I woke up as the train pulled in and stepped out onto the platform in the grey morning light and into a heavy rain. Peasants from the provinces had been getting on and off as the train slept and Chinese trains were so quiet that I had noticed nothing except a few people sitting in the passageways staring up at me with quiet, timid eyes. In the morning, the train came to a halt and then let out a wheeze of thick steam and passengers poured out carrying quilts and blankets and buckets, stumbling out into the rainy pale half-light of the massive city before us. Kunming was a capital. I walked alongside a family carrying wide-brimmed cone hats, which they told me were for Kunming’s Minority People’s Museum. Hobbling cane-men, boys dragging their belongings along—everybody shuddering in the rain and walking off towards whatever work or family or shelter awaited them.
To rough it in a city, one could always stay in the churches or the jails, but this was not a time for adventuring and I followed some street signs toward a youth hostel. The door slammed behind me with a bang and shut out the driving rain. I went into the common room where a grey-haired Irishman was holding court amongst a group of youngish foreigners. He was talking about the suicide rates in his native land, which he said were going up.
“There’s more money to chase after now, so people are burdened,” he said. “Before, the money just wasn’t there so people were more grounded. Also, there’s the damned television; you’ve no good role models for the young people today. This is what I like about China. You can see that when they’re walkin’ down the street, they are what they are. In the West, everyone’s livin’ out a role in life.”
There was a Brit is his late twenties who had quit his office for a time, shaved his head, and was going around the world with a huge backpack full of lotions, hygiene products, and an electric toothbrush. I gave him some of my bug spray and sunblock and he pulled out a liter bottle of hand cream. “There should be room for all of this. When you’re weighted down, you’re weighted down.”
An American couple from Colorado were on a world tour and sat there nodding blankly and exchanging small talk with an Aussie (“Just did Tibet in ten days”), playing checkers and talking about temples in India and mosques in Turkey. The Irishman and the Brit began talking about soccer.
The Aussie, wearing mountain gear, was asking about the spicy food in Sichuan: “I’d love to visit. My girlfriend went there for ten days. Not enough! We wouldn’t spend so much time in the cities. She said the poverty there is quite confronting.”
The Americans responded. “Yeah. Right in your face. You’ll see some things you’ve never seen in your life. Things you couldn’t even imagine. Pretty crazy stuff. Want to hear the craziest thing?”
He nodded eagerly, folding his hands and leaning in.
“A guy came up to our rickshaw—I was praying and praying he wouldn’t come up to us—and in his groin area was a human head! I’m a sensitive person, usually you would feel something, but I was always in a state of shock. People were sleeping on the ground with nothing under them. I stopped feeling.”
The Aussie leaned in again and pursed his lips as if to make an important point. “Yes these places can excite a lot of emotion.”
I went out walking through the city. China’s major cities usually gave the best picture of the country’s growing pains; the smaller ones having been demolished entirely in favor of boxy, iron sprawl and the villages were aboriginal. On the surface, Kunming was as neon, industrial, and uninspired as any other Chinese city. I would say I was used to them by now, or that I was thoroughly tired of them, but in truth I felt awfully disturbed by a country that blew up its old ways and ancient architecture with dynamite in order to put in McDonald’s restaurants and glass high-rises. I had neither adapted to nor fully rejected it; I was still trying to find the subtleties beneath the definite landscape of materialism and growth. I wondered what it was I hoped to find in people by listening to what they talk about, as though some exchange of language could dredge up the truest teachings of their souls.
Walking through Kunming felt like walking through Dresden after the War. Everywhere there were torn shards of the old brick buildings with their broken eves and crumbling roofs. Entire walls had been blown in half by the demolition crews and at the foot of the houses were piles of gravel and broken sheet rock. Rebar stuck out of the walls and what gave the place a real wartime feel was that everywhere people walked around the gravel yards, searching through the ground for kindling and building small fires to cook vegetables or keep warm. On the second story of an old house, the wall was torn off completely and I watched a man make his bed beneath swaying shirts on a laundry line. The ground was littered with rubble and splintered glass. Behind the broken houses, glass high-rises loomed up toward the rainy sky. I walked along and chatted with a work crew sitting on torn-up leather couches around a fire made of cardboard boxes and nail-covered boards.
“It’s all coming down,” one of them said. “We’re building an office complex here.”
I peeked into a small stand of houses in the midst of a construction yard. People of all ages were huddled around a hobo fire made of sticks and boards. One of them was taking long drags of tobacco on a bubbling bong made out of thick green bamboo—a Yunnanese tradition. A young fellow in a soccer jersey came up to me and offered to show me around. I took the invitation as a casual, friendly gesture but when he brought me through one of the brick shanty doorways on the courtyard I saw he meant business.
The walls of the room were lined with dozens of pairs of shoes, each one standing on a plastic shelf stuck into the wall. All of them were fakes: Air Jordans, Adidas soccer cleats, running shoes, tennis shoes, sports shoes of all kinds. A young woman was lying in a big bed watching the news on a grainy television set; it was 1:00 p.m. and she looked startled and had pulled the sheets up to cover herself. The young fellow’s name was Li and though he realized I was not in the market for any shoes, we decided we could be friends anyway. I asked him to show me around some more and it turned out that every room in the crumbling little structure was full of pirated shoes and jackets and jerseys. Each person in the courtyard was in on it. I was about to ask if they were selling against each other when an old man drinking baijiu put his arm around Li and said: “There is no competition here. This boy is like my son.”
