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Old Kunming

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

KUNMING, China — Two lovebirds in a wooden cage. A dozen turtles in a blue plastic box. Hundreds of black beetles eating watermelon rind. Thousands of mealworms squirming – food for the lovebirds. These animals share space with thousands of others here in Old Kunming. Any can be had for a price. But strange animals are not the only things for sale in this crumbling quarter of Southwestern China’s largest city.

The historic area was once called the “Bird and Flower Market.” Now shoppers browse Nintendos, nunchucks and fishing tackle – along with birds and flowers. It’s also a good place to taste Kunming’s spicy street food. In Kunming, street meals are cheap and best enjoyed in skewer form. Fatty beef is popular, thin crispy fish delectable, and obscure chicken parts plentiful.

The food area of the market is a series of tents. Each tent serves something different – one sells drinks and soup, another grilled meat, and another fried potatoes and tofu.

In one of the tent restaurants bearing a gold sign marked “Moslem,” Muhammad Da Wood and his family grill fish and meat. A nylon sign that takes up the back wall of the restaurant shows two yaks and three ostriches grazing in a green field, but those animals cannot be found on Da Wood’s menu. Instead he grills fatty cubes of beef and whole skewered fish. When the beef cubes are finished, they’re tender and rich. The fish turn out crispy and blackened, with oily dark meat inside. All items are, of course, covered with chili pepper powder.

Other tent restaurants along the strip sell grilled tofu (soft and moist inside at first – hard and chewy after too long on the grill), fried new potatoes, mushrooms, soup and tall Dali beers. Da Wood and his family came from Ili in Xinjiang, a largely Muslim region of northwestern China. Other restaurants around Kunming bear signs written in the Arabic letters of the Uyghur. Hundreds of years ago the city was linked to Muslim central Asia by the Silk Road.

Kunming has a mild climate yearround, and spring is a good time to stroll Green Lake Park, a sprawling, wooded park with interconnecting lakes and lots of old folks. Men sit under willow trees in the park and chat. Spotted brown birds bought in the old market sit in bamboo cages, serenading the old men with squawks.

March is berry season in Kunming, and hawkers can be found throughout the alleys of the Old City selling blackberries, strawberries and haws – a soft, sweet fruit about the size of a crabapple.

In more recent history, Kunming was the launching point for U.S. pilots flying supplies over the Himalayas to India. They called the route “The Hump,” and references to that era of aviation abound.

The city’s most popular hostel – also called The Hump – is vast, cheap, and centrally located. The walls are decked with old black and white photos of pilots, planes and the old city. Rooms have been renovated recently and, for a little over $10 a night, offer sophisticated accommodation. The bargain is beset, however, by a lackadaisical staff that often bungles orders for food and drinks and seems strangely obsessed with collecting deposits for minor services and items (towel? Deposit please.)

Kunming is a big city, but its old heart is still best explored by foot.

The Wonderful

man with birds

SHANGRI LA, China – To stroll the Wonderful Supermarket here is to marvel at the ability of the Chinese to turn nearly any foodstuff into a powder, a dehydrated bit or a biscuit. Walk into the supermarket from the dusty main avenue of this mountain town and behold the specials for the week: soybean oil, candied peanuts, peach cakes. Sounds mundane, but delve deeper into the cavernous store and behold the uniquely Chinese snacks and staples stacked floor to ceiling, aisle after aisle, many with grammatically bewildering names and slogans.

First, past the dour, red-cloaked checkers, there’s the tea and mushroom section. It’s a dry indicator of what’s to come. There are mounds of jasmine buds and paper-wrapped discs of different teas. There are mushrooms of every description – phallic mushrooms, tiny disc mushrooms, giant dusty mushrooms, mushrooms so old and dry that they clank when you bump them together. Everything has been dried severely and displayed with pride in jars and piles.

After the mushrooms come the beauty products, where shoppers can grab Flexibility Cream, Tendering Cleanser or Removing Masks. And on to the booze.

Ever want to drink grog from something more exciting than a glass? How about a gold, coin-covered deer? The Wonderful can accommodate, and throw in a booze-filled leopard to boot. Then of course, there’s the alcoholic glass cabbage, the fish and the leapfrogging crocodiles.

The supermarket has a selection of local wines too – Rare Wine (“a present first choice good taste”), Naked Wine, even Enduring Pulchitude Wine.

Past the spirits begins one of the supermarket’s most intimidating realms. On the shelves of the vast powder section sit bags and cans of normally whole foods – walnuts, soybeans, milk – all pulverized and rendered into meek powder.

Walnut powder dominates, but there are plenty of others: soybean powder, lotus root powder, nourishment powder (not to be confused with nourishment meal), milk powder with vitamins (“It has very good smell and taste”). You can pick up oatmeal in the powder section, too. It’s nutritious – just ask its spokesman, a deranged fat man in a kaftan.

Throughout the Wonderful there are scattered snacks, some of the most interesting morsels here. Peckish? Grab a box of Fragrant Fragile Walnut Meat Biscuits or a bag of Golden Monkey Milk Candy, which entices with its imaginative slogan: “Mylikes from Anglicism.” There are Shallot King Biscuits, Scallion Pancakes (with scallion crash) and Chum bars. And of course, what snack section would be complete without Wife Cakes?

Toward the back of the store the impressive dehydrated fruit section gloats within sight of its inferior cousin – the fresh fruit. Whereas the dehydrated fruit section overflows with angular bites of haw, pineapple and mango and plums of every sort, the fresh fruit section is a lonely corner sparsely populated by wrinkled oranges and brown pears – huddled as if ashamed of their unprocessed nudity.

Last, but perhaps most hearty, is the meat section (as the “fresh” meat section is so small as to be negligible, I will refer to the cornucopian canned and shrink-wrapped meat section as the “meat section”). Red and white chicken feet share space with whole bagged ducks, roast yak bites and cans of suspiciously goldfish-like anchovies, Pork Luncheon Meat (“So delicious!”) and Beef Meat in Jelly. Included in the meat section are the protein-rich legumes, king of which is the Strange- Taste Horsebean.

If you’ve filled your cart with dried and packaged delectables and still have room for a sweet, pick up an icecream bar. The flavors are sundry and tempting: corn, peas, sesame seed.

Then proceed to checkout. The redcloaked cashiers will dutifully drop your haul into plastic nets and count out Mao-covered notes. The name of the place is Wonderful, and for some, maybe it is.

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