TRAVEL FAIL: Near Kidnapping in Kunming

Hotels in Kunming China are not for the faint of heart


I land in Shanghai, China around 4:30pm local time, which to me feels like 1:30am, and immediately have the same damn problem as last year – I can’t connect to the WiFi.

For some reason, the good folks who designed Shanghai Pudong International decided that only Chinese people should be allowed online.

That is to say, in order to access the awesomely free airport-wide WiFi, you have to have a local Chinese phone number. Last year, when I first discovered this problem en route to Taiwan, I ran into several other bewildered Westerners who asked me what the solution was.

Some of them were approaching locals in the airport and asking to use their phone numbers. The mere thought of approaching a stranger in a foreign country and asking for their phone number gave me hives, so I simply went without, even though I had a shit ton of work to do.

This year is exactly the same, except instead of a shit ton of work to do, I absolutely, positively, must look for hotels in Kunming China.

My layover in Shanghai is about 3 hours, and I’ll land in Kunming at 12:30am local time. I then have a 14-hour layover (!) before my final flight to Kathmandu and I absolutely, positively refuse to spend it hunched over uncomfortable metal chairs, attempting to sleep and failing miserably. After a 14-hour flight followed by a lay over followed by another 4 hour flight, I will have a hot shower, dammit.

It wasn’t until I checked in for my flight at LAX that I learned that I would, in fact, be able to leave the airport in Kunming. I was not able to find a straight answer online, so I’m telling you now – if you’re American and don’t have any kind of weird restrictions on your passport (you know, like you’re on the CIA’s most wanted list or something), you should be able to leave the airport if you have a brief layover like mine.

"Hot water" means room temperature

“Hot water” means room temperature

The visa you’ll be issued will most likely be a temporary 24-hour Chinese visa. The reason for my confusion was the fact that technically, I would be in China for more than 24 hours. But I guess unless you’re leaving the airport, the time doesn’t count. If you have a layover and can show that you have a flight out of the country, you should be fine to leave the airport.

A lovely China Eastern Airlines flight attendant in Los Angeles assured me that there would be “many hotel stalls” to choose from when I landed in Kungming. The way she made it sound, I’d have a cornucopia of hotels from which to choose, and I’d be able to negotiate a fat deal when I landed. I was somewhat reassured, but still a bit uneasy as I laid down for a brief nap before boarding my flight to Kunming.

By the way, I was surprised and a bit confused to be ushered through customs in Shanghai. I wasn’t leaving the airport or “entering China” until I got to Kunming, so why did I have to go through the whole process, basically leave the airport terminal, then go back through ticketing and security only to end up right back where I started?

Finger licking good

Finger lickin’ good (these are mushrooms, btw. Mushrooms.)

Well, since I had flown internationally and entered China from the U.S., the customs thing had to happen at my first point of arrival. Then, once I got to Kunming, I’d be able to walk right off the plane and leave the airport without dealing with customs at all.

This might sound very obvious, but after a long flight and several Valium, it was extremely confusing to me. I tried to explain to several airport officials “No, I don’t need to go through customs, I have a connecting flight. Connecting, I say!”

If this happens to you, just listen to the nice man and do what he says.

Oh, and be sure to get some Yen, because your hotel most likely will not take American Express.

Arrival in Kunming and Near Kidnapping

My flight lands safely in Kunming. I’m fucking exhausted but can’t let my guard down yet – I don’t know where the hell I’m sleeping. I don’t have much Yen left after buying an overpriced dinner in Shanghai, and my tired eyes struggle to locate an ATM.

At the same time, I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for this grand bazaar of “hotel stands” I was promised. I picture table after table strategically placed in front of glossy billboards – the Ritz Carlton Kunming. Or maybe The Hilton – Southwest China. I also imagine there will be so many attendants clamoring for my business that I’ll be able to get a luxurious room for oh, under $30 USD.

I follow the signs to baggage claim. My blue beauty of a backpack arrives and clamors into my arms, already dirty and abused from the long trip that’s not yet over.

Why don’t I see any hotel stalls?

I walk and walk, look and look but don’t see anything that looks remotely like a place where one might book a hotel room.


I walk outside. Maybe I can ask for a taxi to….the nearest hotel? Bad idea. The nearest hotel could be 50 miles away, according to the cab driver who’d then charge me some astronomical amount and leave me stranded. Besides, what if I paid for a cab, found a hotel, and there were no rooms available?

My kingdom for some WiFi!

As it...should be...?

Suddenly, a very thin, very smiley Chinese woman approaches me. I’m immediately on guard, looking for the scam.

“Hotel?” she asks.

Crap. I don’t know what to do. Could this be too good to be true?

