Friday, January 18, 2019

China: In Search of the Past: Part 5: Kunming, World War 2

After flying cross-country to Dali, we're eager for our "slow" train through Yunnan's scenic mountains down to Kunming. But soon after arriving at the station, we are ordered to evacuate, due to "equipment problems." Everyone, even support personnel, is driven out while police and security officers pour in. With no further explanation, we all stand around, trading rumorsmany translated to me by a young Chinese woman. She doesn't believe the official reason. As this is a restive border region, I think maybe separatists or escaped prisoners? The burning question: Will we be able to continue our travels? Will this be a short delay or should we try to catch a long-distance bus? By now we're joined by three European grad students. With the woman (in a hurry to reach Kunming for the World Cup broadcast), we decide on the sure bet and traipse several blocks to the bus terminal... Along with many others, desperate to get on the road. Seats are difficult to obtain, but the woman makes sure we are all taken care of before moving on. Throughout China, I find people eager to helpoften going out of their way to do so.

We're lucky to get the very last seats on a crowded bus. Still, I'm sorry to miss our train ride through the countryside as it descends to  a broad highland plateau. We reach the outskirts of Kunming at dusk.

Now a major city, Kunming was a small railway stop until World War 2 shook things up. Drawn here for book research, I come in search of that wartime past when China was struggling to hold off Japan. American support became critical, and the famed Flying Tigers established a base on this remote plateau. Later, so did the US intelligence agency, OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. Late in the war, my characters were posted here, undertook secret missions, and fell in love. 

By great coincidence, our landscape designer friend who's worked in Kunming off-and-on for 20 years is here now. We're lucky to have him as our guide, as I attempt to conjure what it was like, back in the day. Tim witnessed the wholesale leveling caused by "development" and predicted they'd rebuild "old town" in ten years. It took them five. We begin in the northern hillsides at the 17C Tongwa, or Golden Temple, on MingfengSinging Phoenix Hill.

The next day we visit Lake Dianchi, "Sparkling Pearl Embedded in a Highland." It spreads before us like a sea of lotus blossoms and water lilies. The US Air Force base was nearby south of town, so my characters would have known it.

Lotus blooms
Water lily
The crowds are out with their cameras to enjoy a perfect Sunday.

I see proud families posing in front of this hammer and sickle.

Topiary hammer and sickle
Green Lake Hotel is worth a trip just for the sumptuous breakfast buffet, which we've fantasized about since our visit five years ago. We're in the old University and French district across from Green Lake, a precious oasis in the big city. The park is a lively spot where lovers meet, as well as old people doing traditional songs and folk dances. Even singing pro-Mao songs.

I scout-out more potential settings for my book. French colonial buildings, cobbled streets and lanes.

In what used to be the Kafka Cafe, I find another prized vintage piece. 

Like all of China, development and overdevelopment have paved over the past, but bits and pieces remain for her citizens to cherish. Soon we're off to Chongqing, the wartime capital of Nationalist China, the second main base of American operations. 

Next stop: Chongqing (old Chungking)

Sunday, December 16, 2018

China: In Search of the Past: Part 4: The Four Olds, From Coastal Hunan to Mountainous Yunnan

Eternal Audrey at Changsha Airport newsstand
After many detours, it's back to China. We've been heading north from the Vietnam border of Guangxi Province to Hunan Provincestill in the south yet far from the rural, traditional countryside we've been traversing. It's a shock arriving at the huge railway station of capital Changsha. Hunan is the birthplace of Mao Zedong, who has been resurrected as a figure of reverence by the current leadership. His home village is a place of pilgrimage. We did not visit.

At Changsha's Mayishun 89 hotel, a beautifully restored mansion, I get my first glimpse of how precious are pieces of the past in a land where 20C history was erased. For the rest of our travels, I'll see the value placed on historic artifacts, mostly destroyed during Mao's Cultural Revolution against the Four OldsOld Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. This loss is still felt today.

