Culture Shock in Kunming, China

The Kunming Airport beckons - like, NOW.



I’m awoken from a dead sleep when – “KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.”

Ok, ok, Jesus.

I fling the door open, still half asleep, and see my driver from last night standing with another man, both of them frowning at me seriously.

The driver cues the man, who takes a deep breath and announces “LETS. GO.”

They both regard me, satisfied with their English instructions. I get the feeling new guy has been recruited by the driver because of his mad English skills.

“What time is it?” I ask.

They look at each other, and the new guy answers deliberately, proud as punch, “Ten. Oh. Clock.”

And then again, in unison, “LETS. GO.”

“Ok, ok, I’ll be right down.”

Christ almighty. I’m not sure if they mean “Hey, wake up, get ready, we’re leaving in 30 minutes” or “We are leaving in 2 minutes with or without you. Good luck.”

I throw clothes on in a frenzy, sloppily pack my bag, and make it downstairs in time to climb back into last night’s workhorse of a van.

It’s only after the third massive jolt and hitting my head on the roof of the shuttle that I finally manage to look out the window – holy CRAP.

I’m amazed at what I see – we’re descending from a steep hilltop, the twisting dirt road winding around a ramshackle cluster of dilapidated homes that double as small shops, restaurants and garages. A man squats in the mud, slurping a bowl of steaming noodles from a tray while stray dogs trot past like back up dancers in a Broadway musical.

I inhale dirt and bright colors and cement and wetness; everything wet and dirty and cold. “This is poverty,” I think suddenly, a bit taken aback at the obviousness of my own epiphany.

The shuttle makes its way out of the small settlement (neighborhood? ghetto?) and reaches for the highway like a teenager who can’t wait to leave home for college.

One of the other shuttle passengers makes small talk, excited to practice his English. I’m not quite sure where he came from (and btw, where was he last night when I needed him?), but I appreciate his friendliness.

The large, sweeping facade atop the main Kunming Airport building stands stark against the sky like an ancient temple. I wonder at such beauty, such superior design adjacent such filth, such destitution. The wings of the temple seem to mock the people living their lives just a few miles away, breaking their backs to eat a few noodles in the mud.

It’s cold and misty, but I can just barely make out a few rolling hills in the distance. Large signs adorn the airport, advertising all of the incredible adventures one can have in Kunming and the surrounding regions – see elephants and tigers in our SAFARI PARK! Take a hot air balloon ride over this AWESOME RIVER! Indulge your senses at our MOUNTAIN SKI LODGE! Live with NO HEAT and eat your breakfast IN THE MUD!

Oh wait, that last one’s mine.

What a curious, curious place. I remind myself that in every city around the world, the area nearest the airport is almost never the nice area.

Would I have ever, ever stayed in that hotel had I seen it in broad daylight? Probably not. My room was freezing, yes, but it was clean, and I was picked up and taken the airport in plenty of time to catch my flight.

So no, there are not “hotel stands” at the Kunming airport, at least not that I could see. But yes, you can simply walk outside and get a hotel. And apart from a bumpy shuttle ride and the sudden appearance of a few deep thoughts about poverty and governments and inequity and fairness and irony and entitlement and “we have it so much better than we realize,” you’ll probably get through it in one piece.

Just be sure to bring enough cash.

UPDATE: THERE IS A HOTEL INSIDE THE KUNMING AIRPORT! I don’t know how I missed this the first time, but there is an expensive hotel that doubles as an hourly lounge. It’s on the second floor. Go to the main arrivals area on the second floor and take the glass elevator up two stories. A proper hotel room is around $90 USD. You can also hang out in the lounge and pay by the hour, but I’m not sure if there are showers. The room was overpriced but very nice and it was worth it to not have to get a cab and deal with the hassle of leaving the airport.

Have you ever been to Kungming airport? What was your experience like?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Be sure to ask what time you'll be leaving for the airport in the morning - it may have nothing to do with what time your flight leaves, and everything to do with when the shuttle driver feels like leaving.

2. You can stay inside the Kunming Airport and avoid this entire fiasco!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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