Monthly Archives: March 2010

Avatar in 3-D IMAX

Kunming has Yunnan's first and only IMAX theater. The theater is part of a complex of multiple high rise buildings housing shops, offices and residential dwellings in the heart of downtown Kunming. The development's shopping mall including the IMAX theater opened in January 2010.

When we arrived in town in late February the inaugural show Avatar was playing. Tickets for all shows were still in high demand and went on sale 3 days in advance. On a Tuesday right after lunch at Keats School, we scurried to the box office and secured tickets to see Avatar on the following Friday afternoon.

The 3-D IMAX show was in English with Chinese subtitles. While we had to imagine what the Pandorans were saying, Chinese subtitles translated these conversations as well. (At ordinary theaters the 3-D version is dubbed in Chinese.)

The central government closed all of the non-IMAX, non-3-D shows (the lowest ticket price) due to 'low box office receipts'. The real reason may be that government censors view the story as a bit too close to home: To make way for large-scale new or re-development, government routinely orders people off farmland or to vacate residential and commercial blocks. Not uncommonly, people protest what they view as government's heavy handed tactics.

Pirated versions of the show, dubbed in Chinese, are widely available on DVD, so anyone who wants to see the show can easily do so.

Kunming – The Spring City

The Spring City's mild climte is ideal for flowering trees and plants. During any season something will be in bloom. In March spring annuals, azalea, wisteria and the fruit trees are blooming: cherry, peach, crab apple and pear. As in California, bougainvillea blooms luxuriantly year around.

Because of the mild and mostly sunny climate, commercial flower growing is a thriving business. All kinds of flowers grown in the Kunming area are shipped for sale in flower markets all over China and Southeast Asia.

Down with the Old & Up with the New

Since the 1990s Kunming has undergone extensive redevelopment and population growth. Tom first visited the city in 1987 and remembers a small city of one to two story buildings and narrow streets crowded with bicycles.

Now taxis, private cars and buses speed along 6-lane wide, tree-lined boulevards. Drivers obey traffic signals and rules of the road and they do not drive with their horns the way drivers do in Nepal and India.

Throngs of electric bikes and traditional bicycles own the wide bike lanes on both sides of major streets. Pedestrians have the wide sidewalks to themselves and don't have to share them with bicycles as in Tokyo.

Unlike in Berkeley and Tokyo, any vehicle that rolls on wheels in Kunming has right-of-way over pedestrians. At intersections of any size, and especially when crossing a street with a 'walk' signal, pedestrians must be on the lookout for vehicles turning across their paths.

Kunming has become a city of modern high-rise office buildings and multi-story urban shopping malls with shops selling international luxury designer brands. There are innumerable clusters of high-rise apartment/condo blocks. This is the view from my classroom window:

Historically, many residents lived in blocks of 7-story walk-up flats.

These old apartments are being rapidly demolished to make room for high-rise apartment blocks. Many residents of the old accommodations may be happy to move into more modern dwellings but unhappy about the increased cost.

Throughout the central city vast construction projects are underway on whole city-block areas. One such project is across the street from our language school. From our 16th floor window we see and hear men and machines working 24 hours/day, 7 days/week.

In breaks from studying, we stroll over for a close-up view.

Kunming – Commercial Hub from Ancient Times

For hundreds of years Kunming has been a hub for trade between Southeast Asia, India and China's heartland to the north and east. Overland trade through Kunming extends back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) and probably earlier.

Kunming was the hub of the ancient Tea Horse Trail over which traders (mostly Yunnanese Muslims) transported goods by pony and mule caravan over an area extending from Assam, Burma, Thailand and Laos in the south, to the Chamdo region of eastern Tibet and the south China provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi.

The city's modern prosperity dates from 1910 when a railroad line opened to Hanoi. Besides railroad connection to Vietnam, roads connect the city to Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

The central government is positioning Kunming to be the trade, transport, financial and cultural center of Southeast Asia. Steadily expanding direct air links to all major Chinese cities, most major cities in Southeast Asia, and some major cities in Japan and South Korea are helping to achieve this objective. A new international airport, under construction and scheduled to open in 2012, will be the fourth largest in China (after Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong).

