Tuesday, July 8, 2008

China - Kunming

Day 2:
We arrived in Kunming around 2:00, 6 hours before Whitney’s solo violin performance with the Kunming orchestra– the reason for the MacDonalds’ visit to China. The husband of Whitney and Chad’s former violin teacher was invited to conduct the Kunming orchestra, he used the opportunity to invite Whitney to play a concerto, and the rest of us used both of them as an excuse to vacation in China. We said hi to Whitney and Patti at the hotel – the only five-start hotel in the province – and set off to explore the city. We’d spent 36 hours either on a plane, in a terminal, or in a hotel, and we were eager to start the trip. Curtis, Chad, and I had asked the hotel receptionist to write our downtown destination in Chinese characters on a business card, which made the taxi driver happy, and we were dropped off in a pedestrian shopping area. The main attraction was a long brick street with a median of trees and window-shopping on both sides, but you would have thought we were the sight to see. Everyone around us was swiveling their heads and practically walking backwards to stare at us. We didn’t know it then, but we’d need to get used to that reaction. Chad and Curtis went straight to the blind masseuses, who had set up a whole line of folding chairs down one side of the road. Just pick your blind masseuse and sit down for a bone-crushing rub. Well, half of them were blind, and it was the blind ones that made the spot famous as a good place for a massage. I opted out on the excuse of wussy shoulder muscles, but Chad and Curtis loved all twenty minutes of it. Then we walked around a bit, and the wide street turned into a wide alleyway, and the merchandise changed from handbags and clothes to dried eel and strangely-shaped produce. We weren’t tempted to buy anything.

We came to a street and turned a couple of times until we smelled spicy, delicious things and decided to get some dinner before the concert. There was a man with a cart selling some kind of meat on a stick, three for 10 yuan (about $1.50). Well, heck, sounds like an authentic Chinese experience. And on both sides were I guess what you could call cafes with outdoor only seating, and the customers all looked healthy enough. We asked for only a little spicy, so the guy spread on about 8 layers of a cayenne/chili/super spicy pepper sauce while the sticks of meat roasted over a propane flame. It only took one bite of those spicy mystery meat sticks to get us sucking in air and looking for a drink. We were definitely getting stares. The owner of the restaurant next door (well, five feet to the right at a separate fold up table) was more than happy to sell us coke bottles. We had walked a few yards down the street before we figured out the Chinese yelling behind us was actually yelling at us. The coke bottles were glass, and they definitely wanted them back when we’d finished, so we sat down at a picnic table on the sidewalk. When the meat sticks didn’t fill us up, we went down to another “next door” restaurant (another propane-cook top area with tables) and order some bowls of meat with kung-pao-like sauce and rice. Feeling like we’d gotten a fill of a real Kunming experience, we caught a cab back to our five-star hotel to get ready for Whitney’s concert.

The taxi rides in this town took probably about as long as walking would since every major street had a metal median dividing the two directions of traffic, the kind of curved metal fences we see during road construction. These little blockades meant the cars had to drive half a mile farther than they needed to until they reached a light that allowed U-turns. We made it to the concert hall on time, and we knew we were in the right spot when we saw a 4-story poster, with a 10ft x 10ft picture of the night’s soloist, hanging on the front of the building. Whitney played her Brooke concerto during the first half, and she sounded absolutely fantastic. She looked every bit the confident, adept soloist in her black A-line dress with dramatic white satin flares falling down the back, and audience called her back for several rounds of bows when she’d finished. Truth be told, they might have wanted to see Whitney’s glowing blonde hair one more time as much as show their appreciation for her violin performance (although both were beautiful). Incidentally, since we sat next to Mrs. Chang (Whitney and Chad’s old violin teacher and wife of the conductor), we showed her pictures of the things we’d ordered that afternoon, and she informed us it had been a very bad idea to eat food from street vendors. Even she never did that. Well, we never did get sick – but we never ordered from street vendors again either. The MacDonald family went back to the hotel lounge for champagne and finally got a chance to relax, relay adventures from the past week (since Whitney and Patti had been there for 6 nights or so), and congratulate Whitney on her fabulous performance.

Day 3:
Mrs. Cheng and Dr. Lui (it’s traditional for the wife to keep her last name, so yes, this is the teacher and conductor married couple) and their 15-year-old daughter, Ina, took us to a traditional Chinese restaurant for lunch. We had a private room with a sitting area for enjoying green tea before lunch and a huge circular table for a Chinese feast. The seating arrangement is quite important for a Chinese meal, and Dr. Lui put Whitney at the place of honor, farthest from and facing the door. For over an hour, waiters brought huge plates of food to put on the lazy susan, and we spun the food around while picking pieces off plates with our chopsticks. It’s a wonder we don’t use lazy susans more often in the States – they are so efficient! Our chopstick skills were a little slippery at first, but we improved as we went along. There were platters of round corn puffs, pumpkin slices, whole spicy shrimp, chicken pieces, sautéed broccoli, roasted crispy duck, green vegetables of some sort, and several more plates I can’t identify. Most of them were absolutely delicious. One plate I tried only once turned out to be a stew of eel and frog, but all the others were mostly recognizable or only a little odd to our American tongues. With stomachs full, we said our goodbyes and went to pack for our next city of adventure: Beijing.

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