Kunming China is a jewel of the orient – a travel guide

Kunming China will now give Delhi and Bangkok some serious competition for gateway to East Asia.

Kathmandu Nepal has been on the must-see list of world cities for sixty years since it was opened to the west, and now that the civil war is over the country has been working hard to capture more of the tourist industry. Part of the allure is that it is twelve time zones away from New York – as far away as you can get without coming closer. It’s a landlocked country. For may years, there were travel restrictions in China so tourists were routed through Delhi.

 New Route and New Hub

That has changed. There is a new route to Nepal that is destined to gain in popularity for travellers seeking an off-the-beaten-path experience from the western USA who need to fly over the Pacific Ocean to get there.  The stars have aligned and it is easier than ever. In the last year, visa requirements have been eased and a shiny brand new state of the art airport has opened in Kunming China, destined to be a regional air travel hub.

China Eastern

China Eastern airlines has bought a spanking new fleet of Boeing aircraft and re-instituted direct flights to Shanghai from San Francisco and Los Angeles. From there, the simplified get-it-on-the-spot visa rules for domestic travel in China and the multi-billion dollar terminal in Kunming  just made travel in East Asia much less daunting. The changes are destined to open up southwest China, the “golden triangle” area of Burma, Thailand and Laos, Vietnam, Tibet, and Nepal. All of these are reached from Kunming.

Save six hundred dollars? yes, please.

I just got off the flights from USA to Kathmandu via Shanghai (Pudong) and Kunming. I chose the route because it was the least expensive one via online booking (Cheapo Air, if you must know) and the difference in price from the next lowest fares through Bangkok and India was six hundred dollars.

Life in Transit station during a layover is not pleasant, but – surprise!

As a budget-conscious traveler, I resigned myself to visions of a dingy Asian terminal with few amenities, and though the e-ticket said I didn’t need a visa for China in advance, I also resigned my self to staying in not one, but two transit stations. Any traveler who passes through a country just to make a route knows that these can kill your spirit. A transit station is a sort of cage designed to prevent people from entering the country illegally. The one in Delhi has now been completely redone but I once spent sixteen hours there in a white box of a room with three hundred other souls. It was like the never-ending office party from hell, with no amenities, not even TV or alcohol. Now, India needs transit stations I suppose – they have a bona fide history of past terror attacks at airports and there are always wandering vagabonds who want to live in an ashram somewhere – so the Indian government still requires that a tourist apply for a visa in advance. You can’t just go to India on a lark. With two layovers I wondered if China would be that way.

Pleasant surprise

Instead, China had an efficient get-it-on-the-spot visa system and the China leg counted as “domestic travel”  which worked out well even though I had a lot of baggage. The traveler has to collect bags at each landing and re-check them, but is given the run of the entire terminal or is free to exit altogether if the layover is long. These airports are on the far-flung outskirts of  the cities they serve, but in Kunming, China Eastern offers a free hotel stay for overnight layovers, (which I didn’t learn about until the next day.)

Watching the Chinese Travel style

I grew up in a time when China was referred to as “Red China,” with all attendant stereotypes. They were an adversary with Nuclear weapons! Today I saw many Chinese and they didn’t appear the least bit menacing.  Downright friendly, in fact. With their new wealth, the Chinese have taken to travel in a big way, and they embark from Shanghai in tour groups of three hundred, parading through the terminal following their guide who resolutely carries a pennant like the flagbearer leading a  regiment into battle. In Kunming the majority of fliers seemed to be families or business people, and the international tourists were few and far between.

I didn’t leave the terminal in Kunming. For a three-month stay in Kathmandu where I bring boxes of donated textbooks weighing a hundred kilos, the little trolley with the stack of bags served as my personal albatross. (I won’t have this problem on the way back home). The multibillion dollar facility is less than a year old, and from a distance the fabric roof (like Denver) glows like an illuminated golden pagoda. The ultramodern inside is just as shiny and clutterfree as  Bangkok, and well laid out to minimize lines.


The food concessions in the terminal emphasized hearty local Yunnan cuisine, and seemed reasonable in price ($10 or so for middle-of-the-menu). It was obvious that few servers spoke English, but every menu showed pictures and an English-language description, and people were eager to help by summoning a coworker who could help.

The took visa but not mastercard, so I got steamed dumplings and beef and bean soup. It was excellent and the nearby seats were full of smiling happy locals. As a coffee addict, I found the Starbucks (I was told there are now six Starbucks shops in Kunming) and I paid the equivalent of three USD for a cup that would have cost $2.04 at home. The airport wifi was too confusing and I gave up trying to access it. I have AT & T which did not work, and the only way to get on required that I accept a text message from the internet service provider.

Oh well, Marco Polo wasn’t able to check his email in China either.