Air links to India are likely to be opened as well. On February 28 we took Air China's inaugural flight from Bangalore, India, to Chengdu, China, where we connected to another Air China flight to Kunming (the flight from Bangalore continued on to Shanghai). On April 30 we will fly nonstop from Kunming to Kathmandu.

Yunnan and the ‘Other China’

In his book, Yunnan: China South of the Clouds, author Jim Goodman argues that there are really two Chinas. One is the Middle Kingdom, the relatively low-lying central and eastern provinces bordered on the east by oceans and on the west by inhospitable terrain. This periphery, with its steppes, deserts, high plateaus and rugged mountains, is the ‘Other China,’ which comprises 60% of China's present area.

The Han comprise about 92% of China's current population and is heir to thousands of years of common history, tradition and cultural characteristics. The dense population of the eastern Middle Kingdom is almost exclusively Han.

In the Other China, people from different civilizations and ethnic origins have blended with each other and with Chinese culture for thousands of years. People of the country's 55 recognized minority nationalities make up the remaining 8% of the country’s overall population and are scattered primarily around the periphery,

Yunnan is home to 24 ethnic minorities and to one third of China's non-Han population. Nearly half of the province's population of over 45 million is non-Han.

Ever since Khublai Khan made Yunnan part of his empire in the mid-1200s, the area has, to varying degrees, been under Chinese rule. Despite the various governments' efforts over the centuries of Chinese rule, numerous pockets of the province have resisted Han influence and have retained strong local cultural identities.

Yunnan-South of the Clouds & North of the Heat

Yunnan is the sixth largest of China's 22 provinces. The province is slightly larger than Montana and slightly smaller than California and is larger than either Japan, Germany or the UK.

The province is located in China's southwest corner and borders Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Vietnam. The northwest corner borders Tibet, but the rest of the northern border is with Sichuan province with weather dominated by clouds and rain.

A legend says that a Nanzhao prince of Dali, in present day Yunnan, visited the Tang Dynasty court, he told the emperor that his land was south of the rainy weather. The emperor then dubbed that territory 'Yunnan' – South of the Clouds.

Yunnan does, in fact, enjoy some of the best weather in China. Its southern latitude along with its mountain chains and vast hill-studded high plateau account for the temperate climate. Only at low elevations along the southern border is the climate tropical.

Both culturally and physically Yunnan forms the northern rim of Southeast Asia and is subject to the annual monsoon from May through October. In other seasons days are usually sunny and mild, with cold winters only in the mountainous northwest.

Because of the province's diverse geography, it is home to China's greatest variety of plant and animal species. Among the 30,000 species of plants in China, 18,000 can be found in Yunnan.

Yunann’s pillar industries are tobacco, agriculture, mining and tourism. The province is rich in hydropower, both developed and undeveloped, and in mineral reserves. It has China's largest reserves of aluminum, lead, zinc and tin and major reserves of copper and nickel.

Yunnan is one of China's relatively undeveloped provinces and has more poverty-striken counties than most other provinces. While the province lags behind the east coast in relation to socio-economic development, its geographic location gives it a competitive advantage in terms of emerging trade and commerce with Southeast Asia and India.

Where in the World is Kunming?

The Chinese language school where we are studying for nine weeks is in Kunming. We had visited Kunming on previous trips to China and found it to be a very pleasant city. When we searched the internet for Chinese language schools in China, we were surprised and pleased to find such a school in Kunming.

A medium-sized city by Chinese standards, greater Kunming's population is about 8 million. The city is the capital of Yunnan Province.

Yunnan encompasses a vast range of geography: the eastern edge of the high Himalayas, the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, deep river gorges including one of the world's deepest, and tropical jungles. Consequently the variety of plant and animal species is comparably large. Additionally, ethnic minorities make up 35 percent of the province's population.

