Howard's Blog

Sino-stats, geological excursion, more music: The Kunming grid begins to fill in!

  • April 4, 2012

First of all, a brief insincere apology to the grammarians among my readers who resent my ending today’s title with a preposition. (I think it was Winston Churchill who, having being criticized for the same offence, replied, “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put!”) There, now that we’ve settled that, we can proceed.

Let me begin with a couple of statistics. These are Chinese statistics, so you can expect a lot of zeros. For example, I had heard some time ago that the number of Chinese piano students is roughly equivalent to the population of Canada (33m). When I proffered that factoid to a Yunnan Arts University music faculty member recently, he assured me that the number is in fact considerably greater than that, although he didn’t say how much greater. In her preparation for her conversational English classes, Maggie learned that roughly 20% of the Chinese population are studying English. That’s 260 million people!

As I sit here writing this, it’s 2pm on Wednesday, April 4 and I’m listening to the classical breakfast show on BBC 3. That and the digital concert hall (Berlin Philharmonic online) and my own 1000 CD iTunes library means that  the Dyck household has music playing pretty much all day. This being Holy Week, it’s a diet of Requiems and Passions around here. Just heard the Cherubini Requiem for male chorus, before that the Philharmonic’s 2000 performance of the Willan Requiem. Both wonderful!

In my last entry, I referred to the “tomb-sweeping” holidays which have shut down all schools and universities as well as many other establishments. Tomorrow life returns to normal. Yesterday we decided to do our first real excursion since arriving here just over a month ago. The Stone Forest is an exposed bed of limestone spires, several hundred square kilometers in all, located about 90km east of Kunming. This geological phenomenon, some 240 million years in the making, is endlessly photogenic (I’m sure my camera was smoking by the end of our stay) and seems to attract about the same number of tourists on any given day. A large fleet of open mini-buses is constantly ferrying gawkers from one area to the next.

Mini bus at the Stone Forest

There’s always a lineup (nay, I lie. It’s a chaotic mob) of  tourists waiting to board the next bus. When it arrives, you push, you elbow, you jostle, you just get on to the friggin’ bus! If there is a Chinese word for “excuse me”, we have yet to hear it! But nobody seems the least upset when you push back!

Ethnic Sani in their colourful costumes (exceptionally clean, for the cameras, no doubt) are everywhere.

Limestone spires in the Stone Forest

"Authentic" Sani people who just happen to be in the Stone Forest!


"Authentic" tourists visiting the Stone Forest

On the right is Olivia Chan, our charming, thoughtful and efficient interpreter who works in the Foreign Affairs dept. at Yunnan Arts University, and who has been assigned to me for the duration. We invited her to join us as our guest on this excursion, and we’re very glad she accepted. The English-speaking guide, in full Sani costume, for which we paid 80 yuan extra, was pleasant enough, but I believe I understood as much of her Chinese dialect (Olivia couldn’t make out a word!) as of her English. But she did know how to pose!

A Sani pose!

All in all it was a splendid day. Just as we were leaving, we saw this cute youngster being carried on the back of his mother who, judging by her uniform, was on traffic patrol duty.

In a "one child per family" society, babies are very special!

Our little outing was capped off by a lovely lunch in a local restaurant in an off-the-beaten-track town on our way back to Kunmng. A 5 course lunch for 4 (Maggie, Olivia, the driver, and moi) set me back $22!

Speaking of food, our trips to the supermarket continue to astonish us. And it’s invariably the meat department that leaves us gaping in disbelief.

Chicken feet, anyone?


For that extra-large dinner party!

And when we’ve had quite enough of the local fare, Maggie, true to form, manages to work her usual magic in our little kitchen and we dine, complete with wine, candlelight, and of course, good music!

We never just eat; we dine!

A couple of musical bon-bons to end today’s ramble. About 10 days ago, the conductor of the Higher Vocational College choir (that’s the 170 voice choir I was telling you about the other day…I meet them for the first time this Saturday…fingers crossed!) introduced me to his 12 year old son who seems to be interested in becoming a conductor (forget it, kid. Take up plumbing – the pay is much better!). Well, he and Dad showed up for my next La Traviata rehearsal. He was there early (as was I…I always show up early for rehearsals) and he wanted to play the piano for me. I expected some sonatina one usually hears from 12 year olds. This kid launched into an altogether credible, highly dramatic, remarkably nuanced performance of the Mozart D- Fantasia! Then he asked whether he might stay for the rehearsal. He sat there for 90′, barely moving a muscle, listening and watching most intently. He was there again for the next rehearsal, this time with score in hand. Maybe plumbing isn’t right for this kid!

Something interesting I’ve discovered about the musical background about many of the students here. They’re much more familiar with the Ziffernsystem or “number system”, a 17th c. notation system (originated in France, I believe) which uses numbers 1-7 in place of the tonic sol-fa (movable doh) system. I having some passing familiarity with this system, it having been used by my Mennonite ancestors in Ukraine (it’s how my mother learned to read music). These students, while they know our western system of lines and spaces, seem not to be fluent in it (rather like our having to read the old C clefs). This may explain the very slow learning process that I’m encountering. I’ve requested a meeting with senior university administration officials; there’s a long list of questions I intend to ask.


1 Comment on Sino-stats, geological excursion, more music: The Kunming grid begins to fill in!

  • labshoff says:
    April 4, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Great photos and stories! Thanks for making it seem like we’re there with you.


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