We arrived in Kunming at the end of a journey that had started with the pastor getting our visas. Each of us had to fill out an application with a photo, hand over our passports for processing, and pay a fee. The Koreans paid the standard fee of $30. Americans had to pay $130. We didn’t need shots, but to be on the safe side we brought our own over-the-counter medications.
Our host picked us up at the airport late at night and took us to a side street in a shabby part of town, where we were led into some sort of food alley. Both sides of the narrow street were lined with stalls selling savory-smelling hot food. The men went in search of meat while the women, with help from our host, ordered Kunming’s signature across-the-bridge noodles and settled at a plastic cafe table.
The men joined us with bowls of what looked and smelled like a flavorful variety of popcorn chicken. We discovered that we were right about the flavorful and the chicken, but wrong about the cut. It was gristle. Still, it tasted great, so we sucked the flavor off and spit the gristle onto the street for stray animals to feast on. The noodles were equally tasty, and thoroughly noodlish. We polished them off eagerly.
From then on we tried to avoid gristle vendors. We were visiting a university, and the students led us through shop-lined streets to whatever type of cuisine we wanted: Italian, Thai, Korean, and various varieties of Chinese restaurants. Quite a few of these places were virtually hidden eateries in shabby buildings that belied the phenominal food inside. The Chinese restaurants in particular were fun to eat in. We chose various dishes that were served family-style from a huge lazy Susan in the center of the table.
Since the Americans, having lived so long in Korea, were hungry for Western food, our hosts took us to a steak house. I ordered steak and fries with bread. I was brought absolutely the best steak sandwich I’ve ever eaten.
Sometimes we returned to our guest house to cook our own meals, so we went to the market. It was roofed over, laid out like an American farmers market, and offered many familiar foods but also quite a few that we couldn’t identify. If it looked good and smelled good, we bought some to try it. The fruits and vegetables were magnificent and, at least to us foreigners, dirt cheap.
Thus I discovered that Kunming, the largest city of Yunnan Province in Southwest China, offers fine dining of every style to the traveler. I just recommend the guidance of a friend fluent in Mandarin.