She elegantly opens a tattered brochure, which shows decent-enough looking rooms. I’m so tired.

“How much?” I ask.

“200” she answers.

I do the math – it’s just over $32 USD. This’ll do.

I nod in agreement, and she grabs my arm, ushering me towards the parking lot. The very dark, very deserted parking lot.

She makes a phone call, and then we wait.

And wait.

Alarm bells start to go off. I’m under the impression we’re waiting for a shuttle but it’s been a little too long. And it’s a little too dark. And we’re way too alone.

Should I get out of here? Wouldn’t it be a great, great scam to have a really friendly, really sweet-looking woman preying on hapless looking Westerners who are jet-lagged and shell shocked? Maybe they’re going to throw me in a car and rob me. Maybe they’re going to throw me in a car, rob me, slit my throat and throw me in the river!

I should run! I should hide! I should find a Ritz Carlton!

Suddenly a group of 4 Chinese men walk towards us. Oh no, it’s her gang! They’re here to steal my shitty Dell laptop and my debit card and what little cash I have!

And just when I’m about to bolt – as best one can bolt with an awkwardly large blue backpack strapped to oneself – a dinky looking minivan pulls up and we all get in. The woman waves, the driver takes my bag, and we all brace ourselves for the 10-minute race to the hotel.

It’s pitch black but I know a last-minute lane change when I feel one. We’re driven up a winding hill and I’m trying to recall my brother, the expert trekker’s, advice – “Always know where you are. Always have a map. The worst thing you can do is get lost and have no sense of direction.”

The shuttle comes to a halting stop atop a tilted gravel mound. We pile out and are ushered through a nearby doorway. It’s so late. I’m so tired.

I have no idea where I am.

I’m the only foreigner and the only woman, and am graciously allowed to check in first.

No one speaks a lick of English, but the price has been agreed upon and I’m ready to pay, Visa in hand.

Everyone frowns at my Chase debit card, shaking their heads and speaking in rapid Mandarin. Of course. Cash only.

I dig in my wallet and present what Yen I have left.

More frowns and shakes.

“Do you have an ATM?”

Of course not. What do I do, what do I do? I have never wanted to sleep so much in my life.

Suddenly, in my exhausted stupor, an idea yawns itself down the pipeline and I’m suddenly reaching back into my purse and pulling out the only other thing I have to offer – $40 American Dollars. In Cash.

Eyes bulge, and shaking heads suddenly begin nodding. This is more than enough for the room, and I patiently wait to be provided with change.

Instead, one of the 4 men who’s been advising the transaction (together with the driver and the hotel receptionist) pulls a Chinese note from my fingers and adds it to the $40.

They all look at me. I’m paying too much, but it seems pointless to try and argue over such a small amount. Besides, I’m the asshole that’s paying in the wrong currency. I didn’t even see which note he took from me – am I paying $50 for a $30 hotel room?


A paper is filled out and I am asked – through the collective translation powers of 6 different people, what time my flight is tomorrow.

“2:30” I answer.

The receptionist writes it down, then frowns, looking at her watch. They all stare at me.

A shuffling of papers occur, my boarding pass is handed over, and “2:30” is crossed off and replaced with “14:30.” Oh yeah, that whole military time thing that everyone else in the world does except us. (Why can’t we get on board with that, by the way? And don’t even get me started on the metric system as a whole.)

The driver grabs my bag and leads me upstairs. Godammit, what am I supposed to tip him? He leads me to an enormous, freezing room with three – THREE – beds. I imagine myself snuggled up with the four Chinese businessmen from downstairs.

“Just me?” I ask, worried.

The driver blinks, confused.

I point to myself, then touch each bed individually. Then point downstairs. I think he gets it.

“No no,” he says, pointing to me and handing me a key. I give him what I desperately hope amounts to a respectable tip, take an enormously disappointing lukewarm shower, and bury myself under a layered sandwich of comforters which I’ve crafted from the other vacant beds.

And I sleep. Oh, how I sleep.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. If you're in China for less than 24 hours and have a departing flight to another country, you'll be granted a temporary visa to leave the airport.

2. You can't access WiFi in the Shanghai or Kungming airports unless you can score a local mobile phone number - try offering to buy someone coffee in exchange for using their number.

3. There won't be an ATM when you need one. Bring plenty of cash.

4. Study exchange rates before you go so you're familiar with the exchange rates the second you land.

5. Hotels in Kungming are dumpy right near the airport, but there is actually a nice (expensive) hotel INSIDE the airport - take the elevator to the 3rd floor. A room will cost around $65 plus a deposit which you'll get back the following day. You can also rent a spot in their lounge by the hour

6. Don't waste money on bottled water when there are tons of filtered water machines throughout the airport

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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