I live on Rainbow Mountain East Road

After a cup of tea on the balcony in the sun, overlooking the city centre in the south and the hazy Western Hills in the west, I head out. I will take you along for a short walk down the street that I now call home. I live on Rainbow Mountain East Road (hong shan dong lu, 虹山东路). For the first few weeks when I lived here I thought it was Red Mountain East Road: hong can mean either rainbow (虹) or red (红). When I found out it was rainbow it made me even happier to live here. 

I want to show what my everyday life here in China is like. Not to boast about my very comfortable life here, but I have to admit that the standard of living on a foreigner salary is definitely higher than when I was living in Amsterdam. I am aware that I am enjoying a lot of luxuries such as cheap massage and housecleaning because other people are earning very little. As I know this I treat everybody, no matter what their job is, with the utmost respect. Luckily the standard of living for the average Chinese has improved dramatically over the last two decades and there are no slums. 

Coming and going

I close the door to my modern three bedroom apartment and take the elevator 22 floors down. A young family is in the elevator with me. Ni hao, I say to their baby, and everyone giggles. There are only a few thousand foreigners in Kunming, compared to about 7 million Chinese inhabitants. In this neighbourhood there are more laowai than in my previous one, so sometimes I see a white face in the street. As I open the downstairs door of the apartment building a water carrier in a green uniform bounds up the steps, carrying a 25L water bottle on his back. Hardest working guys in show business, together with the food delivery guys. I also order these water bottles (and sometimes sushi) and have them delivered to my apartment. The water from the tap has been sanitised but no one drinks it because it is likely still full of chemical pollutants. I have a water dispenser for the big water bottles with a handy tea making set on top. 

Brave New World

As I wander towards the exit of my xiao qu (小区) or gated community I enjoy the lush and perfectly maintained greenery around. It is half December but it is almost 20 degrees. Flowers are still in bloom and most plants and trees are still green.

An older man is doing tai chi by the pond that is situated in the middle of a circle of about ten 35-story beige highrise apartment blocks. Some kids are playing. A man is jogging on the rubber walking track that winds around the pond. Older people are sitting together chatting. Young families are walking home with their shopping, kid and a tiny dog. One girl is wandering around in pink fluffy pyjamas, staring at her phone screen.

I have calculated that in my xiao qu alone there are almost as many people as in the town where I used to go to secondary school, and in my apartment block there are almost as many people as in the village where I grew up. One apartment block has two towers of 35 floors, each floor has ten apartments, each apartment on average 4 people (this is my wild guess). Ten apartment blocks, minus a percentage of apartments that are standing empty = about 25.000 people  in total? This sounds like a lot of people crammed together but it is really relaxed and peaceful and doesn’t feel crowded at all. In my home country living in a high rise apartment block is not generally associated with good living, but here it is. Living in this xiao qu is definitely considered upper class.

The older neighbourhoods consist of six-storey high concrete blocks without elevators. They look drab from the outside but are quite large and pleasant on the inside and also have little green and quiet courtyards. In the winter they get very cold though. 

Social control

I exit the gate on Rainbow Mountain East Road. There is always a guard and I enter by swiping a card, so all traffic in and out is monitored. If I have any issues I can contact the xiao qu management through the WeChat app (which translates between Chinese and English), and I even have an alarm button next to my bed and on the intercom. No one likes the idea of a camera owned by a Chinese project developer staring into my living room so I put my coat stand directly in front of my intercom. There are reports of apartments that were rented by foreigners being bugged, but that is mostly Beijing-based foreigners who work in sensitive jobs such as journalism or for a human rights NGO.

Utility bills generally get stuck onto my front door with some glue and I pay them with WeChat. The neighbours all have red and gold Chinese new years decorations on their door but so far mine is only decorated with little glue-and-paper strips, leftovers from the bills. Once a week a cleaning lady comes around, an incredible luxury. 

