Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Chapter the Second: In Which Our Hero Loses His Sanity and Purchases Traditional Chinese Medicine

After the first full day of JiuXiang and ShiLin, this vacation appeared to be shaping up quite well. But every silver lining has a cloud, and sure enough this second full day would be a bit overcast.

We woke up a few hours south of KunMing, and as such I expected we'd simply barrel back to town and see the sights closer to the capital. After another wonderful Chinese breakfast it was back in the minivan and to...

The first of many 'wholesalers' that we'd visit that day. Turns out that most Chinese tour guides get money on the side by bringing in customers to these huge and out-of-the-way stores where the tourists might purchased discounted items.

Now, this is fine by me, for a while at least. I appreciate discounted prices, I appreciate not having to worry about fake or shoddy mercahndise, and I hope those who receive them appreciate their gifts. But I can only take so much shopping, especially, well, I'll get to that.

The first store was a gemstone hut. Necklaces, bracelets, trees, fountains, all sorts of knick knacks crafted from semi-precious stones. A few pieces were quite elegant, a lot was gaudy, and even more all looked like the same ubiquitous Chinese junk to me.

THe second store was a tea emporium. This, at least, included a seminar on tea and free samples, which was refreshing. We tasted three varieties of tea: a ginseng tea, a slightly sweet green tea, and the legendary pu'er tea. Pu'er tea is the fabled tea of European galley's and China's initial opening. This is the tea that swept Britain and turned all those limeys into tea-swilling limeys. I tried some, it was ok, but nothing special in the post-Lipton world. What was interesting in the packaging, as pu'er tea is often dried and compressed into giant coins or pancakes. I picked up a small tin of that sweet tea and then hopped in the van assuming it was time to take off. But no.

We went to a perfume store. Then we went to a word carving store. Then another stone emporium. Then a medicine store. By this point, I was so bored that I actually bought some Chinese herbal medicine. Haven't worked up the nerve to try it yet though.

At some point while the Chinese mom was perusing the same freaking perfume samples for the 5th time over, I walked up into a park built into the little tourist-trapping shopping area. Upon ascending the small hill, taking in the rundown temple, walking through a "Christmas Tree Forest" devoid of any sort of fir, and then watching a man-made river run dry I realized just how much of a tourist trap this truly was, a locale of Griswoldian proportions. Thank god we had to leave eventually.

We got back to KunMing by mid-afternoon. The first stop back here was Lake Dian (Dian Chi) which has got to be the greenest water I have ever seen. There was so much life in those waves that it seemed impossible for anyone's sight to penetrate the surface. The lake is framed by West Mountain, (XiShan), which provided a provocative backdrop as we sped around the lake on a little motorboat. I'd be coming back to West Mountain at the end of my trip, this first introduction was brief, but it was obvious the Chinese Mom wouldn't have anything to do with ascending the geological beaut.

So instead we drove to the front gates of the Minority Village, KunMing's version of Epcot Center, but without Figment the Dragon. We didn't go in, but only stopped long enough to snap a pic next to the topiary sign.

Same deal at the Botanical Expo, but no loss, as I only find flowers interesting when I'm at the bottom of the boredom barrel.

Lucky for us, there was still more shopping in store for us on this day of days! We hit another jade market followed by a flower and foodstuff market. The jade skipped my interest but I picked up some YunNan coffee at the flower market, plus some candy. I don't know what this candy is made out of, but its got an interestingly good taste. No one has been able to give me any helpful English on the subject, so I'm going to send a box to my father and let him experiment and name the flavor.

Dinner brought "Across the Bridge Noodles," a local speciality that really wasn't anything more than noodles, but you put the noodles in the water as opposed to putting water in the noodles! See the difference? I could taste it. Well, not really.

Finally, after all the non-shopping was completed, we had to wait in the train station for 2 hours or so until our sleeper train left. I'd be waking up in Dali, where our group would swell from 3 to 20+, our bus would get longer, and if we were lucky, we'd have more opportunities to purchase junk!


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