Chinese Resources

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Choose your own adventure.

With the growing rise of technology, information is growing easier to come by. You don't need much more than an iPod and a Wi-Fi connection to learn about the best tourist destinations and the easiest ways to get there. I would bet that there is a strong correlation between the ease of information access, and the amount of tourists who are venturing out into unknown lands. They arm themselves with nothing but a few survival phrases and their favorite travel guide (in PDF form of course).  And while this is great, especially for the businesses that reap the benefits of guide book recommendations, I think that it is taking some of the fun and excitement out of figuring things out on your own.

I recently had such an experience, which prompted this post. As I was traveling around Kunming, in lovely Yunnan, China. A friend I had met in the hostel and I decided to check out Qiongzhu Temple, a site highly recommended by the guide books. It was easy to get to, we thought, and would make for a perfect first day trip in Kunming. After stuffing ourselves on some of the local treats we headed out in search of a cab. The guide book assured us that a cab ride would be about 30 minutes and roughly 45 kuai (about 7 USD).

When we finally managed to hail down a cab, I asked the driver if he could take us out to the temple. And although he was willing to get us to the right spot, he wanted 150 kuai... one-way. I'm not generally stingy, but when we are talking about paying three times more than the guide book says, I know when to politely get back out of the cab.

Rather than get ourselves down, we decided to make a change of plans. We picked up a map of the city and got ourselves oriented to our current location. We did it old school, not by using GPS and Google Maps, but by getting our bearings with street signs and local landmarks. We decided to fly by the seat of our pants and ask the locals what was worth checking out. They recommended we check out the East and West Pagodas, built in the Tang Dynasty. From there it was off to Jinma Biji Square, which to our surprise was only a short hike away.

Checking another spot off the list as we toured Kunming by foot. 

From Jinma Biji Square we found a local bus and headed to southern Kunming to check out the Yunnan Ethnic villages. While it was a little touristy, okay it was super touristy, our 1 kuai bus ride was the perfect way to get a taste for the entire city. After heading back to city square we were off on foot again, wandering back alleys in search of Cuihu Lake, a park located in the city center. Along the way, our impromptu foot tour brought us upon some cultural propaganda, in the form of wall paintings, about creating a more civilized Kunming. Without the Government's help I would have never known that walking across the street while reading a book is dangerous.

Getting from place to place wasn't as easy as checking out the guide book or calling a cab, but the sense of accomplishment we got at every stop is hard to beat. If we got lost, we stopped and asked for directions, putting our Chinese listening and speaking skills to test. Most importantly I got the feeling that I was exploring areas of Kunming that few foreigners usually venture to. As cliché as it sounds, it really became more about the journey, rather than the destination. 

A random wall painting we found during our walking tour.

For anyone who is actually interested in learning a language, and the culture that surrounds and shapes it, taking the time to figure things for ourselves is a lesson that we too often ignore. It is important to remember that it is okay to make mistakes while speaking a foreign language, we can use these experiences as an important learning tools. Also, we aren't going to understand everything that is going on around us... that's okay. Learning to pay attention to body language and context allows you to figure things out on your own, rather than turing to the dictionary for every unknown word.

Sometimes, it is best to put the guide book and dictionary away and see where the wind blows you; sometimes we simply have to choose our own adventure.

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