Monday, October 17, 2005

Chapter the Sixth: In Which Our Hero Finally Gets Some Personal Time and Maybe Dysentery

Waking up before the dawn as the train pulled into KunMing, sure enough, I was quite tired. As the masses greeted us on the platform, our large tour group from Dali and LiJiang splintered, and once again I found myself alone with the two Harbiners.

We found our old KunMing tourguide and cabbed back to the same hotel as before. However, as reservations hold no weight in China, no rooms were prepared when we arrived thereby leading to a three hour wait in the lobby. I was tired as sin, and if I sat down my head would fall into sleep every few minutes. When I was sneaking zzz's, I took the time to memorize every facet of their scale model of the "Golden Hind."

Eventually I got my room, and with it a nap, bath, and some English-speaking TV. This was also the time when el stomacho started feeling a bit en fuego. I'll spare the details, but it became obvious that any plans for that day had to keep me in the city so my private, sanitary Western toliet would always be within a 10 minute cab ride. These are issues that become common worries for some in China. My time was now. Luckily, KunMing had enough within a couple of klicks to peak my interest.

Walking out of the lobby I first headed to the West Pagoda, another example of Tang Dynasty architecture. What might have been a frolicking little public square amidst a local historic site now seemed like a chaep children's park and nut market. Either way, it still stood better than the local mosque, which had been reduced to a parking lot.

Two or so blocks from the rubbled mosque I stumbled into the Muslim Quarter, and from the looks of things I couldn't help but imagine that the KunMing Civil Authority was trying to push out the local Muslims. The entire area was fenced in by construction sites and dumping areas, certainly not a great local for living or marketeering. I did, however, fall prey to a determined restauranteaur and lunched on some sort of lamb soup pizza deal. It was delicious, but the simple act of eating seemed to be allegorical for reloaded the cannon that had become my stomach, so I couldn't satisfy my full hunger.

Out of the Muslim quarter I made my way to the Provincial Museum and strolled through a photography exhibit celebrating Kun Ming, another on bronze drums, and finally a hall dedicated to Buddhist art. I find Buddhist art fascinating but I consider my understanding to be lacking, and as such I promised myself to search out some readings to illuminate my ignorance.

On the Buddhist kick, I wanted to be sure to make it to TianTong Temple, the local landmark, before it closed for the day. I hustled through the "Flower and Bird Market" (devoid of both flowers and birds) then up and over a hill to the front gate. The inside was quite peaceful and a wonderful example of the standard Buddhist temple. The mass of turtles in the moat captured the most of my attention because, hey, turtles.

From the temple I wandered to a nearby park built around 5 small lagoons but it soon became apparent that I wouldn't be enjoying myself here do the pressure of the mass crowds and the pressure building in my gut. So the day of adventure ended early, but the evening of... err... expulsion was just beginning.

The next morning I felt totally empty and spent, but in a good way. Fearful of all Chinese food on this last full day of my vacation, I made a plan only to dine at some Western restaurants I had found the day before. Breakfast thereby awarded eggs over easy, toast, coffee, and oh-so-delicious hashbrowns.

Americans: don't take your hashbrowns for granted. Cherish them every day, every bite, as if it were the last.

Gastronomically content, the day's first stop was The Bamboo Temple a few klicks out of the town. This temple, while in and of itself not exceptionally special, does house 500 arhat or luohan statues, each different. These are the disciples of Buddha, and each one was so realistically represented doing something, at times, exceptionally surreal that I spent an hour or two taking them in.

From the Bamboo Temple I made my way to Long Men, or "Dragon Gate." Built into the side of Xi Shan, the mountain that rims Dian Chi, the green lake I had boated upon a few days earlier, Long Men consists of a series of grottoes carved from the bare rock by monks. The paths were quite narrow at spots, and the crowds large (esepcially at the required picture points) but it was another site of the sort I had never seen, thereby making it an interesting experience.

Getting back down the mountain I took the path less traveled which smacked me into a little village amidst a monster bridge construction engineering project. Hoping from point to point in the deep mud that appeared to have a rock large enough to balance upon I eventually made my way to lakeside and crossed to the opposite side via a man-made dirt bridge. A walk through a park and I headed back to town, strolled through the major venues one last time (and happened upon a book in English on Buddhist art and temples!) I eventually settled in an Italian restaurant for dinner before going back to the room.

The vacation was, aside from the 5 AM wakeup call and flight home, over.


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