Lacking internet, I resorted to a slower but still-respectable ways of obtaining news, chatting with an expat Brit who was picking up a summer intern for the orphanage she runs for disabled children. Yunnan is among the poorest provinces in China, home to a colorful array of two dozen ethnic minorities, and it is obvious that the government is investing heavily in infrastructure and services, which is admirable. You have seen Yunnan Province, whether you know it or not. On Chinese Restaurants in the USA, there is always wall art that depicts the pagodas, mountain trails, waterfalls, jagged mountains, ethereal clouds.  It’s the home of the pandas as well as the opium trade from the “Golden Triangle” which is nearby.  The government is also working to shut that down.  I suppose an air terminal is not representative of everything, but I saw happy healthy people and a lot of pride in their home. They want the tourists to come here and they have a lot to offer.


This particular Brit was there to pick up one of her three summer interns. She explained that simply keeping the infants clean requires the staff to change about two hundred nappies a day. The interns will work hard, but they also get training on child care. They are not allowed to develop any individual favorite at the expense of any other child. We discussed the paradox of female children in China. There is a deficit of marriageable-age women here, but female babies are not wanted. Latest estimate is sixty million “missing females” – more than the population of the U.K. she told me. We read about this in USA but here they are living it.

I got up and made coffee and I survey the day. There is so much to do.

Kunming to Kathmandu

From Kunming it was a five hour flight on a brand new Boeing 737 which was two-thirds full. Because it seats about a hundred twenty, this also offered the possibility of a smaller wait line through Customs in Kathmandu. I’d brought an extra passport sized photo for this visa, and got the three months option for a hundred dollars.

Where to stay in Kathmandu

There are two districts in Kathmandu that accommodate foreigners in any quantity. Thamel is loaded with restaurants and bars. You can find Israeli backpackers and gap-year college kids mixed with the trekkers. Most of Nepal’s tourists come from India, and there is the occasional alpinist team that has just conquered a Himalayan Peak and wants to relax and party. For me it’s noisy and dirty. (the whole city is choked in dust until monsoon starts, so “dirty” is a relative term I suppose.)

The other area in Patan, where longer-term expats stay when they work for the UN or Non-Governmental Organizations. (NGOs). Patan is humming with life but not as frenetic as Thamel.

I stay at the Shalom Guest House, which has no address. They recently changed location, and I knew the old location but the manager wouldn’t give me directions. “It’s better if I meet you” he said. I gave the number to the taxi driver and he deposited me, boxes of books and all, on the sidewalk of the busiest street. the Locals were walking by and enjoying the sight. Yes, I am a fat westerner sitting on a pile of baggage wearing a Red Sox cap. (“moto 6,” they would mumble..)  Across the street the sign proclaimed “National Headquarters of the Tamang Unity Party” – displaying the red flag of communism. Now, the Maoist party’s flag  showed a hammer-and-sickle as we would recall from Soviet Russia and the cold war, but painted in white on this one was a crossed knife-and-fork with a cup.  If the flag symbolizes the party’s commitment to feeding the citizens, it’s a program we can all support. I will learn more and get back to you.

After a bit the manager came and we reloaded onto a taxi – this is 176 pounds of books we are talking about. And set off for the Guest House. the route twisted and turned – It’s located in a very picturesque maze of alleyways. There is a fire station less than a half-mile away and on past visits I would  always smile to see the 1940s era fire truck. It will never get down this street, the first tight corner will block it three intersections away. In some areas a thick bundle of phone wires droops down to head height as well. No matter. Every building is concrete and  there is not enough furniture to fuel a one-alarm blaze, let alone a big fire. Children use the approach alleyway as a soccer pitch, and though the taxi snuck in to unload my freight, most of the traffic here is motorbikes.

Other guests

There is a nurse from the Bay Area here, and the usual assortment of NGO volunteers. We’ll share a common kitchen and the common rec room. My room is simply but clean and I will pay about nine dollars a night.

Mexican night 

I signed onto the guest house wifi and read 60 emails. I will be joined this summer by Amanda Giles, an ICU nurse from Edmunton Alberta. it turns out that she and her husband finished the Everest base Camp Trek early and will arrive Wednesday (today) – hooray!

The day ended as I joined another guest for dinner at The Happy Gringo,  a Mexican restaurant nearby where I ate for four dollars. On the way back I bought eggs, coffee and bread. And collapsed on the bed. I have reset my clocks and I am getting ready to do the things I came here to do.


About Joe Niemczura, RN, MS

These blogs, and my books, and videos are written on the principle that any person embarking on something similar to what I do will gain more preparation than I first had, by reading them. I have fifteen years of USA nursing faculty background. Add to it fifteen more devoted to adult critical care. In Nepal, I started teaching critical care skills in 2011. I figure out what they need to know in a Nepali practice setting. Then I teach it in a culturally appropriate way so that the boots-on-the-ground people will use it. One theme of my work has been collective culture and how it manifests itself in anger. Because this was a problem I incorporated elements of "situational awareness" training from the beginning, in 2011.
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