Written by Fina Short, (Tufts University) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Kunming, Fall 2018
Before coming to China, I took to interrogating anyone who might know something about my soon-to-be-home. “You’re from China?” “You went to China once ten years ago?” “So tell me – what do you know about Kunming?” Over months’ worth of conversation, Kunming was almost universally described to me as a “small” or “remote” Chinese city. I was not far from picturing a provincial town in the countryside.
Upon my touchdown in Kunming this vision was rudely shattered – along with any other preconceived notions I tried to form of life in China before arriving. While the city may be small by Chinese standards, its population of 6.626 million means that my hometown of Seattle could easily fit into its entire landmass multiple times.
Despite its slightly intimidating size, we’re determined to get to know the city, from the Yunnan University neighborhood near 文化巷 (Wénhuà xiàng) to Kunming’s downtown flower markets and seven-story shopping malls. Each evening presents a new opportunity to wander through mouth-wateringly cheap restaurants in the area, ranging from large foreigner hangouts to dark hole-in-the-wall alleyway finds – and the vast Yunnan University student cafeteria. And any single afternoon spent walking through 翠湖公园 (Cuì hú gōngyuán) park presents enough dancing, singing and 太极拳 (Tàijí quán) opportunities to last a lifetime.
Just thirty minutes from the city lies 筇竹 (Qióng zhú) Bamboo Temple, a Buddhist shrine that our group of Middlebury-in-Kunming students all visited last weekend. As we sped out to the mountains, I watched the city’s skyscrapers and modern high-rises slowly turn to single-story homes amidst the forest. A short hike through the temple’s surrounding bamboo forest brought us to its gates, incense burning outside rooms filled with sculptures, intricate ceiling art and statues at every corner.
In a garden outside the temple, we earned how to make and pour 普洱 (Pǔ’ěr) tea, a variety of fermented tea specific to Yunnan province.
Lunch was – in Buddhist tradition – an entirely vegetarian meal. As a vegetarian trying to adjust to looser concepts of not eating meat in China (tofu dishes are prone to arrive sprinkled with “just a little bit” of beef), this was a welcome opportunity to feast on every single dish that was on the table, including fried eggplant, spicy green beans, lotus root and copious amounts of local vegetables.
After lunch, we hiked further past the temple, rewarded with the first views I’ve had of Kunming from above yet. To our right was 滇池 (Diānchí, Dianchi lake), while below us the city sprawled into the distance, skyscrapers nestled between mountains and cliffs. I tried to place our dormitory within the high-rises, yet felt as disoriented as I often have three blocks from the university’s gates. Despite any progress I may have made three weeks in – Kunming promises there will always be another bubble tea shop left untouched.