Because of its location in the heart of such a unique mixture of both peoples and geography, the central government has designated Kunming as a 'special tourist zone' (tourists are primarily from other parts of China). In my 'South of the Clouds' post I'll have more to say about Yunnan.

Kunming is located on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, a fertile lake basin surrounded on the east, north and south by mountains. The Tropic of Cancer is just north of the city, but because of its high elevation (about 1900 meters/6200 feet) the city enjoys a mild climate throughout the year and is known as 'The Spring City'.

Learning Chinese in China

Studying Chinese? What are we thinking of?

In the future we plan to travel in China and may even do some business in China. So learning to speak and read some Chinese will come in handy in the future.

Tom and I arrived in Kunming Sunday, February 28. Our Chinese language classes began at Keats School on Monday morning, March 1. You can check out the school’s website and even take a video tour of the school:

Our classes meet Monday through Friday from 8:30am-12:30pm, with a short break mid-way. A few students have class in the afternoon instead of morning. The school pairs each student with a teacher appropriate for that student’s previous knowledge of Chinese as well as learning goals.

Each teacher teaches no more than two students, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. He or she customizes each day’s lesson based on the previous day’s work. The teachers are closely supervised and advised by the school’s curriculum director.

My teacher is Lulu Ma, age 20. Pronounced with appropriate tones, Lulu is her Chinese given name. She has taught at Keats School for two months. In the afternoon she teaches another older student, a 55 year-old man. Like most Keats teachers, Lulu is a university student. She is majoring in English and hopes to continue her studies this fall in Melbourne, Australia, focusing on translation. She is also quite an accomplished pianist and loves to play basketball.

Tom’s teacher is Min-Shu Lai. She and Lulu are the same age, grew up together in a village near Kunming and are very good friends. They live with one other student in a six-person Yunnan University dormitory room. Min-Shu is also majoring in English. She has passed the exam to qualify for Communist Party membership and is engaged in required classes during the one-year waiting period before becoming a Party member. (For many of China’s best jobs, Party members have priority over non-members with equal test scores.) After graduation she plans to work, save money and then spend time in a foreign country. Her uncle has lived in New York for 18 years and her nephew is a graduate of Northwestern.

I am learning to speak survival Manadrin, which involves learning grammar and vocabulary. My first task is learning to pronounce and hear the language’s syllables. Spoken Manadrin has about 350 possible syllables, each of which can be pronounced using one of four distinct tones (inflections) plus a neutral tone. Tones are part of the word and must be learned carefully to avoid saying the wrong word. Students not learning Chinese characters can write words using the pinyin romanization, which uses the western alphabet to represent Mandarin pronunciation.

Tom, for whom language study is a serious hobby, has set himself a much more challenging goal. Along with learning vocabulary and grammar, he is learning to read and write Chinese characters. In addition to the intensive language study, the school offers calligraphy as an elective. So two evenings each week Tom practices calligraphy with a local master.

Students come and go. During our first week, there were about 15 students. The students are multi-national, almost every one with an interesting story: Americans, British, Chinese-Japanese-British, British (living in Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok), Belgian, French, Japanese and Spanish. Besides Tom and me, the only other couple is an African-American man and his Japanese wife who met at graduate school in America.

Most students live and dine at the school. The school’s office, classrooms, kitchen, dining room, library and computer room are on the 16th floor of a 20-story mixed-use building located near the center of downtown Kunming. One of the city’s many banks occupies the street level.

The school’s cook prepares three Chinese meals each weekday in the small, well-equipped kitchen adjacent to the dining room. Breakfast (8-8:30am), lunch (12:30-1pm) and dinner (6-6:30pm) are served buffet style. There are usually 10 to 12 different dishes including two different fresh seasonal fruits.

Tom and I are serious students. On school days we take a long walk after lunch, then study afternoons and evenings. I have never taken easily to foreign languages but am amazed that I’m actually beginning to be able to speak some fairly simple sentences. Tom’s ability to speak is increasing much more rapidly than mine. Both of us are enjoying the challenge and are impressed with the overall quality of the school.

