Kunming Thursday 19 November 2009

As the bus approaches Kunming in the late afternoon, the landscape changes: great green plumes of bamboo sprout from the hillside, like fecund fleur-de-lis; brown and barren terraces sport towering Munchkin hats of rice stalks, gathered neatly into pointed tufts; lower fields are flooded, mirrored to the sky. Low sun glances across the ruckled hills into the long valley, lighting lone trees crimson.

Half the bird population of the mountains is on offer, roadside – pheasants stuffed in sacks and proffered as vehicles lumber slowly up steep gradients.

Descending once more into the fertile valleys, the evening light reflects off a river of plastic creeping down the flat wide plain where once the water ran; now dammed, secured, above. New polytunnels are forming: teams of people bending and tying the thick forests of bamboo poles into neat arches to be encased in more great sheets of plastic.

And now the air becomes thick with concrete and commerce, with factories belching smoke and fire into the sulphur laden plains. Dark clots of industry coagulate in the arteries of the city – dense polluted air, decay, debris, rush hour in Kunming.

Navigating narrow backstreets, barely scraping past motorcycles, delivery trucks and pedestrians with a well-honed skill exemplified by many Chinese bus drivers: the route to the small, southern bus station is busy. The city is busy. Thousands of people coming and going. Rush hour and raining – a bad combination for hailing a cab.

A disparate group of hailers straggles along the edge of the road waving disconsolately as cab after cab speeds by, the fortunate passenger a ghostly blur through the rain-streaked glass. Then, as a taxi pulls over and a passenger prepares to disembark, I seize my advantage. Before the front seat is even empty, I have thrown my gear in the back and climbed in. And I’m not getting out.

20 RMB later we pull down a dark side street. Cloudland International Youth Hostel is a functional, 5-storey structure around a small courtyard with a billiard table, table-tennis, a stack of bikes and the ubiquitous, decaying, outdoor bamboo seating. There’s a small roof terrace, a reasonable café where they serve a range of Western and Chinese food, several computers, a large DVD collection, and Wifi. Every spare inch of balcony is draped with laundry, and almost every square inch of wall space is covered with graffiti – much of it puerile or obscene.

A very large, very red, national flag hangs limply from the roof out, over the street.

There’s also a ‘resident’ Chinese traveller in the girls’ dorm who’s been there for well over a month: she’s made a nest under her mosquito net and plays computer games into the wee hours, emerging late afternoon for a bout of table tennis before scurrying back before dark. She, like many others over-wintering in Kunming, has become disillusioned with her stressful job in Shanghai or Beijing and packed it in. She had lived with her parents, saved a lot of money, and has come here to relax. It’s much cheaper in Kunming than the East Coast.

Of course I didn’t know all this then. I discovered it during my 10-day “incarceration” in the city.

Unknown to me, I had been blithely travelling for the last five weeks on an expired Visa – apparently the Dual Entry part of the 6-month Visa I’d received wasn’t optional: I HAD to leave the country after three months, when I could re-enter for another three months.

The Manager at the Hostel refuses to check me in – my paperwork isn’t in order. Instead, she phones the Police. I have always suspected that Chinese International Youth Hostels are part of a government agency, and this does nothing to dispel the idea.

I am absolutely shocked, but there isn’t much I can do in the circumstances – it’s 7.30 at night and raining, and I’m likely to have the same problem anywhere else I try to check in. It’s a requirement for anyone checking into a hotel or hostel to have appropriate documentation – for foreigners that means a valid passport and visa. The information gets passed on to the Police “for our protection”.

The Police want to see me at 1pm the next day; I’m told by the Manager that they are taking this very seriously: there’ll be a substantial fine of at least 3,000 RMB and I may have to stay at the Police Station. Understandably I don’t get much sleep that night.

When we leave to catch the bus – the Manger will interpret – I half consider packing my toothbrush.

We end up deep in the suburbs in a cold, stark office, four floors up. The main liaison is a Minister of Foreign Affairs who, I discover, understands more English than he lets on. The procedure takes five people four hours. Despite my protestations – come on, no-one would blithely exceed their Visa by 37 days intentionally! – ignorance is not a mitigating factor in Chinese law, and I am fined a startling 5,000 RMB, or 500 GBP. Even the Manager’s eyes smart at this. The alternative to paying is seven days banged up – I’m not even tempted to see the “accommodation”: it’s bitingly cold, starting to snow, there’s no heating and I bet they don’t serve Italian coffee in the mornings.

I hand over all the ready cash I have, am escorted to the Bank where I withdraw the maximum allowable from my Credit Card, and change most of the large US dollar bills I’ve purchased for Laos. The Minister of Foreign Affairs’ leaving shot, “Don’t make the same mistake again” is so patronising, it sorely tests my civility. The kick would be aimed low – and hard.

I return to the hostel with a heavy heart; but everyone has a traveller’s tale to tell, and at least I didn’t get deported. Now that would have put a spanner in the works for my plans for next year…

On Monday I take my passport down to the Public Service Bureau to get a new Visa – you can’t leave the country without one – and I offer to pay an Express Fee so that I can leave the next day. Absolutely impossible. It takes a week. I relinquish my passport with a deep sense of despair – I am, in effect, stuck.

I watch a lot of movies that week. It’s cold and I don’t want to be here. But I try to be positive: I renew acquaintances at the Kunming Botanical Gardens, and make contact with Professors at Xishuangbanna Botanical Gardens where I hope to do some more painting. And I have a very constructive meeting with The Nature Conservancy who are enthusiastic about the Field Guide and keen to see how they can fund it.

And then I find a way to escape for the night…