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animals, chicken, entrees, Gerald, musings, out and about, Parks, restaurants, travel

Deja Vu on LSD

02.21.09 | 3 Comments

When a city has a close proximity to the Silk Road, Tibet, Laos, Myanmar/Burma and the rest of Southeast Asia, a history that dates back to 279 BCE and later includes a visit from Marco Polo, has been a major market, communication, military, and transport center, and has a (comparatively) large Chinese Minority presence, I have rather high expectations of said city. And when such a city, the capital of a province renowned for its cuisines, is also referred to as the Spring City or City of Eternal Spring because of its climate, I think, “Perfect! This sounds like The Ellis City, where I can go long-underwear commando and eat local specialties until I burst out of my jeans all while soaking up the culture of a place with lots of character, history, and diversity.”

And then I saw the Wal-Mart. Nestled next to the KFC.

And I realized that Kunming was Another Chinese City.

I have been to at least 20 Chinese cities, 8 of China’s 22 provinces, and the “Autonomous Region” of Tibet. Some of these cities are special despite what I call Hanification, the increasing or total domination by the majority Han government so that one city is as indistinguishable as possible from the next city. Now obviously, each city has it’s own characteristics, but this is usually due to silly things we cannot (yet) control, like climate and geography.

Memo to HJT: Get on that?

Kunming’s cityscape is best described as bland. There aren’t many tall buildings, which is nice, but everything is a white-ish, brownish color, enhanced by China Smog™. But what makes this city different from all other cities? [*sigh* No one here can grasp my attempts at subtle Jewish humor. My students can’t even fathom that not everyone celebrates Christmas.]

What sets Kunming apart is its layout. Now, I have a good sense of direction, better than that of anyone I know. Not bragging, it’s just How It Is. And yet aside from New York City (which at least makes a modicum of sense), Kunming is the only city where I have HAD to use a map for the duration of my stay. And even with the map I STILL got lost. The streets are not straight and seem to wind around like the city planner was blindfolded, spun around and handed an Etch-a-Sketch during a night of baijiu, LSD, and karaoke. I swear the streets are made of rubber and change around like the staircases in Harry Potter.

The first thing Gerald and I did upon arrival was, take a wild guess?

Yes, we got lunch. And let me tell you, we picked the right restaurant. The menu was like the Encyclopedia Britannica of menus. It needed to be divided into volumes. Finally, we decided on some tofu.

It was really light (in flavor, anyway. There was enough oil to grease me up for a massage) and salty. It was cooked with bits of cured ham, peppers, and some sort of seed/nut/thing. I ate most of it. I think Gerald had two bites.

Gerald then picked a spicy chicken dish. I admit, I was a little annoyed, since we had spent our time on Hainan eating spicy Sichuan dishes and this didn’t look all that different. But I didn’t want to get all Food Dictator up on him, so I held my tongue.

And my tongue repaid me a hundred fold. This chicken had tons of hot peppers, and it was spicy enough to make Gerald, who has a high spice tolerance, sweat. I have superhuman spice tolerance, but my nose was dripping. I would rank it as Decidedly and Delightfully Spicy.

This dish one caught our attention from the beginning.

This is 水晶八宝饭, or Crystal Eight Treasure Rice. Half black sticky rice, half white sticky rice, held together in a sticky, mildly sweet syrup with the consistency of snot (I know, I shouldn’t describe something edible as snot-like, but it’s true!). There were strips of candied fruit laid over top, plus some raisins and a date.

Since Gerald and I both have a sweet tooth, there was a little bit of a competition over this dish. But I got the date before he did. Ha!

Then we sauntered over to the Bird and Flowers Market to work off a bit of that lunch. The bird and Flowers Market sold, shocker, lots of birds and flowers.

It also sold the typical Chinese souvenirs: Mao bags, scarves, crappy jewelry, fake curios, pretty much everything.

But the birds and other animals made it much more interesting.

There was also a lot of street food I had never seen before. There were thin flat semi-tortilla-like things slathered with sauce and wrapped around a youtiao (line of fried dough).

There were grilled squares of something, I couldn’t tell what. I am now fairly certain it’s tofu.

And little potatoes lovingly boiled (okay, fried) in oil.

Then you dust them with chili powder.

Gerald got these. He let me steal one. For research purposes.

The bird and flowers market was a cool place, but sadly, fairly small, especially if you aren’t looking to buy anything.

Then Gerald and I split up and I managed to successfully navigate my way to Green Lake Park, the big park in the city. I love parks in China. They’re always happenin’. This one was no exception.

It wasn’t much different from large parks in other cities. Not that that’s a bad thing, because that means there were people busy creating their own fun and, gasp, interacting.

This group took their dancing seriously. No smiles from these ladies. Though one old man in the back seemed to be having a grand old time, boppin’ around and smiling and laughing. Stop having a good time. We are DANCING here.

There were lots of musicians.

To my memory, this was the first time I’d seen brass instruments at the park. I thought of my brother, who studies trumpet performance.

This group is more typical of what I’ve seen in parks. Old men and a few old women rockin’ out to Golden Commie Oldies. Okay, they aren’t all Communist songs. Just some of them.

I made friends with one of the old men, who is originally from the Zhejiang province (same province as Huzhou) but had been living in Kunming for 60 years. I know that could make him anywhere from 61 to 80 something years old, but 60 years seems like longer to me in China, mostly because of the density of their history. 60 years ago Mao was in power. This man has lived through The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Gaige Kaifang (Reform and Opening), not to mention China’s explosive modernization since then. Can you imagine living a life of starvation, poverty and hard labor in your youth only to end up living in a world dominated by cell phones, television, KFC/Wal-Mart? I know American society, and the world, changed a lot in those 60 years too, but not to this extent. It seems like China covered roughly 200 years in about a third of the time. It still blows my mind.

Anyway, after a while, the fan dancers and the musicians collaborated.

This lady proceeded to whip out her lapel mic and her mad singing skills.

Everyone in China fancies him/herself a singer, and people will generously applaud any singer regardless of his/her degree of tone deafness. But this lady could actually sing.

Of course there were people getting married.

Since the lake was large, you could go for a little twirl in these water thingies. We’ve seen those before.

The park had one special characteristic, or should I say, hundreds of them flying around: seagulls. Everywhere. Like the pigeons in Mary Poppins. I’m not sure why they’re there—there’s not an ocean close by. Kunming has a large lake, Lake Dian, but it’s a freshwater lake. Any biologists/ecologists/-ists of any kind want to explain this to me?

Either way, there were seagulls bobbing in the lake and swarming around in the air. I was a little afraid of gull droppings in my hair, but luckily they weren’t incontinent.

The are only two ‘big’ parks in Huzhou (but really, they’re not very big) and they are not nearly as lively as this one, or many of the other big ones I’ve seen in other cities. In Huzhou some people sit around and drink tea and play cards or Majiang, but no dancing, singing, or music.

Parks are socializing centers, but they’re also great places to go to escape a bit of the soul-less, scenery vacuums of the city.

Word up, sister.

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