Karnataka, our last stop in India

We ended our tour of southern India in the state of Karnataka. Now best known for its high-tech city Bangalore, Karnataka also boasts a number of historic sites from the former heartland of India.

Our first and longest stop was in Mysore, the traditional capital of the state. Mysore is famous for the palace of the Maharaja, which Marcia described in an earlier post. But even outside the palace, there are many monuments large and small, as well as a number of somewhat dusty museums. We found the railway museum the most interesting, with a collection of historic locomotives and cars, including the wooden sleeping and dining cars that the maharaja used when he took to the road.

We next visited a group of three historic sites around a provincial town called Hassan. Two of these had remarkable temples created by the 12th-century Hoysala civilization. Different from anything else we had seen, these temples were built on a star-shaped plan and covered with incredibly accurate sculptures. The local artists were blessed with a kind of soapstone that remains relatively soft for the first three months out of the ground but then hardens into an extremely durable rock. In their skillful hands, this stone could be molded into highly realistic sculptures, right down to the lace-like parasols.

Our last historical visit was to Hampi, the 15th-century capital of central India. The city was once as rich and powerful as Rome, but ultimately overrun and destroyed by the Moghul invaders. Even in its ruins, the city’s immense scope was clear from the temples, palaces and bazaars that stretched across several kilometers.

We spent our last day in Bangalore, mostly shopping for drugs and other supplies that would be cheaper or easier to buy in India than in China. Bangalore is a city in transition, with traditional chaotic markets alongside modern skyscrapers for high-tech outsourcing companies. The spiffy new Bangalore airport is an inconvenient 45 kilometers of horrible traffic north of town, sometimes taking three hours through traffic. But inside it is an enclave of first-world modernism.

We flew directly from Bangalore to China on the first flight of a new Air China route. India and China are still fighting their cold war over national boundaries, but business links are starting to form. This flight will cut the travel time from Shanghai to Bangalore by more than three hours.

We are now in Kunming on our next adventure of learning Chinese. More postings soon about a very different country!

Cooling off in the hill stations

It’s true. We can’t take the heat.

Some people adjust to the hot and humid climate of southern India. We did okay for the first few weeks in Tamil Nadu, but once we got to Kerala the added moisture was too much for us. So we did the same thing the British did two centuries ago. We headed for the hills.

The Indian subcontinent is framed by a V of two ranges of mountains called the Western and Eastern Ghats. The Western Ghats are higher and very rugged, rising 2600meters (8000 feet) straight out of the plains. The rise is every bit as steep as the Himalayan foothills.

We took two breaks of a couple days each to cool off and hike around two classic hill stations that the British built to escape the heat and malarial mosquitos below. Both of these were in Tamil Nadu state, close to the border with Kerala.

The first was Kodaikkanal, actually a somewhat newer town established in the late 1800’s and not built up until the automobile roads of the twentieth century. Kodaikkanal is built around an artificial lake, and the walking in the surrounding countryside is very peaceful. We saw local bison, flying squirrels, monkeys and lots of birds.

About ten days later, we went to the more famous hill station Udhagamandalam, or Ooty for short. Ooty was built in the 1830s at the end of a narrow-gauge cog railway. Steam locomotives are still used on the steepest stretch of this line, though unfortunately they were not currently running due to track damage. But even the diesel-powered trails were a throwback to a previous era when every compartment had its own door opening to the outside.

We were surprised that Ooty is a relatively large town of almost 100,000 people. The colonial relics live alongside new construction, in many cases palatial mansions owned by rich Indian businessmen. In addition to some nice hiking, we were able to enjoy the town’s lovely botanical gardens, by far the nicest we have seen in India.

On our way downhill, we stopped at a wildlife refuge on the border with Karnataka. There was yet another boisterous village festival going on with carnival rides and loud religious ceremonies, so the wildlife was staying away from town, but we were able to go out to a small viewing house and spend a few hours watching while a wild elephant, wild boars, peacocks and deer walked by.