A made dash across China.
27.08.2007 - 07.09.2007 24 °C
Now I know the Chinese have been known for some pretty gruesome torture in their time. Having to sit on a hard train seat for 25 hours straight with MSG saturated pot noodles as your only form of sustenance at 5180m traveling in the total opposite direction to where you want to be heading, across a featureless Tibetan Plateau would have to be one of them. However, I was not exactly forced to buy the train ticket at gun point and, well, the beer was cheaper than water.
The purchasing of the ticket was comical as my first destination was far too expensive for this Kiwi’s pocket so I asked for a ticket out of Tibet. With said ticket in hand I went and looked at the map to see where I was actually going. 25 hours should get me half way to Beijing I thought and smiled happily, only to have it wiped off my face when I discovered I was only going to make it to the edge of Tibet and just into mainland China.
Now back to my Cultural Revolution and Tibetan permit gripe. I'll make it quick but I do have to explain why I traveled half way to Mongolia when I wanted to be heading South to Laos. So from Lhasa the only way out of Tibet without paying a nice Chinese man $100 a day plus permit costs, is to take the new and Ultra modern Lhasa express 1754km in the wrong direction towards Russia ….. and that is what I did. Now full credit to the Chinese. The railway, which everyone said was impossible due to the amount of tunneling and the fact that it had to be built on ground that is frozen year round, turn out to be very possible and running like clockwork. They even give access to your own personal oxygen mask just incase the altitude disagrees with you.
"When China awakes, the world will tremble." I believe Monsieur Bonaparte once said. Well to quote another much taller person " Traveling across China in a hurry sucks!"
So here I am, eleven o'clock at night, in a place called Xining (I am sure this translates directly from Mandarin to Kiwi as “whoop whoop”) with two Chinese girls who spoke English and two blokes from Germany also trying to get across China as fast as possible. Now dear reader, having a local that speaks English in China is gift from god himself, because after standing in line for 1 hour you generally find that no one speaks a word of English and sure as hell won't try and sell you a ticket because it is just too dammed hard. With the girls, we found out in seconds that there were no trains for 4 days and they had standing room only (16 hour trip)
At the bus station we found out it was closed and we had to come back at 6am to find out that there was a bus available in 3 days to Xian. Then finally that there were only two hotels in the whole city that would accept foreigners and they were both dives that I wouldn't let my dog sleep in. Another bonus was that we went to a restaurant and actually got and knew exactly what we were eating and the girls ( bless their cotton socks) even paid for the feast.
So 20 hours after I left Xining I was untangling my back pack from a sheep carcass in the rain at the Xian bus station. The 14 hours sleeper bus ride had taken an extra six hours, two of which were loading 30 odd sheep carcasses on board. A sleeper bus… how wonderful I hear you say, yeah sure if you are five foot nothing, but more about this later. First stop was the train station to find that there were no trains to Kuming for four days. It was here that I met Raymond and Jenna from Amsterdam while standing in line dripping wet with my back pack on. They were being annoyed by a guy well before I had turned up and were relieved that he now had me to hassle. This went on for 15 minutes, him talking in Chinese and us telling him that we didn't understand. He keep trying to touch us and being once bitten twice shy about pickpockets and wanting to be anywhere but queuing for a ticket I snapped at him and told him under no uncertain terms that he should leave. (Well that is the printable version and I am sticking to it!) Now the immediate area around me froze as everyone stopped what they were doing and looked in any direction but mine as the Chinese do not like confrontation one little bit. After an hour of standing in line I found that the next train to Kuming was in four days, so Xian it is.
The Center of Xian was surrounded by the old city wall and was quite an amazing sight. This wall was a reconstruction of course and was 7km by 2km and up to 30m high in places. It was interrupted by the occasional watch tower with traditional slanting roofs. Inside the walls housed a buzzing paced city with neon lights, golden arches, and air conditioned shopping malls and a slightly older drum and bell tower.
Xian’s main attraction is the Terracotta Warriors which although are hundreds of years old were only discovered by a farmer in the 1970's. He was awarded 30 Yuan for this amazing find ($4.20) which was a month salary. The life sized warriors are just like they say, made from terracotta and are in three locations in battle formation to protect the emperor of the times mausoleum. Most of the statues have been re-buried as they do not know how to preserve them and till they do, this is the best technique. Now don't worry about our wee farmer, I saw him in the flesh, he is trotting about in a new suit and charges you 30 Yuan to sign a book about the warriors with a big bright brand new smile on his face.
From Xian I said good bye to my Espresso drinking partners Jenna and Raymond and hopped on the train to Kuming to arrive a day and a half later (36hrs) and actually managed to get a night bus that night which took me closer to Laos and my closing deadline of meeting my Dad in a week. I wondered about sampling deep fried food on a stick and generally killed time till my bus a 7pm.
Settling in on my bed in the cramped sleeper I started to feel a little under the weather. Now these buses consist of bunk beds along both windows and then another row of bunk beds in the middle forming two Isles. Your feet go under the persons head in front of you into a steal slanting box that forms the pillow for that person. For the general demographic of China this is fine but when a 6 foot kiwi gets in there, it’s another story. We pulled out of the bus station and are on an express way within minutes, the opening scenes of Rambo 3 are playing and Stallone has even learned Mandarin. Then it happens, my stomach twists inside out and I am trying to make a bee line for the on board toilet. This is easier said that done as I untangle myself from my blanket and head butt the top bunk opposite me, then flapping my wings about elbow the poor women in the bunk above me, and then just because I don't do things by thirds, I managed to stand on the young guy on the bottom bunk opposite. With more pressing things on my mind I crashed down the stairs only to find that the toilet on the bus was locked. The bus attendant not speaking a word of English of course looks at me trying to rip the door of its hinges puts two and two together and then saunters down the bus. I swear to god, I'll do it on the bloody step I yell at her with no increase in her urgency. Now, by this stage I am providing the whole bus with more entertainment than Rambo ever could. I mean just me being on the bus creates a stir let alone running about like a bull in a China shop.
I emerge from the not so sound proof wee box of a toilet to 60 peering eyes and 30 smiling faces and walk red faced back to bed only accidentally banging one other person on the head. So........ two more panicked arm thrashing passenger bashing runs, two more slow attendant bringing me the key walks (She locked it every time!! ) and two more red faced returns, “ just let me off on the side of the motorway thanks” walks of shame back to my bed. Curse that tasty deep fried street food on a stick!
I woke up in shock to find an empty bus. Sleepily I stumble out side and find my back pack sitting on the ground beside the bus, “ this is Jinghong then”, I say to no one, making a mental note that I have to stop talking aloud to myself. I contemplate staying here but the draw of Laos spurred me on. Before I know it I am whizzing through the jungle following a dirty brown snaking river smiling and enjoy the sights that rural China has to offer. 6 hours of this and my final stop Mengla appears. I wonder about nibbling on BBQ street food (Yeah I know… slow learner) watching the Friday night proceedings with aerobics in the main square, Karaoke being screamed from bright neon lit bars and families out for walks.
Two final hours of winding through the jungles and the border guard stamped my A4 "group Visa and took it off me. I then left the modern border check point having traveled for 103 hours on public transport from Lhasa without any proof in my passport that I had ever been to China. 20 minutes later I was sitting in a roadside bamboo hut enjoying a cold drink watching a young child play barefoot in the red dust. I returned an infectious smile from a local passer by that didn't leave my face, relaxing and thinking how good it was to be back in Laos.