KUNMING

A long way at a stretch waits me after Lijiang. My original plan included 2-day stops in Dali and Kunming, then a flight to Guilin. The more I was travelling, though, the less convincing this plan seemed to me, since it includes big cities and touristic places, but it skips villages, the countryside and the minorities, which are the salt of the South-West. So my new plan skips Dali, allows only a few hours in Kunming and grants most of the time for the Guizhou province, which I'll be visiting by bus stopping by in some villages. I'll finally reach Guilin, in the Guangxi province, again by bus. Don't ask me the details, because I have no idea: I don't know if there is public transport to go in those places, I don't know the timetable, I don't know if the roads are practicable, in a nutshell I know nothing. Not a good reason to give up, though.

My first stage is Kunming, which I am about to reach by a "Sleeper", a night bus with beds:

As soon as I get on and find my place, the girl in the nearby seat smiles and says: "You are too long". I don't catch it on the spot. When I try to pop into that burrow-bed, though, her sentence becomes crystal-clear to me . Truth to be said, though, Sleepers are not bad at all: I can fit into the bed by sleeping on one side, bent-legged, and it is ways better than the ordinary bus with seats, where I have never been able to sleep.
At 6 AM the bus discharges us at the Kunming bus station and I have one full day available to visit the town. As usual, I go and make the ticket for the evening train to Kaili to the nearby train station. The woman speaks English so everything seems to be fine.
I am greeted in the station square by this intimidating sculpture:

The city centre is fairly modern, swarming with skyscrapers:

The town lies at 2000 metres above sea level on a plateau. The temperature is pleasant but it is raining, as usual. It has been bad weather ever since I left Beijng 20 days ago, except for one day in Jiuzhaigou - thank goodness the travel guide advised autumn as the best period to visit the country .

I don't feel like spending the day in the town, amidst noise, pollution, traffic, overpopulation. Shi Lin would be an option, but I got the feeling, from the travel book as well as from other travellers I met, that it is overrated, so I give up. Therefore I go for Xi Shan, above the heavily polluted Lake Dian. On the bus I meet two students who are heading there too, so we go together.
They say they are studying Medicine and Physics, respectively, at the Kunming University, but they come from a village 2 hours away by bus. They go back to the village in the week-ends when they can, or during vacation. I ask if they would rather Kunming or the village and they answer, in agreement, that they prefer the village. I recall Baisha, which I had visited the day before; Chinese villages burst with life and activity (however manual and inefficient), so I can easily understand that it can be nice to live there, especially if you was born there. Frankly speaking, my question was a stupid question: the traffic and the noise of the town, the life in a student's home, the great competition at school, all concur to make the village preferable. Speaking about competition: these students, as the others I met previously, say to me that competition at school is terrible: on one side it fosters care and diligence, on the other it can be very stressful. The University of Nanjing, crowded with students at 9:30 PM, comes to my mind.
We are climbing the mountain while we speak, passing by the Huating Temple:

and then visiting the Taihua Temple:

which has an awesome garden with pavilions, water, magnolias and camellias:

The view on the Lake Dian gets more interesting as we climb:

until we reach the Dragon Gate Grottoes . It's an amazing pathway carved in stone, sheer on the lake:

Out of the grottoes a pavilion marks the top of the trail:

A trail goes down to a countryside restaurant where we can finally have something to eat:

The self-service table of a Chinese restaurant usually includes rice and ground maize:

On exit I see, one more time since I am in China, a green table with tiles and a few people around it, playing passionately. This time I can ask to someone, and I am told that it is Mahjong. At last I am able to give a name to a game which I have seen countless times in Shanghai, in the Hutongs in Beijing, in the gardens in Xi' an, in the parks in Chengdu. Among the tiles of Mahjong there are, you'll have already guessed by now, the " Dragon Tiles" .

There's a rural atmosphere:

which apparently contrasts with the fact that we are only 15 km from the centre of Kunming. Going down the mountain you can see the outer ramifications of the town:

Back at the Kunming train station, I am taken by anger and discomfort when I go on the train: my reserved seat is on a normal wagon, not a sleeping wagon. It takes 14 hours in the middle of the night to go from Kunming to Kaili, and they made me the ticket for a normal seat???? In any case I had been very explicit on the fact that I needed a bed! Once more it comes to my mind what had happened in Nanjing and Xi'an: if they do not understand they won't tell you, they just do what they think is the "right thing". I am just in time to get off the train before it starts, I go back to the ticket counter where I am lucky enough to find a free bed on the next train, which is going to start in 3 hours. In the end it turned out not to be a big inconvenience to me, but it once again confirmed this attitude which sounds strange to me.

I leave Yunnan a bit disappointed. Maybe it's because the travel books are exceedingly enthusiastic about this province, or maybe because I have not been in the most beautiful places. The fact is that I liked Sichuan more.
Now I am very curious to explore Guizhou, one of the less developed regions in China. Still nowadays the average income in Guizhou is less than one-tenth of that of Shanghai.