I feel safe and happy here; not because of the guards or the intercom with alarm or the panic button by my bed or the cameras that are everywhere, but because there are always people out and about. Eyes on the street make for a pleasant environment, as urban planning activist Jane Jacobs knew. 

Hustle and bustle

The street on the outside of the xiao qu is lined with many shops and restaurants, and everything I need is close by. A dentist, a bike shop, a vet, a copy shop. Most importantly: my favourite local bar where I meet my foreigner friends. Opposite the gate, across the road, are some great restaurants. A cheap and cheerful Muslim place, a more upmarket hot pot restaurant (currently fully decked out in Christmas decorations) that usually features a singer with a guitar on stage and a Dai minority restaurant.

As I head south on Rainbow Mountain East Road I first come by a little cluster of shops. Here is my favourite dumpling place where I sometimes have a quick breakfast of steamed dumplings, a plant shop where I am getting all the plants that are slowly but surely turning my house into a jungle, and little fruit market with year-round fresh tropical fruit. Right now dragon fruit and persimmon are my seasonal favourites. The dumpling man has started drinking baijiu (rice wine) and cheerfully shouts hello when he sees me walking by.  Plant man waves and smiles. 

A little self care

If I would now turn left into a side street, I would walk towards my favourite massage place. It is run by a very sweet older couple from Dali. They are Bai minority people and very good traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. Every two weeks or so I go for a massage and whatever treatment the man recommends. I haven’t done cupping or acupuncture yet but I have experienced moxibustion, where he was cleansing me by waving the burning end of a big cigar made of dried sage around my neck and cranium. A strangely soothing treatment and so far I have managed to miss out on the autumn and winter colds so I keep coming back for more.

Another thing I really love to keep me healthy and happy in winter is regular visits to a city spa with some friends. Gigantic indoor spa’s with saunas, steam rooms, massage services, swimming pools, eat-as-much-as-you-can buffets, cinema’s and bars. There are even entertainment theatres for children to keep the kids occupied as the parents are relaxing in the pool. You can stay overnight at these places, and crash on a comfy couch with a warm blanket or get a simple room or capsule. 

A tiny bit of history

But, today I continue to walk down Rainbow Mountain East Street. On the left-hand side are more favourite restaurants (one is selling dog, I haven’t tried yet!) and on the right-hand side is a little park, really nothing more than a strip of green alongside the pavement. Farmers are selling mountains of oranges from the back of their pick-up truck. Old men are playing mah-jongg. There used to be a temple here, at the top of Rainbow Mountain. Now it is a cluster of older and newer residential buildings with a lot of green in between. 

I walk by one of my favourite cafes: owned by an older New Zealand lady and her female Chinese partner. They serve excellent pizza and gin tonics and have a lovely outdoor terrace on the sidewalk. From here you can leisurely observe Chinese street life going by. We are very close to some big universities so there are lots of young and cool people walking by, but also old and gnarly street sweepers.

Poor and rich, side by side

As I keep walking I see more and more shops and workshops. A car repair shop, someone is welding metal in the street. I see a homeless man. There are homeless people in Kunming, but not many considering this is a city of 7 million people. Most have obvious mental issues and are likely abandoned by their families. 

Here is a shop selling temple paraphernalia: brightly coloured fake flowers, candles and incense. Another plant shop. A little tailor shop with an old-fashioned Singer sewing machine sitting in the street at the front of the shop. A foot massage place. A tiny hospital with people lying in beds in the shop window, receiving intravenous medicine. Lots and lots of small restaurants with little tables and low stools outside. They serve dumplings, roasted duck, and many different kinds of noodles. At night a whole new food scene explodes, when the shao kao (street barbecue) vendors wheel out their portable restaurants and set up shop on the pavement. You get a plate, pick your favourite skewers (mine is lotus root stuffed with sticky rice) and they barbecue it on the spot. Delicious. A sign points towards a MacDonald’s restaurant in yet another modern high rise xiao qu. I know there is also an excellent vegan Chinese restaurant there, a lovely little Korean cafe and an Italian restaurant owned by an actual Italian. 

