Kunming’s Western Hills

It is said that nobody really has visited Kunming until they have been to the Western Hills.  Somehow in the year and half that Lucie had been living or visiting Kunming, she never got the chance to go to the Western Hills.  On the fourth day that we were in Kunming, Lucie and I decided it was finally the time.  We hailed a taxi and were driven south of city center, passed the deluxe spa we had visited on our frst day, through the expensive apartment complexes, and along the promenade at the north eastern side of Lake Dianchi.  A cable car departs from there and crosses the lake and heads up the hills.  It took about 25 minutes for the taxi to arrive at the base cable car station (the taxi cost only about $6 – taxis are pretty cheap compared to the West) .

Lucie and I hopped in one of the cable cars and headed out over the lake.  It was a rather cloudy day so we couldn’t see far.  A very tacky building that stood on a peninsula jutting into the lake caught my eye. It had towers that mimic a castle from Europe, or more likely Disneyland, but came across even more plasticy and definitely out of place.  Lucie tells me that in the 90s China went through a period where it built quite a few buildings like that.

Half way across the lake the cable car started to head down to an intermediate station on the other side (which for a few moments we worried was the last station and we were ripped off) before continuing steep up a cliff to a small paved over square which had a few souvenir shops and a reasonably priced restaurant.  We stopped there for some lunch and I was a bit taken aback when the man at the table behind me started whacking himself over the head with a hammer.  I realized right away that it was a special kind of wooden mallet meant for message, but nonetheless could not help but smile as the man knocked on his noggin with the hammer unable to fathom just how pleasant or unpleasant that self administered massage must feel.

After lunch we climbed some stairs and passed a building where men were working painting T-lift seats a puke green color.  The smell of the paint was noxious and overpowering.  We hurried through, pitying the men doing the painting, one of whose overalls were covered head to toe with the same puke green paint.

Once we got passed the painting though we noticed that the air was much fresher than down in the city where car fumes mix with cigarette smoke and burning trash to assault your olfactory glands at every turn.  We continued along a road forbidden to cars which had small stalls along one side and a steep forest on the other.  We enjoyed the quiet and the sense of almost being in nature, when Lucie remarked “It is so quiet up here we can even hear the mechanical birds sing.”  Ahh nature!  Indeed at one of the stalls along with wooden massage mallets, were little plastic eggs which opened up to show three little plastic birds tweeting away.

Soon after that we caught our first “Burr”.  In the cable car up I had just been telling Lucie about a conversation I had with Graham.  Graham was relating to me some humorous show on travelers that he had seen or article that he read. In it they had tried classifying backpackers from the “Hungry Complainer” who does nothing but talk about all their favorite ice creams and junk food that they could be eating if they were back home to the “Burr” – that single traveler who due to loneliness or discomfort with the language or culture differences attaches themselves to other travelers, going where they plan on going, eating where they end up eating, and generally trying to get by without figuring things out for themselves.

As Burrs go, ours wasn’t so bad.  She was a student from Guangzhou, China, and asked Lucie what else there was to do in the area, and then continued on walking with us the 10 or so minutes to the gate where they make you pay if you wanted to continue up the steep steps, temples, and carved passage ways that lay beyond.  We paid and Lucie got a little plastic audio guide which had lots of little LEDs which lit up when you passed a particular pagoda, temple, or carving of note, and played some classical chinese music in between.

The story of the Western Hills is that long ago the people of Yunnan noticed that where no Mandarins – government officials of the highest rank – coming from Yunnan.  One enterprising, or perhaps crazy, stone carver discovered that all the current Mandarins where coming from places that had “Dragon Gates”, but Yunnan had none.  He reasoned that if he built one then Yunnan would also be blessed with these enlightened Mandarins.  So for 14 years he worked chiseling a passage way out of the cliffs and made the Dragon Gate and sculptures.  When he had finished he decided to just work a little bit more on this one part of the Dragon when a piece fell off.  No longer perfect, he felt his 14 years of work where for naught and threw himself over the cliff, much to the distress of his wife who had been waiting to have a family until he had finished the carving.  The temples were built at a later date.

We wandered up the steep steps and I had to duck through many of the passage ways as it turns out that I am much taller than Chinese from long ago (not to mention present day Chinese).  It was a neat place, and would have had great views if the weather wasn’t so foggy, however it was quite touristy and our Burr was following us much of the way.

It was not until we passed through the gate at the top of the steps where the tourists dropped off and we went along a path that wound its way through the twisted tree forest and rock outcrops at the top of the hill that we found a discovery that made our trip to the Western Hills really worth it.  At first we thought it was little bits of tissue that were stuck in the bare branches of a bush.  Despite trash cans every few steps along the path, there was plenty of litter everywhere – Chinese are not in the habit of letting people tell them where they should toss their trash.  But there were too many of them, so we speculated that the bush was infested with moths which dotted the bush with their fuzzy white cocoons.  Lucie poked at one with a stick though and claimed it was hard.  It was not until I touched one with my finger and a piece broke off and melted that I realized that they where made of ice!

The bush was covered in these most delicate ice flowers that only form when the conditions are just right.  Up at the top of the mountain the wind whipped through the trees and rocks, getting into little currents and spinning around.  The ice flowers grew in spirals following the path of the wind.  Some has several layers of ice separated by just a few millimeters.  Each flower was its own unique, delicate, piece of perfection.  For a good hour we examined almost each and everyone of them along the path, admiring their beauty, and marveling at the physics whose simple rules could lead to structures of such complexity.

We blew on some of the flowers and watched as the white ice gradually warmed and became translucent.  As the flowers melted we could see their inner layers and little water droplets moving within each micro-thin ice sheet.  In their transition from the perfect white flowers to a few drops of water our enchantment with these beautiful natural sculptures only increased.

Usually the winter here is mild and marked by clear blue skies day in and day out.  However it had been exceedingly cold and cloudy over the previous few days we spent in Kunming.  The day before there was even a few snow flurries which had delighted the kids in the streets.  We thought we where unlucky to be experiencing such bad weather for Kunming but without it we would never have experienced such a wonderful sight as those ice flowers on the top of the Western Hills.

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