As my book is partly set in 1940s China, I'm "scouting" locations. Perhaps this will be the secret police chief's sitting room. And bath.

My daughter calls breakfast a social construct. Why not greet the day with spicy noodle soup with eggsand a side of watermelon?

Outside the courtyard gate, Changsha's summer humidity makes it difficult to move. We're not sorry to board our cross-country flight to the mountains of fabled Dali, Yunnan Province. This southwest region borders Thailand, Laos, and Burma, creating a mix of bloodlines with several indigenous peoples. From the days of warlords and warring kingdoms... Dali's old city walls.

The Old Town walls and temple at night.

Avoiding China's pervasive over-development, Dali has followed a wiser path. As a result the natural beauty and traditional culture are a big tourist draw. Especially for the majority Han Chinese, who are drawn to its village-like charm, clean airand again, sense of a lost past. Everyone hits Old Town's rousing night market.

The Cangshan mountains provide a stunning backdrop for the old market street. 

Dali's traditional style is reflected in these views from our homey yet refined Old Town guesthouse, Yunxi Boutique Inn. It's a fine place to chill after our busy travelespecially its peaceful terrace.

Yun Xi Boutique Inn
The next day, taking a bus up the mountain to Lijiang, we have another view of the old city walls.

Reaching Lijiang two hours later, I'm seething at the tragedy of tourism run amok. Even so, this old tribal village is insanely lovely.

Lijiang is a World Heritage site, which "deserves protection for the benefit of all humanity." Seeing this tourist Disneyland, I doubt the cynical development is what UNESCO envisioned.

Yet Lijiang's natural charm can not be denied, every angle massively photogenic.

Conflicted by the pull of past and present, we take the bus back to Dali for more Night Market fun.

Next stop: Kunming, Yunnan

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

China: In Search of the Past: Part 3: Guilin/Yangzhou

We leave Nanning's pristine train station and after a spectacular two hours of Guangxi Province scenery reach Guilin. Guilin is revered in China for its winding Li River and sculptural limestone mountainsan eternally popular subject for Chinese poets.

However, coming from Guangxi's deep-deep south, I know these staggeringly beautiful mountains exist throughout the region and down to Vietnam. As far as branding, though, Guilin got here first.

Whereas we stayed at a slick new resort in Nanning, here we have chosen the elegant yet homey Zen Tea House along the river. 

Just in time we arrive to see boaters practicing for the Dragon Boat Festival, a major Chinese holiday.

A lively hotel guide, Alice, takes us on a walking tour of the city, including its traditional covered market and trendy exterior mall. There are parks and universities, and the quality of life is one of the best in China. Many people are leaving the big, congested cities and choosing more tranquil yet cosmopolitan towns like Guilin.

The next morning we leave with hotel guide Jackie for a day in the country. He is eager for us to experience the real China. We begin with "Husband Hill," which bridal couples climb before their wedding for photos, hugely important here. It's a very steep "hill" and I imagine hiking it in an elaborate gown or tuxedo. 

But such a backdrop for the memory book!

At the top, thoughtful Jackie prepares a traditional tea service.

By noon we're glad we going down, rather than up in the heat of the day. We drive further in the countryside to Yangshuo, a serene farming area with smartly managed tourism. We rent bikes and ride through rice paddiesit's early July, planting season. Magical!

Lunch is in an old brick village at the edge of some fields. Across the lane is the restaurant kitchen and home, a mix of worlds.

The beer was named for Bill Clinton, when he visited the area.

Now we're off on a bamboo boat ride down the Yulong River.

  The waters are placid and gentle as we push off.

But things soon turn choppy as we rush down the rapids. 

Before long, the river quiets, returning us to a state of timeless peace.

Too soon we reach shore, but a lovely shore it is.

 With a traditional water wheel.

The perfect site for more wedding photos.

Next stop: Dali