The market

Now we are almost at the southern end of Rainbow Mountain East Road. There is a big covered market here. A perfect place to browse fresh vegetables, fruit, tofu, noodles, soy sauce, cured xuan wei ham (better than Serrano) and fresh ru bing cheese. Yes, Yunnan has cheese! Ru bing is a bit like halloumi. There is also smoked yak cheese in the western part of the province, where the Tibetans live. Everything is cheap and fresh and it is a great place to shop for dinner. A similar market is close to my work.

I pick up some fresh ginger to make a hot ginger and honey drink.  By now my Chinese is good enough to do the shopping, and I get a big smile for speaking Chinese. I love this simple exchange with the market stall owner. I can get by, I can interact, and it makes me feel at home.

I am at home here, on Rainbow Mountain East Road.

Or, after J.C. Bloem, a Dutch poet: Ik ben domweg gelukkig, op de Regenboog Berg Oost Straat!

Mountain song and media

China is noisy and China is fun. In the evening people dance together, and at any time of day you will sometimes see someone sweetly singing a high-pitched song into their phone. A street cleaner will sit perched on her heels on the pavement, taking a break from swiping the streets. She will smile at her phone, listening to a song. It all adds to the relaxed and exotic atmosphere of this city. I really like the minority music and the stories they tell. Yang Liping is a choreographer who has made a fantastic theatrical dance show based on the songs and dances of the different minority people in Yunnan. (Click on the photo below for a video of the show). The photo is from my favourite part of the show. A huge group of girls performs the Flowery Waist song, which starts as a very innocent and dreamy flirtation but ends with a firecracker of a girl dragging the boy she likes back to her home, after he has become exhausted by the drinking and the dancing. Yunnan girls are no shy wallflowers!

Click on the photo for Yang Lipings theatre show
Mountain Song girls

Mountain song

The other day I was out for lunch with a Chinese colleague, and we walked by someone who was singing into her phone. My colleague explains to me what the singing means.

Mountain songs (山歌 shan ge) are songs that lovers sing to each other, calling out to each other over the mountain that separates them. It’s a call and answer song, an ancient way to flirt. My colleague tells me that now there is a wechat group called Mountain Song. A girl will sing a part of a Mountain Song and send it to the group, and a boy will answer her.

Here are two of the mountain songs: 山歌一 and 山歌二 (by the Wuyinshan village troupe).

Pumi minority
Pumi minority


I find this really touching and it really made my day yesterday. Sometimes it can feel as if culture and traditions are disappearing fast in the onslaught of social media and consumerism. Then you find an instance where the culture has adapted and is alive and well in a new form, with new technology.

You all know how much I like China, but yesterday I fell in love with the country all over again. I’m also falling in love with another being: Ding Ding is a small black and white cat who arrived at my home two weeks ago. When I come home she starts singing to me and I sing back, performing our own mountain songs by meowing back and forth. Happiness!

Bai minority from Dali
Bai minority from Dali

A Pole, a Brit and a Dutchie enter a Chinese tea shop…

Recommended tea for this post: a cup of cooked pu’erh in an unglazed gaiwan from Xishuangbanna. Recommended listening: Sensation of China – 100 classics of Chinese traditional music. 

A Polish Swede, a Brit and a Dutchie enter a Chinese tea shop…

Now, this could be the start of a geeky joke. It can also be the beginning of a fantastical adventure. A trio of unwitting adventurers is thrown together by fate, in a weird land full of strange customs. As they step across the threshold of a tea shop they are hurtled into another dimension. An ever-expanding universe of history, tastes and smells and exquisite highs envelops them, a veritable Narnia of tea. Together they navigate this magical world and learn many things. It is, like so many fantasy adventures, also a tale of friendship.

