting for those animals caught or bred and perished before they could be sold to a 'good person' for release.
In awe we crossed the bridge and payed our respects to golden statues inside: Buddha on one side and the Goddess of Mercy on the other. We circled the pagoda and admired the workmanship. Greyscale 'Gong-Bi' paintings of mountains and temples along with some minutely detailed animals and plants adorned plaques set high in the brightly coloured, complex eves, the structure of the building left bare and the fabulous curved chinese roofline providing as much a wonderment as the complex curves and bosses that make up the ceiling of Bath Abbey in England. Julian spent maybe 45 minutes just shooting around the pagoda whilst I was busy getting told off by a groundsman for stroking the turtles by the waters edge, before we moved on.
Beyond the pagoda stands the main hall which unfortunately was covered in a big blue tarp but the interior shrine was one of the most stunning we had ever come across. Three statues of Buddha face outwards flanked by two dragons, one yellow, the other blue, circling up the central pillars to face each other in an apparent stand off, as if ready to defend; for the mythical beings are regarded as representations of great strength and protection among the chinese. Admiring the striking beauty, a man approached me with a baby in his arms and holding up his camera. Assuming he wanted a picture taken of him and the child I help my hand out whereupon he put the child in my arms. With a huge grin he took multiple photos of his son in the arms of a person with white skin. As the bare bottom of the child's crotchless garments rested agains my arms I wondered how parents knew it was time to hold the child outwards when nature called.
Atop stone steps carved into the hillside at the rear of the temple itself, a small pool of water reflected light onto the smooth stone above, deeply carved with ancient writings. There was something magic about this pool and we spent an extended period of time just sitting in contemplation, admiring the dancing light and a long billed bird that fished for minnows off the surrounding wall in the corner. Drips regularly seep down the lichen covered limestone rock face and drop into the pool, the bright sunlight reflecting back up the walls as the ripples chase each other and criss cross the surface providing an endless dance to captivate the eyes. We later learned that weathering the elements for centuries since being carved by monks, these are some of the most ancient inscriptions in Kunming and are one of the most important historical relics in the city.
We lingered around the temple grounds for hours, pausing for a few minutes here or there to admire some detail that had caught our eyes and making friends with the temple cat, an enormous, long haired black and white, with a fine plume of a tail and only one eye. Finally we took a leisurely stroll back down the street from whence we came. Pausing for a refreshing drink, we sat and amused ourselves people watching until a middle aged women approached us, talking at us in mandarine. We responded as we usually do, in english, to whatever she may have asked. She nodded as though clearly understanding us, and continued nattering on at us. We held a full blown conversation for a good twenty minutes, each nodding as though fully comprehending the other. Finally she took off back in the direction that she came from, only to return a five minutes later to continue the absurd ramblings. Passersby stared in confusion as we continued as though making perfect sense to one another. WIth a final good hearted laugh she returned the way she came (again). She must have been the neighbourhood crazy (as opposed to a visiting one….. Ed) which made for an amusing half hour. She peeked out from behind a stone wall once again and we took the opportunity to smile at her before heading in the general direction of our hostel.
Following the advice of our Lonely Planet guide we made for a sub level food court of sorts where many stalls cooked up Chinese dishes, local to Kunming or stretching to reach the provinces afar. We added 100RMB to a refundable card and picked out some dishes to share; the first broccoli dish I have had since coming to Asia! Tofu, sweet potatoes, and fresh veggies were all nurturing and satisfying. The atmosphere was buzzing with families and friends sharing meals and chefs working flaming woks and bubbling hot pots, aromas of spicy peppers and tobacco smoke lingering in the air. We concluded the meal with a couple of tea concoctions two ladies were plying from a stall within the food court. When offered a menu in chinese we blindly pointed on a whim, hoping we made good choices. Julian enjoyed his milky lime beverage and I, my floral liquid, rich with roses and ginger. We later found out this was a chain of stores we would find as far afield as Lijiang and Chengdu in Sichuan.
It turns out that Kunming had more to offer than we initially anticipated and perhaps being stuck there for another day wasn't the end of the world, despite it feeling desperate at the time. Pushing the first few days in China to the back of my mind (and the pages of a blog entry) this day in Kunming was a good, proper introduction to China and the Han that live here (although they themselves are a minority in Yunnan outside of Kunming). The autumn temperatures, magical temple, random ramblings and savoury delights whet my appetite and I can only anticipate with some excitement, venturing further back in time into a culture I know very little about and which has changed very little in something approaching 3000 years as we head further into the Middle Kingdom.