Despite the crowds of purposeful people moving in all directions and boarding all kind of vehicles, I was alone. I stood still for a while, unsure of where I was going next or even if I would stay in this frenzied chaos, appreciating the certainty that in my motionless way I was more of a traveler than anyone in the surrounding, unquiet crowds.
Regardless of not sitting on a border, Kunming imparts the strongest border town feeling in China. More than Kashgar and Jinghong, Urumqi or Lanzhou. It isn’t so due to its ethnical mix – the city resembles any other Han city in the country – but due to its ubiquitous travel activities; train and bus terminals literally cover the city
Kunming features eight bus terminals. Three of them are south of the main railway station, around the second ring road, these terminals serve mainly lines within the Kunming County. Just north of the same railway station is the main bus terminal, which with its computerized tickets serves all the destinations covered by the other terminals, though not always with the same frequency.
Two smaller terminals are roughly one block east and west of this terminal. On Dongfeng Beilu – not far from Camelia Hotel – is another terminal to where most buses from Jinghong and Xishuangbanna arrive. North of there – next to the Yunnan University – is a terminal, and the last one is in the eastern outskirts of the town. If arriving to the last, bus #63 leads from there to downtown.
Buses are recommended in China only for relatively short trips within a province. Buses traveling at night contain sleeping berths which are relatively short; taking an upper one is recommended since the others become public seats during the day. Long trips include meals, vouchers (and slippers and vomiting bags) are given while boarding. A late dinner in a spotless restaurant provided by the bus company gave me a good excuse for using the complimentary bag.
Despite the railways being more ordered than the buses, Kunming still features four train terminals. The main one is in downtown, at the southern edge of Beijing Lu. That’s the main terminal for buying tickets leading to Chinese provinces in the north, like Xian, Nanning, Chengdu and Beijing. The other three stations are to the north, west and east of this station. The northern one is at the northern side of Beijing Lu (bus 23 leads there) and serves trains to Hekou-Lao Cai border cross with Vietnam. This is the historic line built by the French, and its 464km were built in the extremely unusual meter gauge; it is one of the few lines reaching to a Chinese border. Across the border, a Vietnamese railway leads to Hanoi.
The historic complexities of Yunnan caused it to be the only province in China – and probably one of the only regions in the world - featuring the three types of railways: the standard gauge (1.435m), the meter gauge and the inch gauge (0.6m). The 33km short line connecting Jijie with Gejiu Sub is the only inch railway in China, and one of the few in the world. All the other lines were constructed after the 1960’s and are of standard gauge.
The tickets are best purchased at the main terminal. However, the selling window is not at the terminal itself but at a building placed at its side. The staff doesn’t speak English (the only one claiming to do so failed understanding the simple transaction) thus it is recommended to arrive early enough and with a book showing the characters of the destination and the desired class and berth (these characters are easy enough to learn on the flight).
As expected from such an important travel hub, Kunming hosts consulates for the main South East Asian countries. Myanmar and Laos have consulates within the Camelia Hotel grounds. Visas to both countries can be issued there. Laos can be reached through the Mohan-Boten border cross, while Myanmar is a different story. The border can be crossed through Ruilin, but the country’s heart cannot be reached overland. In order to visit Yangon or Mandalay a plane must be used. Malaysia, Thailand (also near Camelia Hotel) and Vietnam also have consulates in Kunming.