Nordica friends

Let’s start at the beginning. A while ago I gave a lecture about bike travel at Nordica gallery. Afterwards, I have a couple of drinks with Kaj and Sean. Me and Sean stick with beer, but Kaj drinks tea. we notice he is really quite particular about the tea he orders. It transpires that he knows quite a lot about tea, Sean and me are curious to learn more. Thus our tea exploration club is born. A bit more about Kaj: his full name is Kajetan Mazurkiewicz. He is Polish but grew up in Sweden and speaks a beautiful British English. Apart from knowledgeable about tea he is also the inventor of a whole new language for his LARPing world. He also introduces Sean and me to his tailor. She ends up being quite busy with making lots of classical Chinese and LARPing outfits for Kaj, and one or two for me and Sean.

The tea horse road

Now, no history of Yunnan can be told without talking about tea, since tea production was likely invented here, some 100 years BCE. So this is not just about tea; it is also about China, and especially about Yunnan. Part of what is called the southern silk road runs through Yunnan. Another name for this route is the tea horse road, as horses transported tea from China to Tibet. The southernmost stop on this route is Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna. The name Xishuangbanna refers to an ancient Dai kingdom which even today feels more like Thailand than China. This area is also home of the unique pu’erh teas.

Tea porters in Sichuan (Ernest H. Wilson, 1908)
Tea porters in Sichuan (Ernest H. Wilson, 1908)

The tea horse road is also part of the future of China. The government uses the legacy of the old trade route to promote a new railway line between Chengdu and Lhasa.

The tea markets of Kunming

Over the next few months, Sean and I follow our tea guru Kaj to tea markets around town. We spend a few leisurely afternoons wandering around different tea districts, peering into tea shops, poking at pottery and of course drinking lots and lots of tea while listening to Kaj explain the myriad aspects of tea culture. We try to speak Chinese with friendly tea shop owners, we spend insane amounts of money on tiny little teapots and associated accessories and yes, we get high on tea. Or rather, we get drunk: ‘tea drunk’ (cha zui, 茶醉) is the Chinese expression for feeling a bit wired but also very content and happy after slurping endless tiny cups of tea. It is much better than being high on coffee caffeine although it can keep you awake at night as well.


It’s a family affair

Drinking tea in Chinese tea shops is something that I would recommend to all travellers to China, as a great way to experience Chinese friendliness and some quintessential aspects of Chinese history and culture. There are many different kinds of tea shops, and if you don’t speak the language it can be somewhat intimidating to step inside and sit down for a tasting. Some are very sleek, others are charmingly messy and full of knick-knacks. It is however always perfectly acceptable to walk in, to sit down at the huge wooden tea table that is at the centre of the shop and to start tasting. There is no obligation to buy anything, although I have bought tea in almost every shop where I sat down to taste. A lot of tea shops are part of a family business so it can feel like sitting down with a family: kids are doing homework nearby, grandma is starting to cook dinner outside, mum and dad are running the business and pouring tea for the three laowai that have rocked up to their shop. The true family businesses sometimes own tea plantations further south in Yunnan and they are most happy and proud to explain about their special tea varieties.

Kaj with a lovely Chinese tea shop owner
Kaj with a lovely Chinese tea shop owner

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Tea

I could try and explain about these varieties but of course Kaj, the master of our tea trio, does this much better than I ever could. As part of a year-long cultural exchange project between Scandinavia and China, organized by Nordica gallery, he compiled a small compendium of tea: here is his Hitchhiker’s Guide to Tea.  He presented this last week at the gallery, to wrap up his year in China. This, sadly, also means that we have to say goodbye to our tea master, who was not just a teacher but also became a friend. Luckily these fantasy stories usually have sequels. So, I can see us meeting again at some time in the future, getting pleasantly drunk on an exquisite pu’erh.

Thank you Kaj! For teaching us so much about China, and for the lovely moments spent enjoying tea.

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