I left Nanjing before the sun came up. It was cold and raining as I waited by the curb for a taxi, and dirty water dripped onto my overstuffed suitcase, leaving a whitish streak before soaking into the asphalt. A few hours later, I walked out of the Kunming airport. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the road was lined with trees and flowers. In the taxi on the way to my hostel, a warm wind whipped through the open windows. I took off my big black coat for the first time in nearly a week.  Wearing only a light cardigan, I spent the afternoon and evening wandering around Cuihu (Green Lake) Park in the center of Kunming, which might as well be paradise.

Fruit vendors stood outside the park’s ornate East Gate selling carefully peeled pineapples on sticks, beautifully lumpy little strawberries (unlike the monstrosities I wrote about before), and some kind of strange round fruit with a dark brown skin that the vendor peeled with a knife, revealing a hard white interior. I bought some of these, although I couldn’t understand what the vendor called them, and I wandered over to a bench by the lake to eat them. The water and the air were teeming with seagulls, squawking and flying perilously close to my head, hovering for a second, then flying away. It didn’t take me long to realize why they did this. An entire Seagull Feeding industry had established itself around the lake, with vendors selling gigantic loaves of white bread labeled “not for human consumption.” People were feeding the seagulls out of their hands, and the birds had learned to hover just long enough to snatch the bread away. I tried not to think about the ecological consequences of such a massive and spoiled seagull population. But then again, I suppose the loaves of bread would have otherwise ended up in a landfill, where they would sit for all eternity.

I bit into a peeled white fruit. It tasted familiar, although I was sure I had never eaten it before. It was crisp and crunchy like a pear, but less gritty. The texture and faintly sweet taste reminded me a bit of water chestnuts, the kind you find in cheap American Chinese food.

The distant sound of music encouraged me to keep walking, and I followed a stone path that cut directly across the lake to a little island with a pagoda, where the music was coming from. Sitting inside the pagoda was a whole troupe of musicians including several erhus, a violin, and a conductor/lead singer. I listened for a while to their traditional Chinese song, over-enthusiastically enhanced with microphones, before continuing on my way. Their music was quickly replaced by new music, this time from a boom box accompanying a group of old ladies dancing, dressed in matching billowy floral pants. They moved perfectly in synch, their hips swaying and their arms swirling. I imagine that they gather there every weekend to dance, if not every single evening. Set away from the dancing ladies, I noticed an ancient, tiny, wrinkled old woman watching them intently and stiffly mimicking their movements. I hoped they weren’t intentionally excluding her.

I continued to walk past a Uighur guy selling kebabs, a group of kids taking roller skating lessons, and a guy practicing violin all by himself, facing the water and plodding through etude after painful etude. I passed a blind guy singing pop songs, a collection of makeshift carnival games, and a man selling massive piles of zippers, buttons, ropes, and metal parts. Looking up, pink cherry blossoms contrasted brilliantly with the sky.

I saw dogs of every breed and color, from fluffy poodles in sweaters and gleaming golden retrievers to mangy, sway-backed mama dogs who’d likely seen better days. The people, too, were fascinating to watch. A woman in a yellow peacoat and six-inch stilettos passed a woman of some minority ethnicity (there are over twenty official ethnicities in Yunnan), carrying her baby on her back in a brightly embroidered wrap.

I left the park and quickly found an open-air restaurant on a side street where I devoured a bowl of cheap and delicious spicy-sour cold noodles. Then, with the sun still shining (it stays light late in Yunnan, since all of China uses Beijing’s time zone), I slowly made my way back towards the lake and through the park, past the dancing ladies, under the bright pink cherry blossoms, past a young couple shooting wedding photos, and back through the squawking and hovering seagulls.

Back at the hostel, I asked the girl at the front desk what those white fruits were called. “I don’t know it in English or Putonghua,” she said apologetically, “only in the local dialect.” I asked several more people over the course of my stay in Kunming, but nobody seemed to know. Finally, while chatting with a Middlebury Chinese teacher over rice noodles (Middlebury has a study abroad program at Yunnan University in Kunming), she revealed the answer by repeating the exact same thing the hostel girl had told me: bíqí 荸荠. Turns out that the local word was the same as in Putonghua. Since the local dialect is a related version of Mandarin, I shouldn’t be too surprised.

When I looked it up in English, I saw that my initial guess was correct—it’s a water chestnut. Water chestnuts are actually tubers, not fruits. Who knew, right?

I don’t know if it was the sunshine, the walking, the altitude, or a bit of lingering jetlag, but I don’t think I’ve ever slept as well as I did in that hostel in Kunming. I was sad to leave, but happy to begin my next adventure in Lijiang.




This story has a coda. On March 1st at about 9pm, a group of people with knives attacked innocent travelers buying tickets at the Kunming Railway Station, killing 29 and injuring at least 140. Can you imagine the pure hatred and brutal determination it would take to face a stranger standing right in front of you, and stab him or her with a knife? Whoever those people were, and whatever cause they thought they were supporting (if any), no good will come of this. Depending on the government’s interpretation, more innocent people will suffer.

I had already left Kunming and arrived in Lijiang when this happened. It doesn’t seem real. It’s just too incongruous with the cherry blossoms and the seagulls and the dancing ladies.