The Hassan's

Uncle Ho and
Chairman Mao

World Tour '98

(Read Other First Person Travel Stories)


We got across the border bridge and found friendly Chinese border guards. They processed us quickly and directed us to the train station. The only problem was getting Chinese $$. In the past, foreign travelers weren't allowed to change hard currency for the local currency, but instead had to use Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC). Now though the Chinese have decided to allow their currency to trade freely and this is a great advance for the independent traveler. The problem now is that only one special branch of the Bank of China may be used for exchange and in small towns it can be hard to locate. There are banks on every corner but you need the "right" one.

At the train station we found a number of Western backpackers waiting for the train. Linda and Simon were a couple who lived and worked in Beijing and spoke fluent Chinese. She was American (actually born in our hometown of Pittsburgh) and he was English and transplanted to Australia. They were traveling with his father (Robin) and Bernadette (Bernie). They were to prove remarkably helpful over the next several days.

The Chinese train was extremely clean and very comfortable for a "hard" sleeper class (thin mattress , sheets, comforter and pillow); cost for trip: $9. The ride was the most beautiful and incredible train ride we've ever taken. The line from Hekou to Kunming had been built by the French 1904-10 and it follows a river that snakes its way through high forested and rice terraced mountains. There were countless tunnels and the tracks literally clung to the mountainside. We took 17 hours to cover 250 miles and it wasn't because of station stops - nobody seems to live in that part of China. The speed was slow in order to keep us from ending up 2,000 feet down the mountain in the river. The few locals we did see used the track as a pathway for them and their animals. Seeing that there was only one train a day it might not be too hazardous. Jumping on and off the train and backpacking along the track would be an incredible journey for anyone out there looking for an unique adventure. May consider going back and doing it someday. It may take quite a while for much change to come to that area.

We arrived in Kunming - once a sleepy little town but, as with most of China, transformed into an exploding metropolis. The Old China is quickly being demolished and high rise buildings are going up everywhere. The development that once was confined to Beijing/Shanghai and the southern economic zones is now epidemic. Though you may never have heard of Kunming it now has a population greater than most of the major cities of the West and is still growing.

We stayed at the Camelia Hotel with many of the people we met on the train. Here is where you find most of the western backpackers. A mention in the Lonely Planet guide tends to produce that result. Simon explained that the Hotel had been trying to upgrade its image and prices, but LP keeps praising them so the backpackers keep coming. Off the beaten track in China it is sometime difficult to find good and inexpensive hotels so given a reference everyone uses it. The hotel was very comfortable and we kind of appreciated being around some Westerners as during our time in Vietnam we had seen very few.

The sights of Kunming were very beautiful but they had really been reduced to refuges from the vast development going on all around them. We visited the Yunnan University and found a campus one might expect to find in some small town in Ohio.

Visiting the Stone Forest was one of the attractions in coming to Kunming. A geological wonder of limestone pinnacles left following the evaporation of an ancient sea, it lay about 100 miles south of Kunming. This is one of the "must see" sites for all Chinese so we were a little concerned that it might not be too exciting - often the Chinese interest and the Western interest are not closely aligned. Arranging for a car and driver to get us there we arrived mid-morning and found ourselves virtually alone for the first couple of hours. The area was much like Bryce Canyon Park in Utah, but in gray tones instead of the red/browns of Bryce, but still impressive.

We entered one area thinking we could easily cut through it to get to the other side and meet our driver. We were to find ourselves "lost" for about an hour and half amongst fifty foot spires of stone. The Chinese have built staircases and paths amongst the rocks, but without a "guide" you can become very lost. Besides being a mental maze it is an arduous physical challenge to find your way out. Most everyone we met without a guide seemed to be lost and of little assistance. Finally we encountered a lone German tourist who had just begun her wanderings and was able to direct us to the way out. We hope she is not still there.

Emerging from the dense forest we encountered what we had expected earlier, thousands and thousands of Chinese tourists. All in groups - of blues hats, red umbrellas , yellow jackets or whatever it took to differentiate them and keep them together. Advice: if you go to the Stone Forest go early, take bread crumbs to mark your trail and get out by 3:00 in the afternoon.

We left Kunming on China Yunnan Airlines in the late afternoon. China used to have one large airline CAAC, but free market has resulted into it splintering in a multitude of small and much more efficient carriers. It was now on to Chongquig.

Take Care

Copyright 1999 Lois and John Hassan

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