We decided to go walking through the city together and as we were stepping out of the house, two Muslim boys in skull caps and pinstripe suits walked up and shook hands with Li. They were here to buy shoes. Li pulled an inventory card out of his jersey and showed them a set of shiny black Air Jordans. The boys stood about smoking and considering it and then turned into the house where the other dealers would take care of them. I asked Li how they found him. “I do all my advertising online,” he said.
“Wouldn’t the government notice something like that?”
He laughed. “No, they’re too busy for these little things.”
We ducked into an internet bunker where Li wanted to look for a friend who wasn’t there. It would seem more natural to call them internet cafés or as the Chinese goes, “net bars,” but they were neither. They were bunkers; vast, barely lit, windowless and full of chain-smoking kids, all between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, staring into screens for hours and hours on end. There were hundreds of computers at the biggest ones and ten-foot glossy posters depicting the sword-carrying demons of World of Warcraft. At the check-in counter you paid some dazed-looking kid for a time card and behind him was a refrigerator full of soft drinks and bottled green tea. They sold packs of Hong He cigarettes, peanuts, and bags of chicken feet. Kids came in here, bought a few sodas and a pack of cigarettes, chatted with friends and just camped out all day long, roaming around virtual worlds on the backs of fantastical beasts of burden, carrying swords and gems across sea green landscapes on quests that would take them months to finish. Thinking of the featureless vision of modernity that I found in all Chinese cities, it made sense that these youths would choose to disappear into virtual worlds all day. The rooms were dark and reeked with cigarette smoke. Everyone wore headphones attached to the machines. I remember watching a kid at Columbia ride across a jungle landscape on the back of a giant lizard in World of Warcraft. He was on a pre-med schedule and had been at the game for months. I was thinking how funny it was that in all of my traveling, my world was a lot like his right now; carrying a small bag of essential tools through places unknown to me. I looked at one of the screens and watched a swordsman walking through a landscape of otherworldly jagged green peaks and I wondered if the boy would agree that it looked a lot like Guangxi.
Li and I walked on to the flower and bird market, which was full of music coming from the shops—eerie Peking opera and the low grumbling chants of Tibetan monks. If I closed my eyes, I could feel the inside of an ancient court or one of the cavernous Tibetan temples I’d been to. All of traditional Kunming seemed to have been locked away in recordings and photographs or was coming down with the bombed out demolished structures we walked along. The junk shops carried artifacts from the Cultural Revolution—ceramic sculptures of teachers in dunce caps and intellectuals in the airplane position, forced to the ground with their arms pulled behind their backs. This too, was all shoved away in the country’s dark memory aside from the trinkets and posters in the curio shops frequented by foreigners. Police riot gear was laid out on tables for sale—handcuffs, batons, and helmets. We walked along the tables of live birds and swarming beetles in buckets. All of them had been caught in the Yunnan mountains and I thought of how I’d like to go out there with the merchants to catch birds in the forests.
In the midst of a block of office buildings we found a broken down lot of brick houses behind a wall. A metal door hung from a courtyard wall and I peeked in and saw that the roofs of the houses had been blown off. The courtyard was scattered with bricks and dust from the crumbling walls. Thick chunks of rubble lay on the ground.
“Look who’s here! Come in, come in!” It was a stout woman with grey hair like straw. She beckoned to me from where she squatted next to a fire made in a pot of coals and torn newspaper. “Have you eaten yet?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“You must be hungry. Come eat with us.”
She stood up and took my arm and led me along the small courtyard to a room where a man with a walleye sat stirring a black pot of rice. He shook my hand and said ni hao. The room was small and had a mirror and some old blankets and a rusty bicycle propped against the wall. Two teapots were on the fire and the man scraped rice out of the tin and into our three bowls. Li sat outside in the courtyard, squatting next to the fire and chatting with their son who was in the university. He handed me a bowl of food and we ate. It was delicious; strips of meat in a sticky spicy brown sauce and little red peppers in a bowl of rice. I asked what it was.
“Pig head,” said the man.
It was damned good pig head.
There was no roof on the house and it was in the same state of semi-demolishedness that I saw all over Chinese cities. One of the walls had the huge red character chai sprayed on to it—”Destroy.”
This all happened very fast in China—as a student in Beijing, I took daily walks through the city’s hutong alleyways where bulldozers and jackhammer men were blasting and drilling the ancient neighborhoods into oblivion. Returning to Beijing after three months in the West, an entire neighborhood that I’d known had been reduced to rubble and a photographer friend had been evicted from his small shop for the government’s “development plans.”
I asked the man where his family would live.
“The government will give us a new house in one of the modern buildings.”
“Did you want to stay here?” I asked
“It does not matter. Look, eat your food; clean your bowl. Ganganjingjing,” he said. “Clean clean your bowl.”
We did; every last grain of rice. As I was leaving I thanked them and said the food was very good. The woman looked at me. “No, it is not, ” she said.
Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.