The flight from Vancouver had been long but not uncomfortable. It was the first time that I was flying China Eastern airlines and I was impressed by the clean aircraft interior as I boarded at YVR. Then panic set in when I realized that I had left my smartphone at the security check and now I had to retrieve it with moments to spare – I was seated and they were minutes away from taxiing away from the gate! I ran to the flight attendant at the door, pleaded my case as best as I could, and was relieved when they sent me out with an escort back to the security portal and I was able to retrieve my phone. The escort and I were out of breath by the time we returned to the aircraft as I had compelled her to run with me: we were at a boarding gate far from the security checkpoint!
I had a window seat on the left hand side of the aircraft and the seat next to mine was vacant. I appreciated the luxury of gazing out at the ocean below the clouds and letting my mind wander. I watched the display screen which showed the flight information and strange and exotic names appeared on the map : Avachinskiy Zaliv, Sea of Okhotsk, Sakhalinskiy Zaliv, Khabarovsk. Not having a clue as to what the names meant or how they were pronounced added to their mysterious appeal. It was like seeing a magic kingdom appear out of thin air and then scroll out of the screen as the airplane changed its heading! Like a kid seeing the world for the first time, I was entranced.
I was brought back down to earth (yes, I know there is something wrong with that analogy when you are cruising at 38,000 feet in an airliner!) by the squabbling going on across the aisle between a little boy and his sister. The father was a Bengali married to a Punjabi lady and they lived in Kelowna and were headed for Kolkata for the Dusshera festival. There was a sizable number of people heading to Kolkata on this flight, including Kheyali Mitra, a young lady with whom I had started a conversation in the check-in queue and who was now sitting about ten rows behind me. Like many conversations with strangers, it had started with the topic of her dog Coco who she was leaving behind while she went to visit her family for the holidays.
Since I had a 19 hour layover in Kunming, I had booked myself a room via Booking.com and now, at the end of the flight from Vancouver, I was in the arrival hall of a strange airport in a strange city in a country where I had had a transit stop (Beijing) in the very dim past while working as a flight attendant. Now I was faced with the challenge of finding my way to the hotel. No one around seemed to speak or understand English and my knowledge of both Mandarin and Cantonese was non-existent. Thankfully I spotted a lighted sign with the internationally recognizable symbol that denoted Information and I pushed my baggage cart towards the kiosk.
A pleasant Chinese lady greeted me in English and I showed her my hotel information. She promptly dialed the number, spoke rapidly, then turned to me and said I should wait right where I was and someone would come to pick me up and take me to the hotel. Meanwhile, a swarthy looking man who was clearly Indian approached the young woman and began a tirade of complaints….. his English was clearly not his forte but that did not stop him from haranguing her. The woman’s command of the language was limited to helping travelers like me and she balked at this man’s rudeness, replying to him in polite Mandarin. He gave her a dirty look and said something uncomplimentary and swaggered away. I almost cringed at this display of crassness from an uncouth soul who clearly had miles to go in learning the rudiments of acceptable public behavior and interpersonal exchanges. I recalled that in the 1950s the term The Ugly American had been coined to describe the American at large whose arrogance at that period in history had been observed in many places around the world. I wondered if this was the era of The Ugly Indian as the robust (compared to North America and Europe) Indian economy sent waves of Indians traveling across the world flashing their affluence.
The hotel courtesy coach turned out to be a mini van and I was surprised to find that there were a few other people waiting for it as well. A young girl ushered us into the van, we stashed our luggage as best we could at the back, she spoke rapidly to the driver and we were whisked away into the darkness. The van hurtled down a lonely road parallel to the airport and in ten minutes we were deposited in front of the entrance to the Hanggong Holiday Hotel.
The hotel manager cum caretaker appeared and I checked in via an exchange of smiles and gestures with some help from the Booking.com app on my phone which confirmed that I was a bonafide guest! No words that I could decipher were spoken. The room was extremely large and I was thrilled to have all that space for the 26 Canadian dollars that I had paid. There was an electric kettle which I put to immediate use, brewed myself some tea and settled down with my laptop. It was some time before I realized that Google was inaccessible and I could not read my emails nor surf the internet. Fortunately, I had my journal to write in and a book to read, and the next few hours passed comfortably till I nodded off to sleep.
After a shower in the morning I decided to take a walk around the block and look for something to eat – the Hanggong Holiday Hotel did not boast a restaurant or cafe of any sort. I was surprised that the area seemed to be more residential than commercial. It was a quiet neighbourhood and I savored the warm temperature and the feeling that now I was in Asia. I soon came to a section where life was stirring and there seemed to be some form of activity.
There was a food cart and appetizing smells were wafting from a pan that a lady was shaking expertly over a flame. I crept closer and looked with hungry eyes at the concoction of noodles and meat and vegetables that she was cooking. She got the message. A man appeared out of nowhere and with hand gestures suggested I buy a bowl. It was an easy sale.
I took out my wallet and asked, “How much?” The woman shouted something in Mandarin and her young daughter appeared with a smart phone in hand. She punched a few digits and held out the display for me to see. I paid and walked into the large room which had some tables and chairs where patrons of the food cart could obviously eat. I ate contentedly and watched the world go by slowly. Two dogs came into the establishment and seemed to be quite at home amid the few people in the room. They looked like strays but obviously had been adopted by the owners. Strangely, this was a comforting scene. I had been away from Asia for six and a half years.
Looking at the carefree dogs now in this small cafe in Kunming seemed to give me a totally new perspective on life. The delicious soupy noodles filled my belly and the ambience filled my soul. Life was good!
A young man was eating at the next table and we began a conversation. He was third generation Chinese from Chicago and had just returned from traveling in the remote north west of China, bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. I was fascinated. It is the sort of journey that I dream about, to parts of the world less known and less traveled, places that might still retain the magic of discovery. Even more intriguing was what he did for a living: he worked for a company that helped sell off online businesses! He was on his way to a global trade show which concerned itself with these matters. As part of a generation which grew up in India in the 1960s when even the humble landline telephone was a luxury that only the privileged and the rich could afford, I find the quantum leaps and bounds that the telecom and now the internet industry has made in my lifetime absolutely fascinating.
I came out of the cafe and found the young girl who had translated my bill peeling boiled eggs and sharing some of it with one of the dogs who now was outside. Beside her sat an old woman. There was an air of contentment in that tableau but perhaps I was just imagining it. After all, reality and truth are purely subjective.
Still in this happy state of mind I walked into a small store and bought some fruit which for some reason appealed to my senses at that moment in time. The orange fruits I could recognize as being persimmons but the green ones were new to me. They resembled small green mangoes but I knew that was not the case.
A few hours later it was time to board the smaller jet for Kathmandu where I was headed. I took a bite of the green fruit as I waited my turn to board at the bottom of the ladder on the tarmac. It tasted like a new sort of plum. My brief stopover in Kunming had been as delightful.