China Elevator Stories

A Warm Welcome And A Blazing Rooftop Terrace

I’m locked out on a rooftop terrace in Kunming.


Ruth Silbermayr-Song


In June 2012, I leave Chongqing for Kunming. The city’s sky is grey and the hot summer air is lying heavily on my shoulders, as I make my way to the airport. I do not know what will await me upon arrival in Kunming. It had been almost three years since I arrived in Kunming for the first time, and in China, change comes fast.

Before my first arrival in Kunming, also called the city of spring, in 2009, I had heard beautiful stories about this city, thus my expectations were high. It was a city that boasted itself of having warm weather all year round, having a population that was both laid back and welcoming, and that it had a small-town feel to it that was hard to find in the bigger provincial capitals in the east of the country. 

As is usually the case when expectations are high, disappointment is just around the corner. 

When I arrived in the city of spring for the first time in my life, that was exactly what happened. Unlike my arrival in Shenzhen years later, a city I fell in love with at first sight, Kunming did not make me fall in love with it at first. My love for the city of spring would later develop, albeit at a much slower pace. But my love for it would be long-lasting, as I find out when my feet touch ground at Kunming airport at the evening of this one day in 2012. 

I’m welcomed back by an amazing sunset and a fresh breeze of air. I feel joy in my heart, and although most of my Kunming friends had left for other cities after graduation to find a job, it still feels like coming back home to a place far away from home.

Wen, a Chinese acquaintance in his 50s, picks me up from the airport and treats me to a big bowl of Across-the-Bridge Noodles, a specialty Kunming is famous for, because – as he figures – I must have been starving not having been able to eat Kunming’s famous rice noodles for a period of almost two years. 

Before we enter the restaurant, a guy on the street greets me with a “hullo”, and my acquaintance snarls at him: “Her Mandarin Chinese is better than yours, don’t treat her like she’s dumb!”. I don’t know why Wen would be so rude to somebody who doesn’t seem to mean any harm, but I guess he just isn’t used to “hullo’s” as much as I am.

I stay at Wen’s place the first night.

The morning of the next day, Wen, his wife and daughter are all gone and I decide to wash my clothes. When the washing machine is done, I take my clothes out of the machine and go to the rooftop terrace to hang them up for drying. When I am almost done, the gentle breeze suddenly turns into a heavy wind that slams the door shut. I go to the door to see if I can open it from the outside, but it’s locked. So there I am, locked out on a rooftop terrace on my first day in Kunming, the day that I had hoped to walk through this city’s alleys to see what has changed. I had had also planned originally to spend it with a few friends.

I realise I don’t have my mobile phone with me to call Wen. It could be 8 hours until he would be back. I look around, but no neighbours are to be seen. This is what I do for the next hour, looking around, trying to find people who can help me. It is getting really hot on the rooftop terrace and I’m thirsty, as well as desperate.

After some time, I see a woman on the street. I start shouting for help, but she either doesn’t hear me or doesn’t want to. My shouting catches the attention of a young woman on the 4th floor of a neighbouring building. She goes to her window, offering to help me. She calls a janitor to help me unlock the door, but as another hour goes by, the janitor is still nowhere to be seen. The woman turns up at her window from time to time again, but doesn’t speak with me.

I don’t really know what to do with myself, so in my desperation, I try to sleep a bit, to make time go by faster. I get up every 15 minutes to see if the woman is at her window again, and after what seems like an eternity, she finally appears again. She helps me call someone else to open the door. After waiting for another hour, someone finally opens the door from the inside. I feel relieved, but am still under shock, feeling like laughing and crying at the same time.

Have you ever felt really helpless abroad?