Ping (zestyping) wrote,


The plan was for my parents and i to travel together to Zhongdian this weekend to visit the schools they had helped build as part of Yunnan Project Hope. But a bureaucratic tangle prevented my mom from travelling with us. Passports are required for all travel here — even travel within the country! Because my mom's visa was expiring soon, she'd had to send off her passport to get the visa extended. She got an official receipt for it and kept a copy of the relevant passport page, but this wasn't good enough for the immigration officer at the airport. We argued that she had more than enough evidence to establish her identity and the validity of her visa, but he would hear none of it. Chalk up another victory for arcane inefficiency.

So my dad and i are in Kunming now. We had to make a change to our plane tickets, and this turned out to be a laborious affair. The airline agent had to collect our passports, copy information from them onto various forms and into her computer terminal, fill out other forms with carbon copies, attach stickers to the forms and our tickets, and make handwritten notations on the tickets as well. This process took over half an hour. On the other hand, when i realized i'd forgotten The Omnivore's Dilemma on the plane, i was sure i'd never get it back. But my dad inquired, and the agent said they'd deliver it over to us. I stood there disbelieving, but sure enough, in a few minutes they led us over to a counter with identically dressed staff all wearing Miss-America-style shoulder banners proudly displaying the name of the airline, and one of them produced the book. I had to sign for it and give my passport number (it seems they need your passport number for everything here).

The airport is notable for the groups of identically dressed people wandering around, and for stores selling everything from telescopes to Chinese herbs.

Apparently they also think it's cute to fill in the space between escalators with fake grass.

I should add a word or two about traffic. Travel by car in both Guangzhou and Kunming is a tad insane. For the most part cars follow traffic regulations, but in crowded spots the cars all try to squeeze past each other to get ahead, and generally behave like an unruly mob. There is no such thing as right of way. At a major intersection, when the cars have a green light, typically about half the pedestrians wait on the sidewalk for the light and the other half proceed to jaywalk through the moving traffic. This pisses off the drivers, who honk away, but no one cares, since this merely adds to the everpresent background chorus of car horns. Bicycles stream all over the place, usually with traffic but sometimes stopping in the middle of the road or weaving all over, and on smaller streets i've even seen bicycles riding down the street against the flow of cars. I'm astonished that people and bicycles aren't constantly getting run over.

On the bright side, i also noticed a lot of people riding around on little electric scooter bikes, which are silent and efficient in contrast to the glut of cars, and i thought that was pretty cool.

My dad and i spent some time wandering around in Kunming this evening. There's a big paved pedestrian-only area downtown, filled with glitzy fashion shops, department stores, restaurants, and nightclubs.

For dinner, we stopped in a noisy, bustling open-air food court where the ground was wet and grimy and the air was thick with the smells of cooking. As soon as we stepped inside, restaurant workers rushed up to urge us to partake of their wares. We kept shooing them away as we walked from shopfront to shopfront, but of course each new shopfront meant new people descending upon us to insist that we eat there. We took our time looking at the menus and displays of food (some of which included worms of all sizes and other insects we couldn't identify) and finally settled on one that seemed to have good prospects for offering something vegetarian. We weren't disappointed — we dined on ridiculously greasy noodles with barbecued spiced tofu, zucchini, and slices of lotus root. This all cost ¥25 for both of us (about $3.20) and it was easily the tastiest dinner i've had in China yet (the ridiculously-greasy factor probably had something to do with that). The holes in the lotus root were stuffed with sticky rice and the grilled result was fantastic.

The people working at the restaurant probably earn about ¥300 to ¥400 a month. On a typical 60-hour work week, that's less then ¥2 an hour. I felt a little guilty as they eagerly hurried about to serve us dinner, knowing that i think it's reasonable for me to make at least a hundred times their hourly wage. (They do get to eat for free, though.) When labour is so cheap, everything is overstaffed. You can afford to hire extra people to do all sorts of things. There were six or seven waiters in that tiny restaurant, which had about five tables. While my dad and i were eating, the other tables were empty. That left two or three of them to wait on us and the rest to go around the food court hawking, competing with the other restaurants to draw in more customers.

We came upon another example of this soon after we left the restaurant. As we walked in front of a place with a big flashing neon sign we saw this:

I asked my dad what all this was about. He explained that the place is a nightclub. There were two rows of women standing there; it looked like about a dozen of them, six on either side. Whenever someone walks into the nightclub they all cheerfully shout "Welcome!" That's their entire job — just to stand there all night, look pretty, and smile at the guests (or, if it were me, make them feel weird and self-conscious as they enter).
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